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artists carve out a place for themselves in public

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The only thing Hong Kongers do more quacks for than a giant puffy duck is two of them. This weekend, Florentijn Hofman’s 18-metre-tall bathtub fowl returned to the city a decade after its debut there, this time in doubles.

by Hofman rubber duck returns to a much changed Hong Kong, where light artotainment has become more mainstream even as the mood is heavier after the 2019 protests and their suppression, three years of strict zero Covid policies and mass emigration out of the territory.

Even as expression has become increasingly truncated, so has the appetite for art in public spaces as the last bastion of community spirit.
The streets of Hong Kong have been a site of cultural resistance since the 1950s, when Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the King of Kowloon, covered the city in his frenzied anti-colonial calligraphy.

Now, accessible outdoor facilities at local institutions provide a rare retreat from Hong Kong’s sparse public spaces, shrinking each year as authorities curb bustling weekend gatherings of migrant workers from Southeast Asia. Curated museum projects join a range of artists’ pop-up concepts and performances as well as cute murals and crowd-pleasing lined ducks.

March’s first arts week in Hong Kong since the lifting of zero-Covid policies included an exuberance of public projects, as well as public controversies; copies of Awol Erizku Gravity for sale on the Taobao e-commerce site and Patrick Amadon’s No rioters and Tyrrell Winston Dual Technique were censored.

Amadon’s video, displayed on a screen outside Sogo Causeway Bay, was taken down during the week after the artist revealed it was referring to imprisoned dissidents in Hong Kong. The Winston facility, a basketball court displaying the Winston tobacco brand installed at Central’s Landmark Mall, was covered up the following week due to civil umbrage that it might promote smoking.

Beyond Hong Kong’s affluent collector base, the city’s educated middle class has transformed into an art-enthusiastic audience, as evidenced by this year’s 86,000 public visitors to Art Basel Hong Kong ( March 23-25).

This year’s fair saw its Encounters, the curated section dedicated to large-scale works, spill over to the public for the first time, with Erizku’s 10-meter-tall inflatable King Tut placed in the mall’s atrium Central’s Pacific Place. It was “simply for practical reasons” of size, says Amanda Hon, the managing director of Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong, who brought the work.

“The Hong Kong government does not allow many areas for public exhibitions of artwork, and if they allow space for an artwork, we have to go through mountains of paperwork and layers of bureaucracy for which we just haven’t had enough time to sit and wait for approval. When the government doesn’t step in to help the arts, the local community in Hong Kong has to do it themselves,” Hon said. “We believed it was important to show art to the public and we did. That’s what makes Hong Kong special, we’re collaborating to make the whole art ecosystem work here, despite the obstacles .

Intended to premiere at the Art Basel edition in Hong Kong which was canceled in 2020, Gravity was secretly inflated last November, which sparked the idea of ​​putting it somewhere more spacious and accessible, says Encounters curator Alexie Glass-Kantor. Erizku, of Ethiopian descent and based in Los Angeles, plans to “make a publication from the work of Pacific Place; an artist’s book collecting photos of people taking selfies,” compiling some of the “tens and thousands of people” who photographed the installation in the never-closed, subway-connected location.

Glass-Kantor isn’t sure if offsite encounters will become a regular fixture, saying it depends on whether there are works that seem appropriate for public space. As a curator, I’m not interested in just putting stuff in the public space for the sake of being in public.

Pacific Place’s parent company, Swire Properties, has a long-running art space in the ArtisTree office building. Last March, the real estate developer exhibited the scholarly rocks of Hong Kong-based French artist Polo Bourieau. “What we tried to achieve in ArtisTree with urban rocks is to present and offer art in an alternative way, far from the commercial. “Art is for the people! And my work is just trying to reconnect people with the land, the meanings and…hopefully themselves,” says Bourieau. “Hong Kong is the most Chinese and yet the most universal city. Hope and the quest for universality are probably what Hong Kong reflects most in my work. Only when we recognize wounds and scars as historical traces can we design the maps of our desires.

At Polo Bourieau urban rocks were exhibited at ArtisTree Photo: © Pak Chung

Although the scars and protest art of 2019 have largely, if not entirely, been erased from the streets of Hong Kong, a stifled thirst for civil discourse remains, albeit redirected to safe, non-controversial art. “It takes all types of art to engage audiences,” Hon says. “Different works speak to different people and as they become more and more exhibited, people’s tastes can change. As long as the works make people think, go deeper and learn more about the art, I think that’s good.

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