Waste of space? Hong Kong's best and worst public art

Waste of space? Hong Kong's best and worst public art

8 of Hong Kong's public art pieces are brutally dissected by art critics

"Developing Hong Kong's creative industries" -- that's the new catchphrase for government and business leaders who are belatedly realizing that arts and culture can often translate into cash. The development of the West Kowloon Cultural District and the opening of new facilities like the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre represent a new era of government involvement in the arts.

What is that? — Venus Lau on the Statue Square fountains

But if Hong Kong really wants to be a city with an artistic soul and creative spirit, maybe it should start investing more in public art. Sure, there's plenty of public art scattered around the city. The problem, says art critic John Batten, is that most of it is bland, boring and calculated to be as safe and unprovocative as possible. "It's seen by people as decoration rather than art," he says. "If it was seen as art, the pieces would be braver."

Venus Lau, former arts editor, recently returned to Hong Kong to launch the Society for Experimental Cultural Production, a non-profit group dedicated to creating and critiquing cultural events around Hong Kong and Greater China. So far, the energy and innovation seen among young Hong Kong artists like Lee Kit (see our Hot List) and Chow Chun-fai isn't seen in the city's public art.

"Public art is more than some statues standing in front of the road or some public squares," says Lau. Instead of actual, thought-inspiring or emotionally stirring pieces of art, "a lot of public art in HK is closer to an ad in 3D form, or sometimes a monument for something that is non-monumental."

With that in mind, we decided to put Hong Kong's public art to the test, choosing eight prominent pieces from around town to show the critics. Here's what they had to say.

Golden Dragon

Located at the busy junction of Leighton Road, Morrison Hill Road and Wong Nai Chung Road, this giant gold dragon guards the entrance to Causeway Bay. It's also one of the most criticized public sculptures in Hong Kong.

Batten: "There's a lot of things that are bad about this, but it is what it is. It doesn't compromise itself like something that tries too hard to be art. It's totally kitsch but I don't mind it. It's the too-serious stuff that we should worry about. Besides, it's there for feng shui purposes, to make people feel happy and safe."

Lau: "As a person who has been in China and Hong Kong a lot, dragons arouse nothing but the question, 'Again?' The statue actually looks like one of those in a Chinese restaurant. And also, why do we have to begin our genealogy with a mythical creature?"


The Golden Bauhinia

Located outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, this sculpture of a gilded bauhinia flower was a gift from China to mark Hong Kong's handover in 1997. It's seen as a symbol of Hong Kong's return to the motherland and is especially popular with mainland tourists, who visit it by the busload.

Batten: "It's something that's highly symbolic. It's almost a sacred thing now. It's about Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. If anyone tried to desecrate it they'd be raked over the coals. Aesthetically it's awful. But it's moved away from the realm of aesthetics. It's a bit like going to an ugly church -- it's still a representation of faith. You've got to be careful about symbols."

Lau: "I think it makes sense to put [it] somewhere, just to remind the tourists or even some natives [of Hong Kong's handover], but it is not art to me.


The Happy Man

This massive sculpture created by renowned American artist Larry Bell has become a Mongkok landmark ever since it was erected as part of the Langham Place development in 2005. It weighs 2,700 kilograms and is made of bronze. Though the public are allowed to sit at its base, a security guard is permanently stationed next to sculpture to prevent people from touching it, and fences are erected around it every night.

Batten: "I've been here long enough to remember what was there before Langham Place -- the bird market. It destroyed something which was very important to Hong Kong. So I can't stand it. As for the sculpture, they've put it somewhere that has no connection to what's around it."

Lau: "It's a Larry Bell piece -- his "cube" is way cooler -- yet I don't know why it reminds me of Jonathan Borofsky. Maybe because he made a lot of gigantic statues titled 'XX man'."


The Red Box

This installation in Shatin Town Hall Plaza is exactly what its name implies: a big red box. It's part of the City Art Square, a collection of sculptures and installations scattered around the parks and plazas just outside the Shatin New Town Mall.

Batten: "It's a red box. You're being safe. But it feels like it's got something to it. It's appropriate to the space, you can touch it and sit in there, so it works better than the sculpture at Langham Place. I don't mind it. It's like a typical Hong Kong apartment but with more windows."

Lau: "It is nice that people can have somewhere to sit."


AIDS Ribbon

Located in Kowloon Park right behind the Kowloon Mosque, this sculpture was erected in 1997 to commemorate the victims of HIV and AIDS. It was created by Van Lau, an influential member of the old guard of Hong Kong arts, who is responsible for many of the city's other sculptures.

Batten: "Van Lau is part of an older generation of artists who had almost a monopoly on public art for awhile. This is obviously something that was done and then nobody had any idea what to do with it. The placement makes no sense. It could have been placed in front of a hospital but now it has no meaning to it. Give me the gold dragon instead of this any day."

Lau: "As part of the AIDS campaign, it is a good thing to have, it is educational, but not in the sense of art."


Statue Square fountains

Even though they're probably the city's most prominently-located pieces of art, not much information is available about these sculptures, which were installed as part of Statue Square's 1960s renovation.

Batten: "I love this. They're very under-appreciated. I've always found Statue Square very odd because the pavilions have a sort of Thai look. They're abstract art. Hong Kong has a thing about abstract art -- you don't offend anyone. It's safe. But these are a good representation. The problem is that they are badly positioned and the pools around them are too big. Also, I'm sure this is under threat because someday someone will think they're too old-looking and take them away."

Lau (clearly not a fan of Modernist kitsch): "WHAT IS THAT?"


West Kowloon light pillars

Part of the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, which opened in 2003, these light pillars can be seen from across the harbour. Each one functions as a windchime and many are decorated with Chinese calligraphy and paintings from various Hong Kong artists.

Batten: "They're obviously done on a budget. Most people visit West Kowloon during the day and in the light they're just ugly. It's a shame because it's a great space with great vistas. It sort of buys into a lot of things that I've been complaining about: it's abstract, amorphous, homogeneous. But maybe they're just working within their budget."


Water Buffalo

The pair of water buffaloes hanging out in the fountains atop the podium of Exchange Square come courtesy of the late British artist Elisabeth Frink. Like much of the public art in Central, they were commissioned by real estate developers, rather than the government.

Batten: "This would be a very effective sculpture, except it's on a very cold, harsh podium. It would be fantastic if they ripped it all out and put some grass down. The context is the downfall of this sculpture. But people love it because water buffalo are lovely. It's the environment that needs work here."

Lau: "It reveals a sad truth -- modern people view animals as either food, pets or art."

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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