Looking dapper and ebullient with his swish trilby and charming grin, artist Kacey Wong strikes poses for the camera next to a series of human-sized, gold-coated statues. They enjoy a monumental backdrop. From one angle, there is the colossal edifice that makes up the government headquarters, along with the rather contentious behemoth that houses the local brass of the People’s Liberation Army. Swivel around from this point and one can take in the dazzling harbour and the skyline of Kowloon that stretches out beyond the sea.
Wong’s six-piece work features among 21 sculptures made by local and international artists. For just over a month, the works will grace Tamar Park in the city’s first pop-up sculpture garden, the Harbour Arts Sculpture Park. Although Hong Kong has other sculpture gardens, such as the City Art Park in Sha Tin that contains art by well-known international artists like Dennis Oppenheim, this is a rare occasion when public art has been given a prominent stage in the heart of the city.
Wong is known for his staunch and wily protest art and he is critical of the cultural and socio-political developments in Hong Kong. Among his ventures that draw attention to contentious issues in the city is a tiny raft modelled on a prototypical Hong Kong apartment that pokes fun at Hong Kong’s housing crisis and the role property developers play in it.
True to form, he minces no words when asked about his feelings on the state of the city and his fear that its trademark freedoms are being whittled away. But the sculpture park itself, and the opportunity to showcase his work here – a piece called Asteroids and Comets that is inspired by an origin of life myth and which he describes as being “bigger than politics” — is something he welcomes. The chance to feature his work in a spot he says all Hongkongers feel a strong attachment to is an exciting new venture for an artist who has taken to creating provocative works in secret locations that many of his target audiences will never get to see up close.
“This work is fairly abstract, and the good thing about abstract art is that it is open to a lot of interpretations,” he says. His work offers a three-dimensional take on constellation shapes, meditating on the long, lonely journey comets take through the expansive nothingness of space. But Wong’s work isn’t so abstract that it doesn’t have a message. “This work is bigger than politics, and perhaps as vast as the galactic universe,” he says with a smile.
Arranged in a circle deliberately redolent of the rock sculptures of Stonehenge, the piece is fun and interactive, and among its admirers on the park’s opening day are children playing around it, a fact that delights Wong, who wants his art to serve more than decorative purposes. He hopes the work will challenge and engage a spectrum of people and that it appeals to those that might otherwise shy away from the city’s cloistered gallery scene.
“A lot of young artists in Hong Kong are producing nice, candy-coloured artworks that are useful in the sense that they look nice in people’s homes,” he says. But, according to Wong, for art to truly thrive in a city it needs to do more than to sell well – it needs to genuinely engage the public. “Any healthy art scene requires a diversity of platforms,” he says.
Among the local artists is painter turned sculptor Ho Kwun-ting, who is particularly excited to have his work [[ X ]] featured alongside that of iconic British artist Antony Gormley. Ho says he was inspired by Gormley’s haunting and rich sculptures on a visit to the Tate in London during his secondary school years.
Even many Hongkongers who have never visited the Tate will have come face to face with Gormley’s works, perhaps without realising it. The artist’s eerie effigies were dotted around the city in 2015 for a groundbreaking six-month-long public art project called Event Horizon. Many of the sculptures were perched on rooftops, and they caused a stir after some passersby called police, mistaking them for people attempting suicide.
The public’s confusion around the 31 iron and fibreglass figures reflected the city’s ambivalent relationship with public art at the time, something that has finally started to change, thanks to a worldwide movement to take art out of galleries and on to the streets, where they are believed to engage audiences who are wary of visiting a gallery. The arrival of the Harbour Arts Sculpture Park is a testament to that development.
For proponents of public art in Hong Kong, this project is a major coup, signalling a new chapter for Hong Kong’s cultural sphere, which has long struggled to break free from its reputation as elitist, insular and commercially oriented. The exhibition features a star-studded roster that includes the works of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama — famous for her psychedelic polka dots — as well as Tracey Emin, a hot shot among the enfant terrible art group Young British Artists. A particularly playful and endearing work is that of British-Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin, whose cartoon-like garden fork serves his aim to wrest the aesthetic of drawing away from the advertising world.
The park also serves as a platform to showcase strong local talent, with award-winning artist Morgan Wong’s philosophical Time Needle finding space alongside a twisted steel work by Ho’s work, which meditates on the changing ways people consume entertainment.
Among the pieces by local artists is that of sculptor Matthew Tsang, whose work features disembodied feet in flip-flops that appear to be made out of charcoal. The work, called Before Collapse, raises questions on where humanity is headed, touching on global themes of progress and the rise and fall of empires. As with Kacey Wong’s work, it is the backdrop of Hong Kong’s giant-sized architecture that makes its message of the work all the more potent.
“Hong Kong is a very international city,” says Tsang, as he peers up at his charcoal feet. In an increasingly interconnected world, life in different cities is becoming increasingly alike – and so are the challenges they face. “What happens on a local level will probably happen on an international level,” he says.
It is certainly true that what happens internationally happens in Hong Kong too, albeit sometimes at a lag. That Hong Kong has started putting on public art – and genuine, daring works of real artists rather than decorative pieces of dubious quality signed off by unambitious committees — is a long time coming.
“The Hong Kong government was missing a trick,” says Sarah Pringle, an independent consultant who helps bring public art pieces to Hong Kong, and who has been instrumental in organising the statue park. “Every city that has a serious art fair has a sculpture park.” And now Hong Kong has one, even if it only five weeks, wrapping up just after Art Basel, when hundreds of commercial galleries pile into the city in a veritable feeding frenzy of art buying and selling.
The Royal Academy’s Tim Marlowe, who is one of the two curators of the park, alongside Fumio Nanjo of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, hopes that the park will be the first of many. “We hope this will be the beginning of something”, he says. “Hong Kong needs a mixed art ecology,” he adds, emphasising that work of good quality needs to be available to the public. “Anything that stops the crap polluting the city.”
The Harbour Arts Sculpture Park will take place until April 11, 2018 in Tamar Park.