Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Media Art of Korean Artist Lee Lee-nam

Lee Lee-nam (李二男) at Hong Kong Arts Centre, February 2011.

Lee’s video art starts from 1'00" to the end.

My Aim is True (?)

‘Moon Jar’, 2011.  Observation of plant setting
amidst change of seasons.

As proclaimed from the above RTHK programme, Lee Lee-nam wanted to use his works to inspire viewers on the elusive domain of imagination.  Yet it was such an irony that room for inspiration from the exhibition was blatantly lacking.  The changing sequences of the four seasons, frequently used in his works, were predictable and awe-inspiring to the level of watching TV weather report.

Ten minutes of media art by Lee Lee-nam.

Visual Effects shadowing Avatar
More than 60 video Installations at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
(Photo source: siuyee-utpoia.blogspot.com)

With video works using arbitrary pictorial references from Dürer, Vermeer, Klimt, Magritte and other classical oriental painters, Lee also deployed an exhausting list of contemporary signifiers including jet fighters, skyscrapers, cityscapes, banknotes, Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson, to name but a few.  The professionally made flashy imageries cooked up as Pixar-esque visual effects, like many cartoon movies, stimulus rather than inspiration was dominant.  There was poetics of very low order.  The videos almost transpired enough provocation to smash the screens.

Too Polite to Disagree
Video Installations spreading 2 floors.
(Photo source: siuyee-utpoia.blogspot.com)


Lee claimed that he tried to bridge the cultural gap between East and West as demonstrated in ‘Encounter of Gyumjae and Van Gogh’ (refer to RTHK video above).  It was a nice idea but not a license to trivializations.  If someone agrees with me but is too kind to contest against the works, it is usually along the premises of cultural chasms that are being explained.  It is regrettable but I object to this stream of thought no matter how considerate they are.  In the realm of contemporary art, there is very little deviation in judging between good and bad art; cultural dimension only adds on to its context not quality.

Globalization of Superficiality
(official photo from Hakgojae Gallery)

Though a non-believer myself but inspired by the Vatican's polemic above, are we in the age that if you do things persistently, no matter the quality, you will one day be accepted?  And with further perseverance, some day these works might be given credit for?  At least the trend is we seem to accept superficiality as a norm.

Big Business of Media Art
(Official photo from Hakgojae Gallery)

Apart from the bulk of the video installations, I was impressed by the well printed catalogue with 51 pages of colour illustrations.  It was another expensive outgoing for a public exhibition, one that I have not seen for a long time.  Bearing in mind, Lee’s works can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and even on-line auction houses.  Electronic applications are being developed by the Korean venture capital company - Ideatory, so that smart phone users worldwide can download Lee’s videos at a price.  It does not take an accountant to work out that Lee’s balance sheet needs no one to worry about.

Click to find review on Korean photography exhibition.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Walk of Public Sculptures in Hong Kong

The Misunderstood Frenchman

‘The Flying Frenchman’, originally named as ‘The Freedom Fighter’ by the French sculptor César Baldaccini, 1991.  With a whiff of conundrum, the plaque only attributes the sculpture to a name called César.

Originally a very powerful message, the artwork has been widely misread against its symbolic support for democracy in Hong Kong.  With 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in context, the bronze fighter stands precariously with one overscaled unbroken wing.  It was meant to be called “The Freedom Fighter”, but under pressure from the government, the Cartier Foundation succumbed to the request and adopted the bemusing name of ‘The Flying Frenchman’ (翺翔的法國人).  Cesar Baldaccini (1921-1998) should have known there would be compromises from commercial patrons even in the likes of Cartier.

Update: On June 4 of recent years, the sculpture has turned into a locus where candle-lit gatherings for victims of the massacre are organized.

On June 4, 2014, the open piazza at the Cultural Centre, 
Hong Kong was renamed as 'Freedom Fighter Square' in commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Simple Minds

‘Man-n-Ox 1’ by Elizabeth Frink at the Exchange Square, 1985.

‘Man-n-Ox 2’ by Elizabeth Frink at the Exchange Square, 1985.

The ‘Man-n-Ox 1 and 2’ by the English sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993) have the simplicity of effective communication with the audience.  The sturdy postures, oxidized patinas and Asian looks are appealing and consistent with Frink’s naturalistic approach.  Of course their vicinity with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is a remarkable reference that charms the general public.

‘Growth’ by Norman Ko (高華文) in 1999, is a local piece with lyricism that communicates effectively.  The bronze work is found at the Hong Kong University main entrance.

The Meanest Touch

‘The Silhouette City’ by Raymond Fung (馮永基),
City Hall of Central, 2009.

It might not be regarded as a sculpture were it not be named and attributed to.  The architect’s work looks innocent enough if one does not delve deeper into the original motive intended by the relevant department.  The metal sheets in the shape of sitters are meant to block up any potential sleepers on the benches.  To the government officials, anyone lying on the benches in public is an eyesore that must be eradicated.  The architect’s solution is a successful charade that cosmetizes the hidden agenda.  Sometimes I find an architect can do more misdeeds than an uncaring government.  He(she) knows what is against his(her) belief but completes the task according to "due diligence and professional good practices".

The New Temple
Mainland tourists posing nonchalantly in front of the sculpture.

‘The Golden Bauhinia’ is arguably the most photographed sculpture by visitors from the mainland.  The reactions Hong Kong people have from the piece are completely at odds with these visitors, in a nutshell the former a bag of mixed emotions whilst the latter straightforward euphoria and pride.  It is the most politically charged sculpture but with very little artistic value.  The author of the sculpture is nowhere to be found ever on the internet, a non-standard practice perhaps common in China.

The Ugliest One.  Would it ever be removed?

Sculpture sitting on segmented granite base, giving away
its poor execution.  Notice the miniscule fountain near the base, the strangest combination of scale and proportion.

Again without citing its author, the China piece was unveiled by the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong in 2003.  Bizarre practice of attribution indeed.

Another golden piece of work that reveals its China origin is the ‘Coiling Dragon’ (蟠龍) located in Wanchai.  It bears no relationship with the surrounding.  We have no idea under what selection process the sculpture was erected in place.  Despite all benevolent explanations one can imagine for its existence in Hong Kong, it is still the worst eyesore in years to come. 

Blood Sucking Art

‘Happy Man’ by Larry Bell at Langham Place, Mongkok, 2004.

‘Rooting Tree’ (都市一隅) by Lee Chin Fai (李展輝) at
K-11 Mall.  It looks like a cheap bric-a-brac from
dollar shop in gigantic scale.

The Business circle especially the developers have jumped the bandwagon of art appreciation.  The above two sculptures are only part of the many that have sprouted up in many open plazas owned by developers.  The reason, of course, is the upcoming giant commercial development opportunities in the West Kowloon cultural hub.  It is the art portfolios the prominent developers seek to accumulate before jostling for the ultimate deal with the government.  A growing number of local artists have already been feeding from these ever expanding blood sucking property moguls.  Why this antagonistic attitude?  The hegemony of developers is stifling all independent small businesses including those in creative industries.

Talk of The Town

The Red Box by Barrie Ho, City Art Square of Shatin, 2008.

Another local representative of works in the Shatin sculpture garden.  The piece seems to embed the most talked about subject in the territory, ie. obsession in realty.  With a dingy interior and some restrictive openings, it resembles our domestic environs that the public are glad to take shelter in.  On a different note, it borders on being a design work than an art piece, a huge difference yet slipping away in recent years.

The Least Fashionable - Endangered Species at Statue Square

Unusual porcelain sculpture; a rich interplay of colours,
 texture and cultural references.

Heavy relief sculpture with modernist overtones,
the expanse of length is breathtaking.

On a quiet day, the cascades of running water make music to the ears.  The two abstract art pieces in a rare water setting used to be an icon of the 50’s and 60’s.  Through years of urban development all over, this well-known piazza has its content much overlooked by the public.  It is to the extent that no explanatory plates can be located except the name of ‘Alan Fitch’ and ‘Cascades’ at are found at obscure corners.  No relevant details are traceable from the government sources and the internet.  Fortunately the sculpture and the landscaped setting are still very well preserved today.

One Hit Wonder

‘Tai Chi Single Whip - 太極單鞭’ at the Hong Kong Academy of Performance Arts, 1986.

‘Living World’ series at Times Square, 2006. 
Good example of bad taste.

This variation from the ‘Tai Chi’ series by the Taiwanese Sculptor Ju Ming (朱銘) can be summed up as “you see one, you see all”.  The self-styled artist made a fortune by selling these ‘Tai Chi’ sculptures worldwide.  He even opens up a museum for his own works in Taiwan.  Not only losing the magic touch as some critics might put it, but as demonstrated above on his later works, it is a fair comment to ask if this man is a capable artist.

The Local Mandate

‘Windsurfing’ (滑浪風帆) by Choi Kai Yan (蔡啟仁) in Cheung Chau, 1996.  The metal parts and paints are in a severe state of disrepair during recent visit.

‘Contact’ (緣的交往) by Leung Kui Tin (梁巨廷) at the
City Hall Memorial Garden, 2002.

Here are two examples of local sculptures that tried to break mode.  Both attempted to explore the local idioms to create new styles of expressions, in these cases calligraphic strokes, dragon motif, wind-surfing imagery etc.  However the results are less than satisfactory in visual appeals and poetry; their physical configurations and colour arrangements are whimsical regardless of the ethnic origin of the viewer.  Though it is a step in the right direction, more rigorous efforts are expected from the artists.  To be honest, more scrutiny might be required from the commissioning body in order that other artists can have fairer opportunities.

The Copycat with Ominous Touch

 Unnamed work at Kwun Tong Promenade by unnamed architect, 2010.

‘Homentage a la Barceloneta’ at Barcelona beach front by
Rebecca Horn, 1992.

You are bound to find some rip-offs somewhere.  The apocalyptic play of disjointed parts can perhaps be read as an outcry against the mighty developers.  It is the only message I manage to interprete.  Of course in Hong Kong, we have the ever present LED flash neons and sharp finishes that differ from the subdue Cor-ten original.

We are waiting

Public art competition for the Tamar project.

Much anticipation is eyed on the selection of sculptures for the new Government Headquarters through competition held earlier.  With a positive frame of mind, I hope they could ignite a new generation of sculptures by local artists.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Central Oasis – A Self-deceiving Game (May 2015 Update)

(A courteous version appeared in South China Morning Post in April 2011)

Heaven in Mind
Central Market with title of preconceived ideas on design regeneration.

The charismatic leaders: Barry Cheung - Chairman of the URA and Carrie Lam - Secretary for Development, attending the project reception in North Korean style.

Something better left undone if it has been idle for a long time.  This might also be true in the case of the Central Market building.  On 1 April, 2011, the second public opinion survey under the exercise of “Design Concept Roving Exhibition” was launched by COCAC (the Central Oasis Community Advisory Committee).  The first public survey was carried out in February 2010.  Previously to all this, there had been numerous consultations, be they formal and informal, professional or amateur, on the fortune of the disused building since 2003.

Public Survey with Populist Intents
Road show of 4 design schemes to collect public opinions. 
Is it an honest survey of preferences or manipulation of data?

The latest survey, under the ubiquitous title of “Central Oasis”, is perhaps the dumbest but definitely the most deterministic I have seen.  Considering the general public with limited knowledge on building regeneration, the title has all the suggestive connotation of a leafy sanctuary in an undesirable surrounding.  With a more neutral name, for instance, Central Market Re-vitalization Proposal, public responses or indeed solutions from architects might have been less restrictive.  Sadly in the roving exhibition, we are presented with four architectural schemes that have little difference among each other.

4 Architectural Schemes with little to remember
 Scheme 1 observations:
Proposal eager to embrace planting all over the place. 

Scheme 1 interior:
Multi-media and butterfly glass house as odd neighbors
 in the middle.

Scheme 2 concept:
Greenery again, this time as plant wall.  The architect even pushes this contrived idea of gateway as architectural concept.  He should be sent back to architectural school for training.

Scheme 2 interior:
Apart from atrium, we have the LED screen and shops that complete the familiar Hong Kong mall concoction.

Scheme 3 observations:
Fashion victim with the design methodology of magazine flipping.

Scheme 4 in section:
Obvious question on exceedingly heavy loads due to
planting soil and swimming pool on the existing roofs.

 Scheme 4 observations:
TFP have seen many well preserved projects in the UK.  The British practice seems not to be very enthusiastic to add “features” to the existing building.  One has to admire the British common sense approach.

Scheme 4 interior:
It is the only scheme to have reinstated the food market; to me, still the best activity for the building and the neighbourhood.

To summarize, all of them have an overwhelming dispersion of greenery almost to the point of excessive.  It is so tokenistic that they look like a Fosteresque West Kowloon project on a smaller scale.  There are also the unmistakable atria with skylights that resemble our familiar shopping podium.  The four architects are so afraid to upset the general public that a jumbo mix of activities, active and passive, are loaded into the building.  In terms of functional arrangement, there is no particular vision I can deduce from the schemes.  One has serious doubts that the 3-storey building can accommodate so much activity considering all relevant supportive areas have not been accounted for.

Most Stupid Public Survey under the Sun
Partial view of the public survey on the 4 schemes.  It takes some idiot to design and some to accept such these stupid questions.  If not, it is an evidence to evade responsibility in case something goes wrong.

Why do we have to go through stage after stage of consultations and public surveys?  Has the committee little confidence to choose the best from an open competition?  Knowing that COCAC was closely affiliated with the Urban Renewal Authority, the public body much criticized for producing ultra-expensive realty projects with developers, we can speculate that that the authority cannot afford to take any blame in case the final building were not a popular one.  Just as the 2011-12 budget policy, the authority, likened to the government, is ready to succumb to populist demands instead of making critical judgment. 

Let Collective Memory Rest in Peace
We might be pushing too hard to re-create the magic
when the conditions have vanished.

It might be politically incorrect but given the above analysis, it rekindles the unwelcome question:  Do we really need to preserve the Central Market building in the first place?  If one studies the few lines of flimsy description from the exhibition booklet on the building: “It is an example of the Streamline Moderne architecture, and is characterized by slim horizontal lines and functionalism.  In particular, the façade of horizontality and streamline design is regarded as a special architectural feature”, there is really very little worth keeping architecturally.  Nor are there any significant heritage related to the building that captures the collective spirits of Hong Kong.  In a broader context, the nearby re-generation projects of Central Police Station and the Police Married Quarters have already been targeted to perform similar functions under the public entertainment-cum-arts theme.  Why are we doing a third project in such proximity?  As an architect, I honestly do not see any merit in keeping the Central Market building and the idea of goose-feeding activities within.

URA, probably not anyone’s favorite were there a public survey.


It is a sad and ridiculous situation one can draw so far:

The re-vitalization is a product of a weak government who has made a feeble decision to delegate the task to a mediocre committee in order to save an unattractive building.  We are now at the stage of responding to a stupid survey based on four mishmash architectural schemes.
The Big Sleep (update in May 2015)
(photo South China Morning Post)
AGC Design in association with Arata Isozaki was chosen by the authority after the selected competition to rehabilitate the market building in November 2011.
 “… It’s still sitting idle at its prime Central location – six years after the government said it would be turned into an oasis.
Public toilets are all that’s there.
The Urban Renewal Authority was entrusted with the project in 2009. Its chairman recently said the original redevelopment cost estimate has tripled to HK$1.5 billion and asked whether it should proceed. …”
The editorial column of The Standard (Hong Kong) gave the above response on 22 April,2015 days after the URA hinted that the chosen design might be shelved.
Token revamp on surface at present.
After four years of design wrangling and executive indecision, the stalemate of zero site progress was broken by the URA with intention to direct public opinion. It is a fact that the chosen scheme is riddled with problems and controversies; still more, the fundamental direction of the market site and the competition were strongly contested from the beginning.
It is not known how much longer the idling of this precious piece of land will last. Given the fact that the city’s prime office areas are in severe shortage, we are all losing out every single day the derelict building is bathing in sunshine.