Most arresting exhibit at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale

Most arresting exhibit at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale

An illegal structure on a Wan Chai rooftop makes for a thrilling piece of art

rooftop structureThe "suspension bridge on the prowl" that now sits on top of a Wan Chai tenement building.The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture opens this week with 50 fascinating exhibits in Kowloon Park.

For the riskiest and most surprising installation of all, pay a visit to the Wan Chai Visual Archive, where Dutch artist Frank Havermans has created an illegal rooftop structure that pays homage to the informal urbanism of Hong Kong.

“It's a metal creature that refers to rooftop structures, signboards and those hawker stalls you see around the city,” says Havermans. “They’re really haphazardly built, without any notions of design, but together they’re amazing. It’s a very Hong Kong thing.”

The structure, which was made by a metal shop around the corner from the Archive, will certainly attract attention.

Havermans’ description of it as a “creature” is apt: it looks like a suspension bridge on the prowl.

Made of iron, it has four legs and a spine held up by steel cables. Its snout is a retractable aluminum, glow-in-the-dark signboard -- shaped exactly like the Archive’s floorplan -- that will hang over the street.

The plan is to leave the structure on the roof of the Archive until the experiment is finished. “Then it will disappear with the building,” says Havermans. 

The building will eventually be torn down and replaced by a highrise hotel.

Forbidden but accepted

Havermans recently spent three months in Shenzhen, where he produced a series of five scrap-wood sculptures based on the old farming and fishing villages that can be found throughout the city.

After the creation of the Special Economic Zone in 1979, villagers tore down their houses and built tenements for migrant workers. Like a coral reef growing on the remains of a sunken ship, they are densely-packed, haphazardly organized and teeming with life in a city that is otherwise vast and rational.

Havermans found a parallel phenomenon in the informal urbanism of Hong Kong’s street markets, rooftop shacks and thickets of shop signs hanging over the streets.

“It has to do with self-organization,” he says. “In a place like this, every square inch is used. It might seem horrible to live in but it makes for a great city. It has an energy that you can feel.”

These urban layers often exist in the shadows of the law.

Hong Kong’s famous signboards are largely unregulated, many hawker stalls have been illegally modified beyond what the government allows and rooftop houses and squatter’s huts are completely illegal but tolerated by officials because they provide affordable housing in a city where property prices are soaring.

The concept of these things being technically forbidden but tacitly accepted is a key aspect of Havermans’ installation, which is being mounted on the Archive’s roof without permission from the government.

“Everyone is nervous,” says Havermans. “If we get a demolition order, that might be for the best, because it will start a discussion.”

rooftop structureThe sculpture draws attention as it makes its way to the rooftop.


The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture runs from February 15-April 23 in Kowloon Park. hkszbiennale.org

Frank Havermans’ Shenzhen sculptures and rooftop installations can be seen at the Wan Chai Visual Archive throughout the biennale. 5-9 Hing Wan Street, Wan Chai. The opening will be on February 19, 4 p.m. www.visualarchive.hk

More of Havermans’ work can also be seen at Saamlung’s new show, “No One to Hear You Scream,” from February 17 to March 31. 26B Two Chinachem Plaza, 68 Connaught Road Central. www.saamlung.com

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