The fact that Polo Bourieau shares a name with Marco Polo — real-life explorer and protagonist in Invisible Cities, the Italo Calvino novel that inspired the Bourieau’s latest collection of stone sculptures — won’t be lost on the artist’s audience. Bourieau promises it’s a mere coincidence, but he does note one point of similarity between himself and the 13th century Venetian: “We have the same embrace of different cultures.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Bourieau was in his workshop in Pietrasanta, Tuscany, when he picked up Calvino’s novel. “It inspired me so much,” he says. “I started to sculpt.” Soon after, Hong Kong conglomerate and arts patron Swire Properties came knocking, asking if he wanted to exhibit his works. What transpired was Urban Rocks.
At Swire Properties’ ArtisTree art space in Quarry Bay, visitors pass by a glass cabinet displaying the various stones — variegated coloured blocks, polished whites — used in the exhibition, before arriving at a dimly-lit space, where 12 stone sculptures are arranged in a circle. Each sculpture sits on its own pedestal, inspiring a sense of reverence-but visitors are encouraged to touch them, a rarity in a city where one is constantly told to not do something. “The worst that could happen is when a kid, with an ice-cream … poof!” says Bourieau with a grin. “If this was in Paris, I’d be worried, but people are more careful here.”And you’ll probably want to touch the likes of “Mandorla Gates.” Mandorla is Italian for almond, and it also refers to the almond-shaped frame that often surrounds figures in Christian iconography. In this case, the almond-shaped artwork is sculpted from a block of veiny quartzite that seems to open into an abyss. A column extends from this; near the top of the piece is a ring of greenish-orange. “Quartzite is full of iron, so when it gets humid, it becomes rusty,” says Bourieau. Time’s passage cannot get more tangible than this. “Exactly! The stone is time. It was made a thousand years ago.”
“Blood Map” also calls out to be touched; in this case, Bourieau sculpted what he calls “anti-spaces” out of a block of variegated red lepanto marble, creating a poetic dialogue between volume and void. “The stone itself is so rich [in colour], with such strong veins. I needed to take something from it,” he says.
Bourieau’s starting point for every sculpture is always a quick sketch on paper. After designing the sculpture with a 3D programming tool, he then starts chiselling away at the block of stone, employing a mix of traditional sculpting tools and a robot, as in the case of his work “Meteor,” which he describes as “a pure robotic experiment.” There was a lot of trial and error during the process of becoming one with the robot. “You always have to understand the limits with your tool. I actually [ruined] two [blocks of stone], before creating this,” he says.
Like the imaginary cities depicted in Invisible Cities, Bourieau’s 12 sculptures take the form of elements within cities, delineating our desires and fears, our hopes for — and disappointment by — the utopia that will never arrive. “Vertical Vessel” eloquently captures the ambivalence towards mankind’s predilection for violence and ruin. Prism blocks appear to grow upwards from the pedestal, with some looking like thin vessels, others pencils, yet others rockets. “What did we invent first, the knife or the vessel? I think we invented the vessel first, because you can carry water, you can travel, when you start to walk, you can see what’s on the other side of the hill. And that’s when you become fully human,” says Bourieau. “But then, of course, it becomes a rocket.”
The artist’s enchantment with stones harks back to a childhood in Nantes, a city full of mediaeval churches and cathedrals. “The school I went to, next door, there was this cathedral,” he says. “And there were all these stones, rocks. That was probably what inspired me.” Years later, he became an apprentice at the Compagnons du Devoir, a storied and prestigious French organisation of craftsmen and artisans, where he honed his craft.
Bourieau moved to Hong Kong two decades ago and has lived here ever since. Despite speaking in heavily-accented English, he is hesitant to call himself a Frenchman. “I’m French, but I don’t know what it means. I’m more of a Hongkong-er,” he says – and indeed, the artist uses the pronouns “we” or “us” whenever he brings up the city. “Maybe I prefer to be between cities. I prefer to be more than one thing,” he adds after a pause.
Universality is of course important to Bourieau. It informed how he sourced the exhibition’s white marble. The marbles were sourced from five different regions: Iran, Turkey, Italy, France and Spain. “It’s the idea that stone is earth, and it is everywhere!”
He is speaking from personal family history. His grandfather was a refugee during the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. “When I see the fate of refugees today…” He sighs, trailing off. “The Mediterranean [is] becom[ing] a cemetery. It’s absolutely scandalous. We have an Ukrainian family that we [supported]. I want to believe that we are all happy, bastard people. There is no pure blood. There is only one race – the human race. I’m French, but my son is Italian, my wife is English, I carry this universality,” he says. “And that’s why stones. Stone is earth, and earth is where we all come from.”
That philosophy can be seen in Urban Rocks, which is as much inspired by Asia as Europe. The pedestals pay tribute to gongshi, or Chinese scholar’s rocks, stones wholly shaped by nature and admired by Chinese, Japanese and Korean intellectuals for their unique form, colour and texture. Bourieau first came across the Chinese scholar’s rock in 2003, when he was invited to the International Sculpture Symposium in Hualien, Taiwan. Contemporary works by Bourieau and his peers were exhibited alongside Chinese scholar’s rocks.
“The contrast, oh, it was awesome,” he says. “And the love for stones. It blew my mind. It seems absurd sometimes. You’re in nature, you fall in love with this stone, shaped by nature, and you bring it home. This is so profound. As a civilisation, to take a piece of civilisation. To find another world in a tiny piece of stone.”
Two decades on, the artist is putting nature on a pedestal, with the hopes that it’ll make people “slow down, stop and contemplate what we’re doing, to nature, which we should be a part of.” After all, if our “pillaging” goes on, “Thin City” might just be our future. The work depicts the gloomy skeletal remains of a city. “Our cities are sinking, whether it’s Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh. But then, even if everything gets destroyed, the foundation of the city isn’t going to disappear, as it is so encrusted in the earth. What archaeologists will find will be [the foundational structure] of the city, and they’ll wonder, what happened?”
Given the ambivalence of his sculptures, the artist’s answer to the question, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about mankind’s future?” might come as a surprise. “Super optimistic, absolutely, especially here [Hong Kong],” he says. This optimism also seems contrary to how some in Hong Kong feel right now. Covid-19 and its restrictions — which Hong Kong was the last in the world to lift — has put a dent in the city’s confidence, not to mention anxiety around the city’s recent political shift.
The artist’s answer to that lies in the accompanying text to “Inferno” in the exhibition catalogue, which is an extract from the last chapter of Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the two ways to avoid suffering in hell. While the first is just to accept hell as it is, the second “requires continuous attention and learning: to seek and be able to recognise who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, and make it last, and give it space,” says Bourieau.
“You have to understand, optimism isn’t happiness. It’s about hope, how do we move forward. Our true identity [in Hong Kong] is the port. We have people coming and going – a criss-cross of cultures.” He thinks the city will ultimately continue to thrive on this openness. And even if you aren’t convinced, you can’t deny his optimistic commitment to the city: he just opened a new workshop in Kennedy Town.
Urban Rocks runs at ArtisTree until April 9, 2023. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. Click here for more information.