Hong Kong Postscript: Rethinking the Art of Public Intervention
任卓華 (Valerie C DORAN)
at 10:30pm on 28th August 2008

So much of the radical art labelled these days as a ‘public intervention’ too often seems merely to be a ‘public imposition’: an act of artistic flag-waving that challenges the public without engaging them. Yet in art, as in politics, one does sometimes come across a radically meaningful act in the most unexpected places. As, for example, last May, in a crowded shopping mall in the heart of Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong’s most raucous retail districts.

It was here, on the mezzanine floor of the huge ‘Times Square’ mall, that the Taiwan installation artist Huang Chih-yang achieved a truly radical act of transformation: the creation of a small field of Astroturf grass, studded with sinuously modelled boulders and fronted by a Technicolor picture of the sky, that reclaimed a patch of public space in the midst of a glass-and-concrete tower. For a period of two weeks, weary mall-travellers were invited to plunk down on the grass and enjoy the open space at their leisure; and so they did, with great alacrity, in large numbers and with immense enjoyment. On the day I visited, there were students propped up against boulders reading books, young families and grandparents laughing delightedly as their babies crawled on the grass, and a pair of young lovers enjoying an impromptu picnic while gazing languidly into each other’s eyes – all oblivious, apparently, to the silent cacophony of the shop fronts facing them on all sides, touting drastically reduced prices. From a cultural point of view, the most radical thing about this phenomenon was not the simple notion of creating a resting place for shoppers, but the reciprocal presence of artist and public combining to create a positive, mutually meaningful space: a kind of cultural yin-yang.

Huang Chih-yang’s installation was part of an exhibition series sponsored by the Times Square management and curated by Johnson Chang Tsong-zung of Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery. Yet, given the nature of the other works simultaneously on show, by Hung Tunglu and Yue Minjun, respectively, the curatorial selection of Huang’s work seemed more a fortuitous decision than one reflecting any curatorial awareness of its subtly subversive message. Hung Tunglu’s signature lightboxes, enclosing his slightly eroticized iconography of sci-fi flavoured female figures, were displayed inside a pristine, white passageway constructed next to Huang Chih-yang’s open meadow. No surprises there, as visitors made the short, voyeuristically-coloured journey and emerged soon after at the other end. But it was in the tenor of the work of Beijing-based artist Yue Minjun that the difference in experience was most clearly underscored. Yue is, an artist most recently famous for setting record prices at auction with his satirical paintings of grinning male figures. Rather than being inside the mall, Yue’s sculptural installation, Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, was located in the centre of an outdoor piazza within the mall’s territorial precincts. Protected inside a giant plexiglass box, the front of which looked like a department store window, Yue’s work was an assemblage of twelve identical, oversize plaster figures of the artist’s trademark grinning male, clad in blue jeans and naked to the waist. Several passers-by stood in front of the display, pointing in an amused way at the figures inside and taking turns to photograph each other in front of it. After a few minutes, they walked away.

In Hong Kong, the invasion and erosion of public space – that is, the space that the public freely enjoys and inhabits – have become nothing less than a political issue. Increasingly ruthless and narrowly conceived ‘development’, both governmentally and commercially driven (and often both), has destroyed entire city blocks, threatened the continued existence of culturally iconic urban sites, such as Hong Kong’s famous street markets, paved over significant parts of the harbour, and fomented an increasing sense of outrage on the part of a public usually quite sympathetic to the desirability of commercial progress. I had these issues very much in mind when attending a symposium, held just a couple of weeks before the Times Square exhibition, which raised questions about the future of a specific kind of public space in Hong Kong. With the intriguing title ‘Shifting Sites: Cultural Desire and the Museum’, the symposium brought together an array of international curators and museum directors to examine the relevance of and possibilities for museum institutions in the 21st century.

This is a question of special interest for many Hong Kongers at this time, as they grapple with a host of unresolved issues surrounding the development of the ‘West Kowloon Cultural District’ (WKCD), a government-proposed, mixed-purpose district of commercial, residential and cultural facilities. As anyone familiar with Hong Kong current events will know, the WKCD is slated to be constructed on a choice parcel of public land: in fact, on the last undeveloped site on Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, which makes the land nearly priceless. In the government’s original plan for the WKCD, publicly unveiled in 2000, the idea was to sell the land off to a selected private developer, who would be responsible for designing, building and maintaining a certain number of cultural facilities as a carrot-and-stick to the public, while reaping millions or even billions of Hong Kong dollars by developing the rest of the site for purely commercial purposes. When developers were subsequently invited to submit proposals for public tender, a number of Hong Kong’s major players rushed to hire cultural consultants and celebrity architects to come up with a plan for the cultural facilities, emphasizing iconic architecture as a branding strategy aimed at drawing international tourists (as most famously exemplified in Lord Norman Foster’s proposal of a gargantuan glass canopy that would cover several acres and cost millions to build and maintain). In the ensuing public outcry that (much to the government’s surprise) followed this ridiculous concept, the government was forced to rethink the entire plan in consultation with the arts and cultural sectors, and to actually pay attention to public sentiment as regards both its ‘cultural desires’, to borrow a phrase, and the use of public land. The government subsequently appointed a Museum Advisory Group (MAG) for the WKCD, comprising arts and business professionals (in fact several participants in the ‘Shifting Sites’ symposium were MAG members). Earlier this year, the advisory group formally submitted its recommendation for the creation of an arts facility dubbed M+ (Museum Plus), conceived as ‘a new type of cultural institution’ focused on ‘20th and 21st century visual culture’. The ‘Shifting Sites’ symposium provided a chance to explore exactly what ‘a new type of cultural institution’ might mean in the context of visual culture.

The morning session’s moderator, Philip Dodd, who is chairman of Made in China, London/Beijing, reminded the audience that as far as new cultural districts go, cities in mainland China have been rushing in where Hong Kong so far has failed to tread, citing as an example a recent move by the Shanghai government to convert ‘53 warehouses as cultural sites’, not to mention the literally thousands of museums and other visual art spaces that have been springing up all over the country, fuelled by both private and public funding. Further underscoring the point, Su Zhenxie, director of the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, took the audience on a virtual tour of contemporary art districts in the city such as the 798 Art Zone, Jiuchang Art District and No. 1 Art Base, where dreary factory sites and former workers’ residences have been transformed into bustling sites of artistic creation and commerce. Art historian and international curator Charles Merewether, until recently working with the government of Abu Dhabi in developing an ambitious cultural and education district, made the thought-provoking point that in trying to understand the connection between architecture and content in some of the world’s most famous museums, such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim, it is important first to understand their genesis. The genesis of the Louvre, for example, was as a ‘people’s palace of the arts’, while the Guggenheim’s was as a reflection of the personal interest of its eponymous founder, the collector Samuel R. Guggenheim, in a particular avant-garde vision. Applying this principle to the question of M+ and the West Kowloon Cultural District, one remembers that the genesis of the WKCD, and of the very ground it is to be built upon, was as a public park, a green belt to be given to the people of Hong Kong to enjoy freely and at their leisure. This was how the Hong Kong government originally convinced the Hong Kong public to allow the reclamation of this plot of land from the harbour over 15 years ago, before deciding several years on that the collective memory was short and there was too much money to be made from (and for) private developers to make good on this promise. Thus the WKCD was born.

In light of the WKCD’s genesis as a people’s park, and the inevitability that the land use will never be returned to that original plan, one must look carefully at what kind and form of cultural institution can at least reflect the principles of that genesis. To this end, among the many eloquent and informative speakers at the symposium, the one who addressed the task at hand most pertinently was the intellectually effervescent Yuko Hasegawa, currently chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and the founding director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. As well as dynamic programming, Hasegawa said, a cultural institution in the 21st century must ‘provide an intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical environment, to encourage all visitors to find their own interest, within themselves and by themselves’. In working with architects to design the Kanazawa museum, Hasegawa stressed the integral relationship between the space inside the museum and the public/space outside it – that is, the immediate city environment, the people who inhabit it – and the necessity of creating an inviting physical link between them. She also showed how the design of the Kanazawa museum allowed for the inclusion of public open spaces within the museum, as links between the art-occupied spaces, enabling visitors to encounter the art and then exit its space to rest and contemplate the visual and mental imprint of what they had just seen.

David Elliot, an independent curator and critic and the founding director of the Mori Art Museum, warned that the last 30 years have been ‘the era of the museum architect rather than the museum director’, an unhealthy phenomenon that reflects the desire to create an architectural attraction that is good for business, rather than a total environment that ‘brings art to the public and engages them with it’. Expanding on his observation, one concludes that rather than iconic buildings, Hong Kong needs an environmental iconography that reflects the deeply felt interest in and concern for the everyday, ‘popular’ culture of this city, and for the physical space and cultural heritage that is constantly under threat: a concern well reflected in the themes explored by many contemporary Hong Kong artists, as well as in the art spaces they have created (such as Para/Site) and the frequently community-based actions in which they engage.

Architecturally and semantically, M+ must be a cultural institution that truly reflects the ‘cultural desires’ of the Hong Kong people and honours in every way possible the vital importance of public space. If M+ can generate by example a truly transformative space that is meaningful both inside and outside, where the space that the art does not occupy is as well considered and functional as the place that it does (like the negative space in a Chinese landscape painting), this would be truly radical. Let the people be the intervention.

(Originally published in Orientations, September 2008, pp.141-42)