Is Art More Meaningful When It’s In Public?

Adeline Ooi was watching numbers cascade down the illuminated façade of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) when she felt goosebumps on her arms. As an art critic, curator and the director of Art Basel Hong Kong, it’s not a feeling she gets very often – only when she sees something “so wildly beautiful it almost brings tears to your eyes,” she says. Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Time Waterfall” was one of them. “The medium, the form, the numbers falling down almost like autumn leaves.”

Miyajima’s work existed only for a brief moment in 2016, one of the many public art projects that Art Basel has sponsored since it arrived in Hong Kong ten years ago. Like so many good pieces of public art, though, the ripples of its impact could be felt long after the artwork itself had disappeared. 

And if you have enough ripples, it can turn into a wave. As “Time Waterfall” took over the surface of Hong Kong’s tallest tower, British sculptor Antony Gormley scattered 31 statues of himself around Hong Kong in a public exhibition titled Event Horizon. The project fascinated the public, captivated the media and generated no shortage of controversy, including one moment when the Highways Department roped off a statue that had been installed on the pavement of Queen’s Road Central, apparently unaware that the government itself had approved its installation. At the time, it seemed to represent Hong Kong’s uneasy relationship with the arts. “Just what is Hong Kong’s problem with public art?” we asked.

Six years later, a lot has changed. Protests, pandemic, a radically new political situation – but also the opening of major new cultural institutions like Tai Kwun, CHAT and M+, along with a revamped and recharged Museum of Art. Now that Art Basel is celebrating its 10th anniversary, it’s worth considering the legacy of the fair in bringing art to the Hong Kong public – and how the city’s approach to public art has changed, and continues to change. 

From its very first edition, Art Basel Hong Kong has made a point of commissioning works that are exhibited beyond the confines of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre. “Art Basel is very much a commercial platform—it’s a gathering of galleries from all around the world to essentially sell art—but we knew that it can be more than just a sales platform,” says Ooi. “We weren’t going to be a UFO hovering over Victoria Harbour and parachuting in just once a year. We knew we had to cultivate things, we had a duty to the public, to bring the art to them and to show them that art can inhabit spaces other than the Convention Centre and the galleries.”

That’s not to say there was no public art in Hong Kong until recently. Various public and private organisations have been commissioning public artworks for decades. The MTR began a public art programme in 1998, with 80 works ranging in scale from the adorably rotund dancers of Yin Zhixin’s “The Grace of Ballerinas” in Choi Hung Station to the enormous “Dancing Ribbons,” by Mark Dziewulski and Sheng Shan-shan, that hang in the main hall of Hong Kong Station. Well before that, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department began installing sculptures in some of its parks—many of them by local artist Van Lau—and large corporations erected sculptures on their properties, like those by renowned artists Henry Moore and Ju Ming, whose works stand in Hongkong Land’s Exchange Square.

But in many cases, these early initiatives amounted to “helicoptering in lumpen turds into public plazas without any thought for engagement,” in the words of Tim Marlow, director of the Design Museum in London. (“That is not a dig at Henry Moore,” he quickly adds with a laugh.) Rather than just “art in public space, instead of public art”—a term used by critic Oscar Ho to describe how things often work in Hong Kong—Marlow says that public art needs to lead to “an activation of space and an engagement with the fabric of the city, the people of the city and the life of the city.”

Context is key. “Artists need to be involved in the siting of work and the commissioning of work in the first place,” says Marlow. And even more than that, “commissioning bodies need to ask a wide range of people from the cultural landscape to help them commission the right artists.” Marlow says he is “not a snob” when it comes to public art—“If it captures the public imagination it serves a social purpose,” he says—but he thinks the public deserves to be challenged rather than pandered to. 

He points to “The Meeting Place,” a statue of a couple in embrace that was created by artist Paul Day and erected outside the St. Pancras railway station in London, as a particularly bad example of public art. When it was unveiled in 2007, it was roundly panned by critics for being mawkish and trite. Antony Gormley dismissed it as “crap” and Marlow himself described it as a “terrible, schmaltzy, sentimental piece of kitsch.” It turned out to be hugely popular with the public, but Marlow is unrepentant: “I don’t care that the public quite like it, they deserve better than that.” 

To that end, he thinks public art is best when it is ephemeral. In London, the mayor’s culture team commissions new works every two years for an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. (The so-called “fourth plinth” was meant to house an equestrian statue of King William IV that was never completed.) Some of the works are sober and contemplative, like Samson Kambalu’s upcoming pair of sculptures, “Antelope,” which depict Malawi-born activist John Chilembwe, while others are strange and fanciful, like Heather Phillipson’s 2020 work “The End,” a dollop of whipped cream topped by a cherry, a fly and a drone that recorded images of the public. (Phillipson’s installation will be on display until this coming autumn, after which it will be replaced by the first of two sculptures by Chilembwe.) But they are always temporary. “You give people a chance to experiment,” says Marlow. “I think the public is much more relaxed if they don’t think something is being dumped on them or forced on them in perpetuity.”

That was Marlow’s goal with the Harbour Arts Sculpture Park, which he co-curated with Mori Art Museum director ​​Fumio Nanjo. Installations by 18 local and international artists took over the lawn in Tamar Park in the spring of 2018. “I enjoyed just wandering around the park seeing people engage with it,” says Marlow. “You could see people who had leaflets following a trail trying to engage in depth. But equally you would see people just wandering through and stopping to look.” 

Marlow hoped the project would “give an impetus to have more commissions, to have more opportunities in the public domain” in Hong Kong, which he visited several times a year until the pandemic. It has certainly been part of a trend towards more public art in Hong Kong – and particularly more pop-up public art projects that are keen to connect with the city at specific times and places. 

Much of it coincides with Art Basel, such as German artist Julius Popp’s internet-enabled waterfall, “Bit.Fall,” that was installed in Pacific Place during the spring of 2017. Pacific Place owner Swire Properties has partnered with Art Basel since the fair was launched, and over the years it has also supported a variety of public art projects, including Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, ArtisTree in Taikoo Place presented Urban Playgrounds, in which Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner turned Hong Kong’s streets into a stage for colourfully-danced dancers and free runners, and LUMENous GARDEN, in which San Francisco art collective FoldHaus created an interactive, participatory art experience specifically for the Pacific Place garden.

Art Basel itself has commissioned many attention-grabbing public artworks, including German artist Carsten Nicolai’s “alpha pulse,” which turned the ICC into a giant strobe light in 2014. In 2017, Kingsley Ng’s “Twenty-Five Minutes Older” transformed a tram car into a roving camera obscura. “It was an immersive experience that people could literally get on,” says Ooi. “That changed a lot for the public, to not feel like they didn’t understand what this is all about.”

The pandemic and its on-again, off-again restrictions put public art initiatives on the backburner in the past couple of years. But they are making a comeback. When M+ reopened this spring, it debuted M+ Playscape, a collection of interactive sculptures by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi installed in the museum’s roof garden. K11 Musea recently unveiled its own collection of outdoor sculptures by another Japanese artist, Izumi Kato. Art Basel will soon launch the Artist Tram Project, which invited artists Cherie Cheuk, Stephen Wong and Shum Kwan-yi to use the exterior of moving trams as their canvas. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of this earlier, to just give up the trams to younger artists to play with,” says Ooi. “It’s a lovely offering to the city. The works are friendly and pleasing and I hope it’s a nice way to brighten up the mood.”

Art Basel has also partnered with M+ to launch the first commissioned artwork that will make use of the enormous LED screen on the museum’s façade. “The Shape of Light,” by pioneering Hong Kong video artist Ellen Pau, draws inspiration from the Heart Sutra to reflect on the immaterial and the material, with computer-generated animations of natural elements. “It’s a very meaningful project,” says Ooi. “[Pau] likens the LED screen to a lighthouse beaming out messages of kindness and healing.”

“The Shape of Light” will be broadcast from May 19 to June 18. After that, “your imagination is the limit as to what you can do with that screen,” says Ooi. And not just the screen. “I have so many wild ideas about creating public projects in Hong Kong. We haven’t used the ferries, we haven’t used the escalators. There’s so much more we can do. The Hong Kong audience should never be underestimated. I’ve been working here for 10 years and I’m always touched by their curiosity. Because of that there’s so much potential for public art.”


In celebration of its 10-year partnership with Art Basel Hong Kong, this article is supported by Swire Properties.

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