Don’t Touch the Art

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The scene plays out hundreds of times a day, like a sad rendition of Groundhog Day. With nowhere to sit, a weary passerby leans against the leg of Happy Man, the nine-metre-high sculpture by American sculptor Larry Bell that stands in front of the Langham Place shopping mall at the corner of Argyle and Portland in Mongkok. Or maybe it’s a kid who, inspired by the sculpture’s wild gestures, is making an attempt to clamber up its torso. Either way, a security guard walks over and tells them not to touch the sculpture. Five minutes later, this absurd charade repeats. Late at night, when the mall closes, metal barriers are set up around the sculpture to make sure it is not molested by any nocturnal delinquents.

If the goal is to protect the sculpture from corrosion, it’s a miserable failure, because the legs are already shiny from the touch of a thousand deviants. So what’s the point? I contacted the company that manages Langham Place for comment but didn’t receive a reply. My only guess is that situations like this boil down to Hong Kong’s busybody administrative culture, which combines a very Protestant aversion to pleasure (thanks, Britain!) with the Chinese fear of shame. Art is meant to be admired, not enjoyed, and if somebody were to damage the sculpture, that would be a terrible loss of face for Langham Place. So better to keep up the pretense of protecting the sculpture even if it’s actually an impossible endeavour.

Museum administrators around the world struggle with the idea of interactive art, and even installations that are meant to be played with, like Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust, are kept off-limits by museum security. But that fear of interaction usually ends at museum doors. You can ride the lions of Trafalgar Square without worry; feel free to touch the foot of St. Peter when you visit the Vatican. But the Happy Man? God forbid.

It’s a shame, because it reinforces the idea that art is alien, a notion that cultural workers are trying hard to dispel with projects like Mobile M+. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the public art pieces installed in Vancouver for that city’s 2009 biennale, including Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter, a series of 13 statues that were installed in Morton Park next to English Bay. You’ve probably seen Yue’s work before — his sculptures and paintings depict himself frozen in hysterical laughter — and the statues were an instant hit. They were so popular, in fact, they have been kept in place well after the biennale’s end. When I visited them last spring, kids ran through their legs and tourists hugged them for photos. And there wasn’t a single security guard to tell anyone off.

Still, there’s hope. Happy Man is still guarded by security, but it was recently given a snazzy pair of yarn briefs by artist Magda Sayeg, who has a yarn-bombing exhibition in Langham Place’s fourth-floor atrium. Maybe the playful spirit will linger on.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday August 20 2012at 02:08 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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