So what about HK’s art scene? With no large monuments to art of great significance, it is bubbling up instead in gallery spaces. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps less convenient than having a MoMA or similar to descend upon and while away a full afternoon – with just a little digging, you can find increasingly well-curated pieces representing both local and international talent in HK’s smaller artistic venues. Central and Sheung Wan expectedly house many of the gallery offerings here, such as the well-known White Cube, Cat Street Gallery, Opera Gallery, and Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
But galleries are also cropping up in Sai Ying Pun, Chai Wan, Aberdeen, and Ap Lei Chau – even in very unexpected locations in the mostly corporate Quarry Bay area (ArtisTree) and most recently, at the new and somewhat oddly named Living Room Museum outside Times Square in Causeway Bay.
I often find that the most interesting aspect of art is how people respond to it, interact with it. To be successful, I believe a piece must move the viewer in some way, whether to elate, sadden, surprise, enlighten, elicit laughter, or inspire. And it’s never too early to encourage this influence – or is it?
One particularly positive element of HK’s art scene has been exhibits that intersect creativity with conservation-focused messages of awareness and hope, encouraging interaction (and action) – such as the Elephant Parade and 1600 Pandas moving exhibits that toured through HK over the past year. [Bonus points for cuteness (!) and mass appeal across generations.]
Asia is not uniformly known for protecting animals, and some countries are overtly poor at this. China is particularly guilty, with its insatiable, cruel, and infuriatingly wasteful appetite for some animal by-products that result in unspeakable animal population decimation and cruelty, such as ivory from elephants, black rhinoceros horn for ‘traditional’ (and completely unfounded) medicine, and shark fin for a pointless and tasteless ‘status soup’. Hence the plea behind the Elephant Parade – with key takeaways being to not purchase ivory products and to discourage others from doing so. If the demand dies down, so does the illegal ivory trade – allowing these gorgeous gentle giants to live in peace and once again thrive in the wild.
Consider the relative success story behind pandas. 1600 Pandas sought to increase awareness of their endangered status (1600 reflects the estimated number of pandas currently living in the wild) and highlight the importance of continued conservation efforts. Threats to their natural habitats, such as unbridled construction, are key reasons for their low numbers. However, while the number 1600 is concerning, it is at least quite a bit higher than estimates from the 1980s. Pandas prove that when China decides it wants to, it can play an enormous positive role – as it is their cooperation and protection that have allowed the bulk of panda populations to re-grow.
The ‘eco’ movement overall is one that is beginning to take hold in Hong Kong, and I think that’s a very good thing. Perhaps HK has become more sensitized to the importance of environmental considerations while observing the cost of economic expansion in the mainland (and literally experiencing its downstream effects, via increasing pollution). Thoughtful art and design can be powerful in this regard, both in their own development and the messages they communicate – and I’m hopeful that they will continue to influence and inspire.
Art fairs and festivals have also unsurprisingly gained HUGE popularity in Hong Kong. Art Basel is clearly the most famous of the bunch, with last year’s event a massive affair, featuring more Asian artists than the year prior. I think of it as my version of art-binging for the year. But there are also several other art events, including Fine Art Asia, Asia International Arts & Antiques Fair, Asia Contemporary Art Show, HK ArtWalk, Affordable Art Fair, and for performing arts, the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Springtime is art season in HK!
Sometimes great creative inspiration comes from the street. I’m sure some may disagree – but in my opinion, absence of traditional canvas material and protective glass do not automatically disqualify something from being ‘art’. But that’s another discussion for another day.
Hong Kong has only relatively recently begun to embrace street art. So I was quite surprised to stumble upon HKwalls, the city’s first street art festival, hosted on a series of walls throughout Sheung Wan. It’s not that common that you get to catch a street artist ‘in the act’, so while some might say this approach is a bit mainstream, I found the opportunity really enjoyable. And no, not because of all the paint fumes! Most of the work created during this event remains, and it’s brought a great dose of color and character to the ‘hood, offsetting and balancing Sheung Wan’s backdrop of traditional storefronts, antique shops, and galleries.
I still wondered where HK’s edgier set hung out, though. Or if they even existed. You know who I mean – the black-leather-and-combat-boot-wearing, tattoo-emblazoned, pierced-to-oblivion folks. Look, part of me has always sympathized with this group – just because they style themselves however the f&*$ they want, they are often marginalized for how they choose to look. As long as their appearance doesn’t represent a more sinister intent, I actually respect them for their lack of adherence to a more typically accepted dress code.
And I find some tattoos to be downright beautiful. Or at least really friggin’ impressive. I have a pretty high pain threshold, but I personally don’t have the cajones to squirm through a tattoo session.
So I was quite intrigued when I learned about HK’s annual Tattoo Convention. Ok, yes – maybe it sounds a bit, well, conventional. I mean, we’re talking tattoos, right? But it still was pretty cool to check out. I must admit, after getting caught up in all the energy at this festival, I was almost tempted to give it a go myself at one point – but that whim didn’t last long (more like a minute). Regardless, everyone was a good sport about having a non-participant in their midst – and quite proud to show off their new skin art. And it was a good reminder – just because someone’s sporting a tat, it doesn’t mean they’re not ‘family people’ or just like the rest of us in many other ways.
So what’s next for Hong Kong? From my perspective, it is looking to the future. Consistently cutting edge, it may not be (yet). But getting to that stage means first having an open mind, starting to think out of the box, and creating an infrastructure to incubate fresh ideas. The fact that TED (Technology Entertainment Design) has arrived in our own little ‘hood of Wan Chai signifies a small but important gaze to the future, spreading ideas and creative inspiration across a number of sectors. Hong Kong Design Centre‘s Business of Design Week annually looks at the power and evolution of design through the overlapping lenses of innovation, technology, business, branding, and culture – with the goal of designing a better tomorrow. Knowledge of Design Week is an annual forum that puts a practical spin on innovative design. And HK is a city that encourages innovative business – with a rapidly growing group of entrepreneurs supported by organizations like General Assembly, Nest, and CoCoon.
On the artistic front, the West Kowloon Cultural District is developing a number of visual and performing arts venues – for indoor and outdoor consumption. I am particularly excited about its contemporary visual arts museum, M+, to feature 20th and 21st century art, architecture, design, and the moving image. But – sigh – we’ll have to wait until 2018 for its complete unveiling.
So – HK is not New York. Or London. Or Beijing, Shanghai, or any other city. Nor should it try to be! The important thing is that HK move forward and continue to craft its own identity. I am hopeful it will keep on pressing its creative juices, embracing its talented outliers, and actively designing its exciting future with responsible innovation and cultural exploration (and evolution) in mind.
All images © 2015 deb fong photography