Public Art in Hong Kong

Cheung, Wai Ting Stephanie 張慧婷
Supervisor: Prof. David Clarke and Prof. G.M. Thomas

Contextualized with the global (American-centred) public art discourse, related practices in China, and growing interest in the local public at a time of political change, this thesis examines public art in Hong Kong between the mid 1990s and early 2000s. The social and political context of Hong Kong makes this study an important example contributing to the international discourse of public art and challenging our understanding of that discourse.

An emerging interest in art in the public realm is spotted at the historical moment of Hong Kong’s handover. A public performance by Pun Sing-lui, the Pillar of Shame, the Forever Blooming Bauhinia, the Monument in Commemoration of Hong Kong Reunification with China and the Hong Kong Tripod illustrate how art played a part in the obsessive contestation of public meanings. The examples reveal that the “public” was a discursive sphere, where empowered discourses (directed by agents with power over whatever form of public space – physical, political, the press, etc.) contended with one another. Art was instrumental as it configured opinions and imagination.

In the first few years after the establishment of the Special Administration Region, public art was pursued for fashioning, representing or rethinking the local public character. The municipal “Public Art Scheme,” the Mass Transit Railway’s “Art in Stations,” Artist Commune’s painting on electricity supply boxes project, Kacey Wong’s City Space – Mysterious Art Installation in the City, Sabrina Fung’s Art Windows, Siu King-chung and Howard Chan’s Home Affairs, and Young Hay’s Landscape demonstrated a variety of approaches: installing art in physical public space, temporarily annexing public space and approaching the public as a subject of inquiry. This methodological variety was conditioned by the agents’ varied levels of access to public space and has two implications: when space is all owned, as in the present case, public art has to negotiate with spatial confines for public connection; thus public art, in no definite form, can be interpreted as an orientation towards the public in any form of art.

This orientation can also be found in general art practices. Seen in perspective of modernism’s art for art’s sake and contemporary art’s rekindled interest in real life, Kwok Mang-ho’s advocacy for art everywhere, Kith Tsang’s Hello! Hong Kong Part Four and his involvement with the June Fourth flower presentations to Cesar’s The Flying Frenchman, Young Hay’s Bonjour, Young Hay (after Courbet), So Yan-kei’s Bitter Gourd No. 5 and Memo, and Kacey Wong’s Drift City exemplify public orientations in works that are not specifically conceived as “public art.” Without presuming any positive relationship between art and the public, these works offer a critical view to the distance between the two paradigms. As the artists approached the paradigmatic divergemnce differently, the varying interfaces provoke different kinds of Foucauldian heterotopias, all reflective of the art-society relationship.

Public art, besides being an ideological category, is also a field for understanding the correlation between art and society. This survey on public art in Hong Kong calls for a new conception of art and new standards for evaluation.