It’s a strange sight in a city where everybody seems to have their head buried in their smartphone: people pointing up and looking towards the sky. Even stranger is the fact they are looking up at sculptures of naked men. For the next six months, 31 life-size figures have been scattered around Central — four on ground level and 27 on rooftops — as part of British artist Antony Gormley’s public exhibition, Event Horizon, which runs until 18 May.
“When people come across them, they’re surprised because it’s in their normal day-to-day walking route and this [body] is there in front of them,” says Cassius Taylor-Smith, who collaborated with Gormley on the exhibition. “I’ve seen a great deal of enthusiasm – people photographing themselves with the sculptures in the background and some standing giggling in groups. It’s been interesting to watch.”
The statues were cast from Gormley’s own body. They were first unveiled in London in 2007 and subsequently travelled to Rotterdam, New York, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Each city has responded differently to the army of strangers. For many New Yorkers, it raised alarm bells to see human figures on rooftops after 9/11. Some Londoners saw the statues as obstructions on their way to work. The Dutch greeted the figures with a sense of reverence as many perceived them as silent guardian angels of sorts. Gormley likens the placement of these sculptures to inserting acupuncture needles into the body of the city. Fascinated by human diversity, he sees how people across the globe react to these intruders as the crux of the work, which raises questions about the role of mankind in the larger scheme of the natural world.
Regarded by critics as a kind of contemporary Henry Moore , Gormley has long been obsessed with the human form. He is widely recognised for his sprawling installation of 40,000 wide-eyed terracotta figures, which won him the Turner Prize in 1994. Four years later, he made headlines for his work Angel of the North, a monumental 65-feet-tall steel figure with wings outstretched overlooking the countryside near Gateshead, England. Among his most talked about projects was One and Other in 2009 where he invited members of the public to occupy the Fourth Plinth, a slab in Trafalgar Square for an hour each time for 100 consecutive days, 24 hours a day. At the core of each of his works has been an ongoing fascination with the vulnerability of humankind and the visceral impact of public sculpture.
Event Horizon was originally scheduled to be shown in Hong Kong last year, but the project was postponed when a banker at J.P. Morgan committed suicide by leaping from his office building. The high-rise was owned by the project’s original sponsor, Hongkong Land, which subsequently withdrew support. While Event Horizon had nothing to do with suicide, it was a sensitive issue to navigate. Gormley has said Hongkong Land’s rationale for pulling out was fear of the company’s reputation being damaged.
“But so many people in Hong Kong wanted to see the project happen whether it was enthusiasm from the government or private landlords,” says Taylor-Smith. He helped revive it with the support of the British Council and the K11 Art Foundation. “It was also a very personal interest of mine to try to break open public art in Hong Kong,” he says. Taylor-Smith heads up Giant Communications, a consultancy that works with real estate and architecture clients to make art accessible to the masses. He is also the co-founder of the Very Hong Kong Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that supports public arts initiatives in the city.
Taylor-Smith first met Gormley in the early 2000s when he lived in London and was working for the architect David Chipperfield, who designed the artist’s studio. He later moved to Hong Kong and approached Gormley about bringing his work to the city in late 2012. Within minutes on the phone they had hatched plans for Event Horizon. “Antony got really excited given that the project is so closely involved in the urban fabric and man’s position in a manmade world, and because of the extremity of the architecture and the density of Hong Kong,” he recalls. Six months later the artist jumped on a plane to begin scouting for locations.
“The city has got these great canyons down Des Voeux Road, Connaught Road and Queens Road Central so we started to look at buildings along those routes and also in the Admiralty area,” says Taylor-Smith. Their goal was to situate the sculptures on roof level in such a way that the human forms would break up the horizon and the geometric shapes of buildings. They also spent a great deal of time considering the pedestrian environment.
“Whether it’s commuters on their way to work, where people would relax on the weekend or where they would take their lunch break – trying to finding those moments of human density at ground level was very exciting,” says Taylor-Smith. He and Gormley documented about 80 sites before narrowing down the selection to 31 locations. Each of the ground-level sculptures weighs a hefty 650 kilograms, while the rooftop works are made of more lightweight fibreglass.
The project explores the place of the individual amid the collective and inspires viewers to relate to their city in new ways. Many are also counting on it to have a more lasting impact. “We hope it will unlock more public art to happen in an unconventional sense – to find moments of being able to display art which connects with the public and not necessarily just [be kept] in corporate collections,” says Taylor-Smith. Given the government’s recent support for Event Horizon and the receptiveness of landlords, he believes the exhibition has set a new precedent: “There’s a lot more that we’ll see.”
When: Installation Event runs from November 19, 2015 through May 18, 2015, in Central and Admiralty.