In 2014, Hong Kong was stunned by an anonymous, faceless mirrored man who popped up around the city in a pose of contemplation. Now his maker, French sculptor Paul-Alexandre Michel Albert “Polo” Bourieau, has unveiled the face and thoughts behind his creation, as British fine art photographer and regular Zolima CityMag contributor William Furniss documents the legacy of the “Reflecting Man,” leaving Hong Kong with a lot to reflect on.
Venturing into Bourieau’s studio is reminiscent of falling into a beautiful nightmare where an eclectic mix of surreal study models somehow co-exist harmoniously: a marble hand opening a Pandora’s box, a dragon-headed lady lying beside it, a Vader-cross-Mino further into the artist’s lair, who guards a most ordinary pantry where fresh egg tarts and coffee await. In this dreamscape, it isn’t easy to spot Bourieau’s latest creation: the 120-kilogram, 180-metre-tall, stainless-steel “Reflecting Man,” mirror-polished and perfectly blended into its surroundings.
As a sequel to Father and Son (2014), a previous “mirror men” series staged in a Chengdu park, Bourieau created the “Reflecting Man” in Hong Kong and invited William Furniss to collaborate with him in 2014. Together, they documented the public life of the “Reflecting Man” in various locations around Hong Kong, ranging from iconic landmarks to old neighbourhoods, from tucked-away beaches to desolate dumpsites. The photos, which reveal how the artwork, surroundings and people interacted with each other, are now on display in La Galerie Paris 1839’s exhibition +852 until March 17.
The natural relationship between sculpture and space is the focus of many of Bourieau’s public artworks. A sculptor since 15, the artist has accumulated years of experience in working with developers, architects and landscapers in Europe, America and China. “I never work with galleries,” he declares. “My works are always placed in public domains where there aren’t fences around. To me, art doesn’t only exist in the white walls of galleries. It’s all about us and how we can live with art. It’s a fresh perspective on Hong Kong’s art scene that I wish for the ‘Reflecting Man’ to reflect.”
But the “Reflecting Man” doesn’t only represent Bourieau’s vision; it has further triggered in both the sculptor and photographer more profound reflections on their identity and artistic metamorphoses. Bourieau recalls, “I moved to Hong Kong in 2003, and was fascinated by its identity crisis. For instance, what makes me French when I can be a Hong Kong guy too after immersing in its culture all these years?” (A valid argument, testified by his very local pastry breakfast.) “The numerous panes making up the ‘Reflecting Man’ symbolise the multiple layers and stories of individuals in this international metropolis. And it’s fantastic to see how he stimulated a dialogue with people in this fast-paced city when passers-by paused to look at the artwork and themselves through the mirrors as we took him on guerrilla photo shoots.”
Furniss shares the sculptor’s sentiments of witnessing a transformation in his art since the project began. “As a photographer, I capture the momentous usually by observation, without approaching people or creating the phenomena that I’m photographing,” he says. “Yet this time, when we took the ‘Reflecting Man’ places, he changed those places.”
“A good example is the photo shoot at the beautiful, traditional backstage of a temporary bamboo Beijing opera house in Ap Lei Chau,” says Furniss. “I was so concerned that we would be refused, not to mention that the bamboos might break, but the opera people were totally fascinated. They welcomed us in and an actress was even doing her makeup in front of the mirror.” Adding to how the “Reflecting Man” had brought both his team and the opera people together, Bourieau says this is his favourite picture. “It tells everything about us. It talks about location, legacy, the traditional and the contemporary, beauty, male and female.”
Another photo that also juxtaposes the traditional and contemporary is the shot with the tram. “Although the tram is old, it’s still a great idea,” says Furniss. “I don’t think that only the latest and greatest is of value. It’s good to look at ideas of the past and if they’re good, they should be incorporated into the city as we move forward.”
But some legacies, doomed to be eliminated by time, can only be preserved in photography. Much like Graham Street, where a controversial urban renewal project has been carried out, and which Furniss and Bourieau capture in their project – an old Hong Kong neighbourhood on one side and its destruction on the other. “There is a lot of unhappiness, and until it’s finished, there’s no way of knowing whether the renewal campaign will be a success,” says Furniss with a sigh.
Also preserved in Furniss’s photos are the neon signs of two old Hong Kong industries before they — and the neon lights themselves — fade out. “When I first came to live on Johnston Road in the ‘90s, it was clustered with big canteen restaurants,” he says. “Wan Chai was exactly what you see in The World of Suzie Wong – the thumping heart of Hong Kong. There were a lot of people who went out for the nightclubs which served mostly sailors. But now most of them are gone.”
Equally historic is the pawn shop. “It’s a symbol of the locals’ entrepreneurial spirit and the way Hong Kong rocks and rolls, and the truck behind him exemplifies the logistics people’s can-do spirit,” says Furniss.
Apart from local industries and people, Hong Kong’s identity is also defined by its unique geography, as portrayed in the artists’ series on the West Kowloon waterfront. Bourieau elaborates. “This city is born as a harbour, its international identity comes from a harbour, and yet sometimes we forget that the sea is right there when we live in the city,” he says.
Aside from history, the artists also draw attention to contemporary social issues and controversial development plans. Furniss says, “The huge sign that says ‘West (‘Waste?’ asks Bourieau in his French accent) Kowloon Cultural District’ had been there for quite some time, but when we took the picture, nothing was there.”
“Then of course, there’s LegCo. Hong Kong and its politics are a big subject,” adds Furniss.
A recent political controversy is whether to keep the typhoon shelter in Yau Ma Tei due to its close proximity to the Hong Kong Palace Museum, M+ and ICC. “Personally, it’s very important that neighbourhoods are mixed used. It keeps them interesting, vibrant and live,” says Furniss. “Having said that, I think that recycling in Hong Kong is a very messy, sketchy affair. Recycling is obviously good, but if you see how they do it with barges that basically open with no sides on, hauling all of this rubbish and metal stuff out of the harbour, where they’re kind of falling off the side, it’s crazy. I want to bring the issue of recycling into the limelight with this picture.”
“The plastic pollution problem ties in with the recycling problem,” Furniss continues. “There are a lot of problems for which the government should take social responsibility. The sight of this trashy beach at Big Wave Bay is infuriating to me. This is a human problem to be fixed by a human solution.”
But not everything the “Reflecting Man” reflects about Hong Kong is gloomy, as he has also triggered light-hearted reactions in other neighbourhoods. Bourieau laughs, recalling a trip to a popular beef noodle shop on Gough Street. “William, his assistant and I were queuing up,” he says. “The manager said there was a minimum order of one dish per head, which was fair because it was lunch hour, and the shop was so busy. But you know what? The ‘Reflecting Man’ was also charged because he occupied a seat.” And what did the “Reflecting Man” have for lunch? “He couldn’t decide.”
In Causeway Bay, people continued to see the “Reflecting Man” as a real character. “So sweet was the interaction between the ‘Reflecting Man’ and the little girl,” Furniss recalls. “I wanted to capture that moment in the midst of this district’s frenetic energy. Causeway Bay is a place you either love or hate, or eventually come to love, once you’ve been in Hong Kong long enough to handle the crazy crowds.”
The “Reflecting Man” travelled to the harbourfront, he became a celebrity as a long queue of mainland tourists waited in turn to take pictures with him. But sometimes he blended into the landscape as the rest enjoyed the view, oblivious of the quietly meditating humanoid figure nearby.
“This artwork is really at one with its environment,” says Furniss. He’s a character, the city is a character, the people are part of it, and so is the creative team – it’s an all-inclusive project that brings everyone together to say something about the diverse facets of Hong Kong.”
And who is this mysterious character? Bourieau exclaims, “C’est la vie! It can be anyone! I design it as the most anonymous person possible.” This only makes sense, for the “Reflecting Man” isn’t just a mirrored sculpture, but the mirror to the city’s multicultural identities and artistic dynamic.
The “Reflecting Man” is on display in La Galerie Paris 1839’s exhibition +852, which runs until March 17, 2019.