Blown Away

Inflation exhibition Hong Kong

Lately, Hong Kong has taken on the airs of a carnival gone wrong. In late April, as a damp wind blew and the sky loomed heavy, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck floated into Victoria Harbour, igniting a media frenzy — the South China Morning Post ran no fewer than 12 articles on the duck — and a general wagging of the tongues (one satirical article reported Hong Kong’s air pollution had given the duck “a cute respiratory infection”). And that was before the duck mysteriously deflated into a sad yellow puddle.

The duck was brought in by the Hong Kong Tourism Board in collaboration with Harbour City, a giant shopping mall, and its presence has been accompanied by a kind of consumer mania as people crowd together to snap photos and buy duck souvenirs. Not far away is a kind of intellectual counterpoint: Mobile M+: Inflation!, a contemporary art exhibition of inflatable vinyl sculptures that runs until June 9. Seven artists and designers from around the world contributed massive works that are being displayed on a rough patch of vacant land that will soon be transformed into a new city park, which itself will be part of the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District.

“The idea for the exhibition came out of questions of what will be in that park,” says Pauline Yao, one of the curators at the forthcoming M+ museum of visual culture, which organized Inflation! “We’re interested in engaging with these questions around public art or art in public space, and to think about how normally public art tends to be sculpture-based, with certain assumptions about what is beautiful and pleasing.”

The works of Inflation! poke a hole right through those assumptions. The piece that has gotten the most attention, Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile, is a 15-metre high, 33-metre long abstract sculpture modelled on a pile of excrement. “It’s no secret what it’s based on, but the crux of this work is that it’s called Complex Pile,” says Yao. “Its massive size means you can’t really tell what it is when you’re standing in front of it. It’s a work about perception, seeing how one interprets the visual field we’re faced with every day. He’s expressly commenting on that as much as he’s commenting on beauty or attractiveness or what’s acceptable subject matter. It’s only gross or disgusting because we interpret it that way.”

Complex Pile by Paul McCarthy

Other works explore similar themes: there’s a giant suckling pig created by Chinese artist Cao Fei and a life-sized Stonehenge jumping castle from Britain’s Jeremy Deller; Hong Kong-based artist Tam Wai Ping contributed two sculptures, one a massive cockroach and another a pair of female legs, both plunging headfirst into the earth. In Deller’s work, a revered site that is now off-limits to the public is turned into a playground; Cao and Tam’s works do just the opposite, by transforming the quotidian into the spectacular.

For most people in Hong Kong, Inflation! is the first and last chance to explore the West Kowloon site—a piece of land reclaimed from the sea in the early 1990s — before it is developed. “It’s kind of rough, the ground is not even, there’s foliage and tree stumps and pipes,” says Yao. To make it accessible, the curators brought in landscape architects Sarah Wong and Groundwork, who weaved narrow concrete paths throughout the site, sometimes looping, sometimes interrupted by obstacles, and built a viewing platform on top of a shipping container. “It provides a cohesive connection between the works, but it’s flexible, so people don’t have to see things in any particular order.”

M+ Inflation West Kowloon Cultural District

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The exhibition has apparently struck a chord with the public, drawing 27,000 people on the first Sunday after it opened. (About 120,000 people have visited the exhibition since it launched.) “I think it really shows that there aren’t a lot of places to go in Hong Kong where you can be outside, where you don’t have to buy and consume anything — just a place to be with your family and friends,” says Yao. “It’s an open-ended experience.”

Given their shared popularity, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the duck and Inflation! (One local travel agency even offers a package tour of the two, complete with duck for lunch.) It’s worth considering how their dual presence will affect public attitudes towards public art and contemporary art more generally. “To many people in the crowds, the question ‘is it art?’ may well be their first ever art awakening,” writes art critic Edmund Lee. That’s a question that has not only been raised for Complex Pile but for the duck, too. Lee’s story ends with a revealing quote from creative strategist SK Lam, who helped bring the duck to Hong Kong: “Someone told me the other day that the rubber duck piece doesn’t inspire much introspection. I didn’t know what got into me but I just spontaneously replied ‘when it’s gone, you’d be thinking about it for a long time’.”

Rubber Duck

Photo by Tela Yiu

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday May 21 2013at 11:05 pm , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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