When Swire Properties decided to expand its landmark Pacific Place complex in the early 2000s, it chose a piece of land a few hundred metres to the east, near a quiet constellation of streets named after celestial objects: Sun, Star, Moon. The only problem is that this site was cut off from the rest of Pacific Place by Justice Drive and a portion of the historic Victoria Barracks. So they built a tunnel.
Since Three Pacific Place opened in 2004, the 200-metre-long underground passageway that links it to the rest of Pacific Place—along with Admiralty MTR station and its busy transport hub—has been used by a constant stream of people every day. With air conditioning and moving sidewalks, it’s a convenient link between the malls and office towers of Admiralty and the cafés, restaurants and art galleries that opened around Star Street in the past couple of decades. And like so many pedestrian passageways in Hong Kong, it was lined by advertising placards, with the occasional immersive campaign that took advantage of a captive audience to transform the entire tunnel into one giant ad.
But then Swire did something unusual, especially for Hong Kong: it got rid of the ads. In their place is Parade. (2020), a site-specific work developed by British-born artist Julian Opie. First unveiled in the spring of 2020, just as Hong Kong was emerging from its first wave of Covid-19 restrictions, it replaced the old advertising placards with a series of 62 characters, painted on steel panels, going about their daily business. There’s a woman pushing a pram, another looking at her phone, another carrying a cold drink: exactly the kind of people you might see passing through the Pacific Place tunnel on an ordinary afternoon.
“The tunnel is long and I needed a lot of images of people to cover its full length,” says Opie. Each character is based on real people from around the world. “I have set up my camera on city streets from Mumbai to Boston to Melbourne, New York and London and Seoul and the people seen here come from these locations,” he explains. “I don’t know who the people were or where they came from. From the thousands of photos that I take on the street these were chosen because they looked possible to draw. I then trace the photos and begin the process of drawing individual characters.”
It’s a cheeky reflection of the parade of individuals that takes place each day in the Pacific Place tunnel. But it’s also a reminder of just how much space advertising takes up in our cities – and what can happen when that space is used for art instead of commercial images whose goal is to sell you something.
“There’s a great study that was done [by the Public Interest Research Centre] that shows that advertising, generally speaking, relies on extrinsic values – basically selfishness. It promotes selfishness and just feeling bad about one’s self,” says RJ Rushmore, a writer and curator whose work focuses on public art and public space. By contrast, “art leans towards promoting intrinsic values like contemplation. It brightens people’s day and makes them feel better.”
The history of advertising in public spaces goes back thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered pictographic engravings in the ruins of Pompeii that were used to promote various businesses: an illustrated goat represented a place to buy milk, a pair of people hauling a jug represented a wine merchant, and so on. Modern advertising is more recent, dating back to the 19th century, when entrepreneurs seized upon the accessibility of printing presses to promote their businesses on bills pasted onto the sides of buildings, eventually scaling up to hand-painted signs. The first billboard, which consisted of 24 sheets of paper pasted together to create a single enormous advertisement, was unveiled at the 1889 Paris Exposition. They soon proliferated in cities around the world, joined by neon signs—also invented in Paris—which opened the nocturnal world to advertising.
Public attitudes to advertising have waxed and waned through the years. The initial proliferation of posters in early 19th century London led to a backlash until they were eventually accepted as part of the landscape. In his 1874 History of Advertising from the Earliest Times, journalist Henry Sampson described the situation: “Anyone having a vacant space at the side of his house, or a blank wall to the same, may, provided he live in anything like a business thoroughfare, and that the vantage place is free from obstruction, do advantageous business with an advertisement contractor.” Advertising had become part and parcel of urban life; even the Eiffel Tower was once covered in a giant illuminated ad for Citroën cars.
The ubiquity of advertising eventually led to a movement against it. In 1989, a former market researcher turned documentary filmmaker, Kalle Lasn, launched Adbusters, a magazine dedicated to a kind of environmentalism of the mind. “We take the environmental ethic into the mental ethic, trying to clean up the toxic areas of our minds,” said Lasn in 1996. “You can’t recycle and be a good environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped at you.”
It’s a philosophy that has made inroads in various cities around the world. In 2006, the newly-elected mayor of São Paulo, Gilberto Kassab, proposed a law that would ban all forms of outdoor advertising. When it passed, more than 15,000 billboards were removed, and the public response was largely enthusiastic. Some works of street art were also destroyed, including a vast mural by renowned artist duo Os Gêmeos, but São Paulo eventually refined its law to protect non-commercial works of art.
Similar efforts in other cities have met with varying degrees of success; after one Montreal borough passed a law banning billboards, it was plunged into a 10-year legal battle with advertising companies that eventually culminated with a decision by Canada’s Supreme Court that found the borough’s ban was legally sound. After dozens of billboards were removed, local artist Glen Lemesurier praised the law for opening up the public eye to the city’s nature, architecture and art – including a sculpture park he maintains that had once been surrounded by advertising.
In New York, RJ Rushmore teamed up with curator and photographer Luna Park to launch a project called Art in Ad Places that surreptitiously replaced phone booth advertisements with works of art. Between 2017 and 2021, they ended up exhibiting the work of more than 100 artists, drawing media attention and inspiring similar projects. “We got people thinking about what it means to be in public space and what kind of say we have in public space,” he says. Although Art in Ad Places was a guerilla effort, Rushmore notes that other projects operate in a more formal context, by renting billboard space to exhibit art instead of ads.
For its part, Swire Properties has long commissioned public art, and the company’s Chief Executive Tim Blackburn explains that the company has an internal art advisory group that scouts suitable locations for new projects. “Creative transformation is very much in line with our placemaking philosophy,” he says. And the advisory group liked the idea of using the Pacific Place corridor to host Julian Opie’s work. “He plays with ways of seeing through reinterpreting the vocabulary of everyday life,” says Blackburn.
Swire commissioned two pieces from Opie: Parade. (2020) as well as Running 3. (2020), a frieze of 13 characters in the hallway linking the Conrad and Shangri-La hotels. Opie says his works often deal with the idea of movement, which made the corridors a good fit. “When making a public work for an architectural space there is a need to engage with the particularities of the space,” he says. “Museums and galleries aim to be blank white spaces but working here was more like placing statues in a temple. The walls are made of metal panels and these create a rhythm and a scale that I had to work with. I am engaged in representing people, the kind of people you pass every day, just normal pedestrians like oneself. In this sense the passageway is ideal as it will be full of such people who will be mirrored back by the images I have provided.”
That wasn’t the case before Parade. (2020): instead of seeing versions of themselves in the Pacific Place corridor, passersby saw ads. It was a completely unremarkable situation in Hong Kong, where advertising is ubiquitous. Advertising in public spaces—known in the ad industry as “out of home” or OOH—accounts for eight percent of the overall advertising market in Hong Kong, compared to just under five percent globally. The city’s sheer density and the huge volume of people passing through its streets makes OOH advertising particularly attractive here. And the market is evolving: in recent years, neon signs and static billboards on top of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers have largely been replaced by video screens.
“The replacement of rooftop neon signs with TV screens and entire facades turned into large TV screens around the harbour opens up very cool opportunities,” says Paul Zimmerman, CEO of public space advocacy group Designing Hong Kong. “I can’t wait for coordinated video feeds by artists whereby large figures and animals move along the harbour, dancing to music, jumping from building to building.”
Video artist Ellen Pau has a similar vision. Her piece The Shape of Light, the first artwork commissioned specifically for the giant animated façade of M+, is on display until July, and she sees the proliferation of video billboards as a great opportunity to exhibit art. “We can have interactive programmes on the screen or even personalised billboards like [what] had been imagined in the metaverse. I think artists and designers [can] collaborate with the screen owners to give a new outlook to these billboards,” she says.
In fact, New York already has a similar initiative, the Midnight Moment: every day from 11:57pm to midnight, all of the video screens in Times Square broadcast a piece of video art. Although advertising can be intrusive, even oppressive, its framework also serves as a useful platform for creative expression. It’s an idea that Julian Opie has wrestled with over the years.
“I have grown up disliking advertising,” he says. “I respect the graphic works of the people involved—sometimes—but I have always bridled at being cajoled and persuaded and bullied and teased without the right to turn off this noise.” But he remembers a trip he once took to Poland when it was still under Communist rule. “There was no advertising on the street. The effect was surprising in that it made one feel uncared for. No one wanted your attention and I felt strangely bereft.”
Though he is clear that art and advertising are not the same thing—“It’s confusing enough to look at art without this added problem of not knowing if there is some secret agenda,” he says—Opie recognises that public art can sometimes be as contentious and disruptive as a billboard, even if it is meant to inspire contemplation and not the urge to consume.
“A friend of mine who is a curator was asked what he would suggest for a good public work and he said ‘a tree,’” says Opie. “I see his point. Like advertising, public art can be annoying and intrusive, a loud radio on the beach. I try to find a way to infiltrate the situation that avoids that problem. I try to please and amuse and intrigue like a street juggler. I try to disguise my work so that if it were on the beach I would make a sandcastle perhaps. I use the language and materials of the street and depict the people that might be there anyway.”That’s one artist’s philosophy. There are many others. And in Hong Kong especially, there is a lot of ad space where they can make their case. For artists, it’s an opportunity for creative expression. For the public, it’s a chance to think.
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