When statues of naked men appeared across Central last year, perched on the edges of skyscrapers, the police were flooded with calls from residents fearing suicide risks. As part of Antony Gormley's public art installation Event Horizon
, these 31 fibreglass statues were labelled a number of adjectives, including disturbing, outrageous and frightening. They were also clearly confusing to the general population – one sculpture at street level on the Queen's Road Central footpath was deemed an 'obstruction' by the Highways Department, leading them to construct a temporary barricade around it after a resident complained.
Hong Kong’s cautious lawmakers must have been biting their fingernails over the drama, perhaps even questioning the merits of the controversial project they had approved. For the city’s cultural commentators, however, the palaver did nothing more than highlight the city’s dire need for more public art.
“These wrong kinds of reactions to Event Horizon showed just how immature the citizens are in regard to public art,” says cultural commentator Kai-yin Lo. “Gormley’s Event Horizon is a path-finding public art project. More projects need to follow—and soon.”
But how does public art differ from any other kind of art? The difference is that these works have been planned and executed with the intention of being publicly exhibited, usually outdoors and accessible to everyone. The phenomenon is as old as civilisation itself, but before the 20th century it generally took the form of majestic monuments to leaders and resplendent religious art — propagandistic works for church and state.
Public art came into its own in the mid-20th century as contemporary artists vied to create surprising, confronting and cathartic pieces after the Second World War. Since then, quality public art has become a mainstay of thriving cultural centres. Projects like the Fourth Plinth commission in London, Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi Beach in Sydney, and sculpture trails in Bilbao, Spain and Chicago’s Millennium Park draw thousands of visitors every year. Spurring rich dialogue within communities, they have undoubtedly elevated the profile of cities on the world stage.
Whether permanent or temporary, commissioned publicly or privately, the best public art draws on its context and resonates with the community in which it sits. Lo notes that Gormley’s Angel of the North (near Gateshead in the UK), for example, has “given a definitive lift to the area and has become a symbol of regeneration for an otherwise dull and grey district.”
Tim Marlow, director of artistic programmes at the Royal Academy of Arts, has never subscribed to the view that art is “good for you” and that it should be prescribed like medicine in a “nanny-knows-best” way. However, he does think a good approach to public art can create a more dynamic city, saying, “It creates space and adds focal points. This helps build civic pride and quality of life.”
Attempts to define the value of public art are inevitably lofty and abstract. Its benefits to society are not easily quantifiable, which may explain why Hong Kong — a business mecca where the bottom line is top of mind and land is at a premium — has been so reticent to embrace it.
In many ways, it has become the prerogative of private institutions and individuals to fill the void — a mission not without its challenges. When Rainy Chan, general manager of The Peninsula Hong Kong, appealed to the government to approve plans to exhibit Richard Wilson’s bus sculpture Hang on a Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea on the facade of her hotel last year, she was met with mass confusion.
Chan says, “Our project did not fit into any government department category. We would send the application to one government department and they would say, ‘Oh, no, this is not us.’ So we’d go to the next one and they would say the same thing. So we had to knock on literally every door to figure out where we had to go exactly. That took a long time. The government had never seen anything like it.”
No one understands the hurdles better than art consultants Levina Li-Cadman and Sarah Pringle. After helping Rainy Chan in her mission, they were called upon by Antony Gormley and the British Council as fixers for Event Horizon.
“It took a lot of people to make something that has never happened in this city happen,” says Pringle of the Gormley project.
Event Horizon was three years in the planning and was stymied numerous times — first by the withdrawal of major sponsor Hongkong Land, who backed out following the suicide of a banker who jumped from a Central building, then by an incredibly drawn out government approval process.
“Most major cities have a public art planning policy in place. Here, we had to consult all government departments and seek written permission from eight of them,” says Li-Cadman. “If any department had disapproved, the project wouldn’t have happened.”
In the end, the British Council made an appeal directly to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who saw value in the project.
“She is very supportive of creativity,” says Pringle. “If it wasn’t for her, Event Horizon wouldn’t have happened.”
However, a bigger question is: do Hongkongers now have a greater appetite for vibrant public art initiatives, particularly considering the degree of investment they entail?
Image caption (from left to right):
1. Photo credit: Oak Taylor-Smith
2. Mirage by Deirdre Mair and Harry Stitt featured in Sydney's 2015 Sculpture by the Sea
3. Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock was displayed in London's Trafalgar Square as part of the Fourth Plinth programme in 2013
4. Richard Wilson's Hang on a Minute Lads, I've Got a Great Idea on The Peninsula in 2015
5. Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege, a full-size replica of Stonehenge, featured in the Mobile M+ exhibition Inflation! in 2013
6. Photo credit: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Original article written by Madeleine Ross for Hong Kong Tatler