Art in Hong Kong

Most discussions of art in Hong Kong draw back to the description “cultural desert” a term so overused that no one can really be sure how or by whom the term was coined.  We are not about to add to this already tedious debate.  Whatever its origins, the perception of Hong Kong as a place lacking in culture has not stopped creative individuals and enterprises in the city from doing what they do.

The Hong Kong Government, attempting to rationalize and measure the creativity of Hong Kong society, produced two unrelated research projects that were conducted separately and published around the same time.  In 2005, the Home Affairs Bureau (“HAB”) produced a so-called “creativity index”[i], which overlapped with a study published around the same time by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (“HKADC”), established as a statutory body in 1995 to support the broad development of the arts, on “Hong Kong Arts and Cultural Indicators”.[ii]

Both studies identified the importance of “creative capital” of different types, including “structural/institutional, human, social, cultural and creative”[iii] and the “creative economy”.  Within the HAB study, art stated to be one of eleven different types of “creative industry”, the others being advertising, architecture, antiques and crafts, design, digital entertainment, film and video, music, performing arts, publishing, software and computing, television and radio. 

The HAB study found progressive growth in human capital, social capital and cultural capital, but found that whilst the structural/institutional environment was conducive to creativity, it had, as of 2005, become stagnant.  Fast forwarding to 2013, this somewhat negative verdict can be somewhat rehabilitated as the prospect of the new West Kowloon Cultural District draws closer to being built.  However, one of the assumptions that the HAB study provocatively attempted to dispel was:

Contrary to the common assumption that creativity is a spontaneous activity that happens inside our brain while activities such as handling tools, exchanging ideas in discussion or acquiring 
and transforming domain knowledge are peripheral to the "internal mental process" (Bryan Lawson, 1980), creativity takes place indeed in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a socio-cultural context (M. Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).  Interaction with other people, institutions and societal structures that embody knowledge and resources are therefore important contributors to the creative act.[iv]

Once the immediate indignation aroused by the dislocation of the artist from the top of the creative tree has subsided, one has to acknowledge, grudgingly, that creativity, is indeed influenced by interaction with others and institutions and societal structures.  In short, creativity does not exist in a vacuum, but what can we say about these so-called “contributors to the creative act” described so clinically in the HAB study from an art practitioner’s point of view? 

Being Creative

Whether by birth or by choice, whatever the reason for being in Hong Kong, the city itself cannot fail to have a profound effect upon the people who live and work within its boundaries.  The data produced by the government studies mask the complex nature of Hong Kong’s relationship with its creative communities.  These “contributors to the creative act” the interaction with others and with institutions and societal structures belie the reality that art as a career is not for the faint hearted, particularly in Hong Kong.  In common with other cities, Hong Kong does not make it easy to be an artist and, as one of the most expensive cities of the world, the most obvious deterrent to developing a sustainable art practice is financial.  The majority of artists in Hong Kong have part-time or full time jobs, pursuing other careers for example in teaching, commercial design, and advertising.  The full time artist is a rare animal in Hong Kong and in spite of the data-based conclusions of the creativity index on the growth of human capital, art as a full time occupation is possible only for the very few who have managed to achieve a measure of commercial success.

The institutions which traditionally underwrite creativity in the visual arts, the museums, non-profit organisations, private arts foundations and commercial galleries remain chronically underdeveloped, entrenched in restrictive collection policies, are underfunded or even absent altogether from the Hong Kong cultural landscape.  One might say that creativity in Hong Kong exists despite these contributors to the creative act.  For those for whom the imperative to make art still remains indefatigable, despite the lack of financial incentive, it seems that the “contributors to the creative act” lie elsewhere and not with the institutions.   Creative individuals in Hong Kong have continued to find ways to make new work by navigating past Hong Kong’s perceived limitations through a combination of perseverance, pragmatism and resourcefulness.  For example, in the absence of institutional support, the 1990s saw the formation of independent artist-run organizations such as 1a space andPara/site, creating in the words of one of Para/Site’s founders, artist and landscape architect Sara Wong, “a space that could not have been imagined before” outside the Hong Kong museum system.  Also, in the presence of institutional support, Hong Kong has seen the curious emergence of another category of institution, art spaces created by brand owners and property developers that operate ostensibly as independent art spaces.  Examples include the opening of the Agnes B Librarie Galerie over a decade ago, the first outside Paris, a short-lived incarnation of Benetton’s Fabrica art space, the Espace Louis Vuitton and Swire Properties’ Artistree.

The studies make no reference to the profound effect of Hong Kong itself as a contributor to the creative act.  Any attempt to reach a consensus on the definition of Hong Kong is generally doomed to failure.  Some are struck by the apparent hybridity inherent in some aspects of Hong Kong culture, the blending of East and West in, for example, the Chinese-style Western food served by that Hong Kong institution the cha chaan teng.  In his recent project Wun Dun (2013) for the Absolut Art Bureau at Art Basel Hong Kong, described as an “art bar installation”, Adrian Wong populates his pastiche of a Hong Kong bar with fish tanks, hard, utilitarian formica booths, fantastical animatronic musicians and surly waiting staff serving oolong tea vodka cocktails.

The density of Hong Kong’s built environment has been a source of fascination for artists both local artists and artists from abroad.  The urban topography of one of the most densely populated places on earth has influenced the work of artists in various ways, from Kacey Wong’s Drift City (2000 – 2013) series depicting a “soon to be forgotten skyscraper” in search of an ideal city and So Hing Keung’s series of hand worked Polaroid images of the urban landscape.  In Sara Wong’s performance video work Local Orientation (1998), the artist located the Para/site art space on a map from which she extended four straight lines which she then attempted to trace on foot, traversing public spaces, negotiating physical obstacles and access to and through private spaces and semi-private spaces.  These projects are characterized by a profound emotional engagement with the subject matter in contrast to the seeming objectivity demonstrated in the landscape photographs of German artists Andreas Gursky and Michael Wolf.

Other artists are concerned with the more abstract nature of Hong Kong culture and society.  Hiram To’s Fortune Landscapes (2011) considers the erosion of the distinction between Hong Kong and the Hong Kong of Hollywood cliché.  The work questions the self-reflexive nature of Hong Kong’s identity, layering images from the first Hollywood film to be shot in Hong Kong with ikebana flower arranging templates from the 1960s owned by the artist’s mother.

Adrian Wong’s Umbrellahead: I Will Find You (2010) is a curious 30 minute theatrical production based on the life of Hollywood silent movie starlet Lei Mei who lived in the Western District, recalled through interviews with residents of the area who knew her or knew of her by reputation.  Referencing Hong Kong’s many histories and the power of collective memory, Lei Mei’s hunger for fame and resulting dissolute lifestyle eventually led to her committal to a mental asylum in her later years.  It was not until research had made significant progress that the artist discovered that Lei Mei had never existed and that the character had been fabricated as a morality tale in the 1950s, yet her existence had attained the status of fact.

The HAB’s study concludes that creativity is not a spontaneous activity that happens inside our brain, neutralizing and reducing the importance of the creative individual.  Institutional intervention and interactions with societal structures undoubtedly play a significant role both as constraints upon and facilitators of the creative act.   If Hong Kong’s creativity index were to be measured now 2013, it would undoubtedly reflect the sea change in attitudes towards art in Hong Kong amongst the general population over the last half decade.  The vindication of Hong Kong as a commercial art hub over the last two to three years with the opening of prestigious international commercial galleries and the advent of Art Basel, has, to a limited extent, helped to raise the profile of artists in Hong Kong.  However, the perception amongst artists themselves is that opportunities remain scarce with some even seeking to have their projects realised outside Hong Kong.  In spite of this, the city continues to have a profound effect upon its creative communities, driving and inspiring the creation of new work despite the less than ideal environment.  Creative individuals will still continue to find some way to do what they do, despite the odds.

The Art of Branding 

One notable feature of art in Hong Kong is the relationship between art and branding, with brands using art as a marketing tool.  In his multiple roles as artist, writer, curator and manager of corporate communications for a fashion distributor in Great China, we asked Hiram To whether he considers this relationship to be unique to Hong Kong and if so, what he thinks has shaped this relationship.

The connection between art and commercial marketing is tricky. The values rarely align and it's often the brand and the marketing team who are calling the shots. It's all down to education and insights but there are often too many forces of power at work.

The relationship between art and branding is naturally not exclusive to Hong Kong.  As to what has shaped this relationship, elevating brand value through cultural products, and in particular through contemporary art is the way that many high-end brands try inject an aura of luxury around their goods. The way that contemporary art is positioned today, between popular global tabloids, art auctions, art fairs and the China economic boom, definitely shapes the manner in which it is perceived.  

If you want to approach this relationship from a commercial perspective, the resulting media attention for many events that take place here could be deemed 'spectacular' from a US and European standpoint.  There is an unspoken formula as to how brands and the marketing sector approach marketing, public relations events and how they harness coverage in the face of the incredibly 'seasoned' or 'hardnosed' Hong Kong media.  You have to take into account that there's little out there they haven't seen before. 

From an artistic standpoint, I'm often appalled by what many marketing people or brands may put out as 'art' in association with their brands. It's not that the 'art' is poor; it is not really 'art' to begin with and such 'art' is unlikely to help their brands elevate their brand values. Hiram To

Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2013  

A modified version of this essay was published under the title "The Future of Creativity" as part of the Marc + Chantal "Insights" series in June 2013.

[i] Home Affairs Bureau, A Study on Creativity Index, November 2005, accessed 2 June 2013, http://www.uis.unesco.org/culture/Documents/Hui.pdf

[ii] International Intelligence on Culture and Cultural Capital Ltd., Hong Kong Arts & Cultural Indicators – Final Report October 2005, accessed 2 June 2013 http://www.hkadc.org.hk/rs/File/info_centre/reports/200510_hkartnculture_report.pdf

[iii] ibid. 17

[iv] Home Affairs Bureau, A Study on Creativity Index, 26-27