Mak the life
Ideally, American curator Valerie Doran would have liked to have featured a live tiger or a horse in her upcoming exhibition on local sculptor Antonio Mak Hin-yeung. These animals are predominant in much of the late artist's work. But the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which will host the show, was concerned about the costs and other complications of involving a live animal in the exhibition.
Looking For Antonio Mak - the third instalment in the museum's 'Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue' exhibition series - is, therefore, the product of what the guest curator wanted and what red tape allowed.
Set to run from Thursday until January 8, this exhibition within an exhibition will showcase around 100 sculptures - mostly bronze - along with sketches by Mak. It will also feature works by Hong Kong artists Fung Ming-chip, Jaffa Lam Laam, Lee Man-sang, Lo Yin-shan, Simon Birch, Kwan Sheung-chi and Kung Chi-shing. Together with Shanghai-based conceptual artist Wu Shanzhuan, they will enter into a dialogue on Mak's art and life.
It's been an interesting year for Doran who has had to collaborate with a government-run museum unaccustomed to the unorthodox requests that she and her artists have made while preparing the exhibition.
Lam, for instance, asked to be allowed to stay overnight in the museum and created a meditation room using wood and textiles as a tribute to Mak. She wanted to bring the sculptor back in her dreams so he could see the exhibition for himself. While Lam will be allowed to take naps at her installation during the day, museum officials refused to allow her to stay overnight for security reasons.
'Although I never met him, through learning about his work I turned from fan to friend,' she says.
While Mak's sculptures are mostly of male forms, she was fascinated by his later interest in Buddhism and his sculptures of a female boddhivista. This inspired her minimalist meditation area.
Doran says she invited artists whose work she had previously admired to provide a different perspective on Mak.
She says she avoided involving his peers because she wanted to maintain a distance between the artists and the sculptor.
'The artists respond in any way they want to,' says Doran, who is also a critic and translator specialising in Chinese art.
'The artists I chose come from different generations and different artistic circles. They were very personal choices for me, but I felt they would enter into a level of dialogue.'
Mak was born in 1951 and died from throat cancer in 1994. According to the museum, Mak's visually evocative and beautifully crafted cast-bronze figures 'present a uniquely Mak-ian iconography that is stylistically western yet integrally Chinese'.
To many, he is a quintessentially Hong Kong artist, yet his artworks have been overlooked during the past decade.
Part of Doran's mission is to bring his works back into the limelight and show how the participating artists were affected - or not - by his work. She also wanted to look at what art is and how it exists in our lives.
While Mak held seven solo exhibitions in Hong Kong during his life, this will be his first museum show. 'The museum had a very small collection of his work,' says Doran. She says she begged and pleaded with collectors for the rest.
Mak worked with wax moulds, casting them in bronze to create torsos and beautiful male figures rising out of horses and tigers to show the link between human and animal.
'He died at a time when there was nothing outside the very contained Hong Kong art community,' says Doran.
She says she was startled to discover that Mak's work was missing from a recent exhibition of Hong Kong art in the US.
Musician Kung used to see Mak at parties and found him aloof and arrogant, holding court with his clique. Despite that reaction to him on a personal level, Kung has since become a huge fan of Mak's work. He created 430 hours of sound for the exhibition - 10 hours for each year of Mak's life.
'It's a huge undertaking. For some of it, I picked music that he liked, and for other parts I took historic and artistic elements from those years,' says Kung.
'For example, I have a recording of Dylan Thomas from 1951 reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which I thought was appropriate for Antonio Mak.'
Doran remembers Mak standing out from the crowd with his thick black-rimmed spectacles in the 1980s, before they were fashionable. She spotted him in a crowd of students - he was young enough looking to pass as one - as he intensely sucked a cigarette down to its stub.
Despite a limited budget and no sponsors, Doran says she is lucky to have gathered some of Hong Kong's top technical and artistic talents - who offered their services for free because the project appealed to them.
The 'Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue' exhibition series, which kicked off in May aims to encourage independent curators and artists to look at artwork from a different perspective and to bring new ideas to the museum as well as a fresh visual experience to the public. It's an open dialogue that has forced the museum in directions in which it may not have wanted to go.
The museum has been co-operative - it provided 100 police barriers for one installation, for example - but it has also hindered Doran in other ways.
She hopes that the experience will result in government-run art institutions becoming more receptive to Hong Kong's contemporary art community.
Looking For Antonio Mak, from Nov 21 to Jan 28, daily, 10am-6pm (Sat until 8pm), closed Thurs , HK Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST, HK$10, free on Wed. Inquiries: 2721 0116