By Arthur Tam
He used to do graffiti at subway stations without permission. But now, British artist Remi Rough has been commissioned to create murals in the Quarry Bay MTR station. Commissioned by Swire Properties and MTR, in partnership with Aedas, his art work Morning Dynamics is an abstract graffiti mural of graphic colours and geometric shapes. During his recent trip to Hong Kong, we caught up with Rough to talk about the inspiration behind his work, his first experience creating an installation for a subway system and the challenges that come with it.
How did you get involved with Swire Properties to create art for the Quarry Bay MTR station?
Architecture firm Aedas brought me in on this project – they are a long-term tenant at Taikoo Place. I understood in the brief that Art In MTR is an initiative by MTR that aims to enhance the passenger travelling experience. My work Morning Dynamics is the 73rd work in the series. It was the first time Swire Properties has collaborated with Art In MTR. The partnership was one that grew from a mutual desire to bring art and culture to the general public of Hong Kong. It has been a great collaborative experience.
Is this your first subway commission? Was it challenging using the walls of the MTR as your canvas?
Yes, this is the first time I’ve had a commission for a subway system. When I was a teenager, I would paint in spaces like this regardless of permission, and to find myself now being commissioned to create art work for an entire space like Quarry Bay station is an ambition realised. The main challenge in commissioned pieces is ensuring that the integrity of my work is protected and not compromised in any way. I wanted the art to be as representative of me as it could possibly be, and thanks to all parties involved –Swire Properties, MTR and Aedas – it was, and I am really pleased with the end result. I also feel very honoured to be a part of such a brilliant collection of works within the MTR.
What were some key factors to consider in creating the mural?
I think the most important factor I had to consider was movement. I wanted the passengers to enjoy the experience of walking through my tunnel, but not feel the need to stop, so they could keep moving but still have an experiential time within it. I didn’t want the artwork to be too hectic, it had to be just dynamic enough that people would know it’s there and know it’s for them. I wanted to inject energy and new life into the Quarry Bay MTR station with a new dramatic mural to create a vibrant and vivid travelling experience that resonates with Hong Kong and offers a fresh engagement with the space.
How is it different to create art work for a public space versus a gallery?
When I am in my studio making work for an exhibition, the work is primarily for me. I don’t have to necessarily consider the viewer. As long as I am happy with the result, that's all that matters to me. However, when I'm creating works for public commissions and spaces, I have to and want to consider the viewer from the very beginning. Ultimately the finished public work belongs to the public. It becomes a part of their very fabric, whereas I may never see it again.
How has your work evolved over the years?
I started writing graffiti in 1984 after seeing the book Subway Art. I began painting walls and trains with my name and continued to do so until the mid-’90s, when I became bored of simply writing my name and found myself hugely influenced by the more abstract graffiti artists like Futura, Juice126 and Rammellzee. So I stripped everything away from my letter paintings, I took away all the colour, the peripherals and decorative aspects and started painting purely black, wild-style letters on walls. I then began to fragment the letter shapes into forms and started playing with negative space a lot more, and the work became more and more abstract until there were only shapes and forms left. As I reintroduced colour back into my work, the compositions changed yet again, and since then I have been experimenting more and more with the kind of forms that really intrigue me.
How has graffiti or street art evolved over the past few years? Has the perception of it changed in the art world?
Graffiti has evolved immensely into one of the most important movements of the 20th century. Not only is it the only art movement in history to have been created by and carried forward by children, but it is the only movement that has the letter form as its core narrative. That in itself is mind blowing. Being at Art Basel this year definitely confirmed to me that artists from my genre are beginning to push through. Seeing people Like Kaws, José Parlá and Clare Rojas being a part of the conversation and exhibiting work in some of the world’s biggest galleries is an important step. But I sometimes think the “art world” is perhaps still a little nervous about us. They just need to find the right narrative and, above all, make sure the history of this movement isn’t diluted because that is its greatest strength.
Admire the artwork for yourself in the walkway of Quarry Bay MTR station’s Exit A. Want to experience more art and culture? Check out our story on the top four galleries in the Eastern District here.