Out of the mould

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am

Sculptor Bill Chan Kwok-man spends much of his time quietly chipping away at his work, carving up wooden blocks, polishing marble surfaces and welding steel at his Tuen Mun studio. 'Most of the time, being an artist is very lonely,' he says.

So when he was invited recently to work in an open public space against the backdrop of the Hong Kong skyline on the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, the veteran artist was taken not only by the sweeping vista but by the attention.

'When I worked out here, passers-by gathered around to watch me working,' says Chan, who started sculpting in 1982. 'I love when they ask me questions. The more the merrier. I think they can also feel and share our happiness and satisfaction in completing a work of art.'

While working in a studio helps him concentrate, 'I feel much more relaxed when I'm working outdoors in the lovely weather. Inspiration just keeps flooding in,' he says.

Fellow sculptor Christopher Rothermel also enjoys working outside the studio, particularly in a group with other artists.

'Even though I don't derive inspiration from looking at other artists' works per se, I do gather inspiration from the way they think about their work,' says the American artist, an assistant visual arts professor at Baptist University.

Chan and Rothermel are among the 14 local and foreign sculptors who took part in last month's International Sculpture Symposium, organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). The 11-day event gave the public the opportunity to learn about sculpture through talks and demonstration workshops and provided artists with a chance to venture outside their studios and share their ideas with their peers.

Coming from as far afield as the Czech Republic and Zimbabwe, participating artists were each asked to produce a site-specific piece on the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade during the symposium. Their works are now on display on the promenade until April 19.

Entitled Oasis.Mirage, the exhibition is jointly organised by the LCSD and the Hong Kong Sculpture Society. It features 36 sculptures made of marble, wood, stainless steel, red sandstone and bamboo, exploring sculptural aesthetics, symbolism and social issues such as the effects of urbanisation.

Chan's The Insects of City consists of three large insects made of stone and metal, with the heaviest weighing more than 272kg. The vast open spaces of the exhibition's outdoor setting enhances the works' visual impact. The sculptor says these creatures were inspired by the hammers and wrenches in his studio.

'I saw the tools randomly scattered on my work station, and they looked exactly like two fighting crickets,' Chan says. 'It is very difficult for us to find insects in Hong Kong because there aren't enough plants for them to feed on. My work expresses what I look forward to seeing in the big city. I hope we can have more plants so that more insects can be found in the city.'

Rothermel focused more on the use of materials and their natural beauty. For his marble sculpture Elysium, he sourced marble pre-cut for architectural use from a mainland factory.

'I'm attracted to the properties of natural materials. For this work, I was particularly interested in the contrast between the machine's output and the hand work I contributed to it,' he says.

'You see the places where the machines made their precision arc-shaped cuts and at the same time the rough texture of the marble itself. This piece encourages the viewer to appreciate the form in the moment.

'I focused on the techniques, the texturing and the polishing of the piece,' says Rothermel.

Leung Yiu-wah, now based in France, says sculptures are not made just to be seen. 'They are art pieces that you can touch, feel, smell and even listen to,' says the sculptor. Those attending the exhibition can do exactly that.

In his wooden sculpture Fruit and the City, Leung cut the shape of an apple out of a mango tree. 'The most important thing about a city is to keep the trees. I wanted to keep the original form of my material. I even kept the worm in the tree,' he says.

Czech-born, Hong Kong-based artist Emil Adamec says his monumental wood sculpture Nine Dragons is a gift to Hongkongers.

'Nine Dragons means Kowloon in Cantonese and I hope my sculptures can bless Hong Kong and protect the city from disaster.'

Although the event attracted more than 800 participants last month, Rothermel says there is a general lack of knowledge about sculpture among Hongkongers. 'But it's a good thing that there was a general curiosity from the audiences. They tended to ask a lot of 'why' questions: why are the artists doing this, why are we here and why do we make art?'

This lack of knowledge may have something to do with their limited exposure to the art form in this overcrowded city, Rothermel says.

'Exhibition spaces, museums, galleries have more wall space and they are set up to show paintings and two-dimensional artworks,' he says.

'It's challenging to be a sculptor and get your works exhibited here. A lot of spaces here were set up just for paintings. Especially the slopes on the island side, bringing up works and setting them up is challenging, though not impossible.'

Maggie Leung Yi-fa, an assistant curator at the LCSD, says the symposium highlights the importance of having more public sculptures in the city, which brings art closer to the people. Although it has not been decided whether the symposium will become an annual event, she says the exercise also benefits participating artists.

Chan says the project has allowed him to share his ideas, techniques and even sculpting tools with fellow artists.

'The experience is going to influence my creations,' he says. 'I work a lot with metals, but this time, watching the other artists who worked with wood and marble, was really inspiring. I think I'm going to experiment more with other materials.'

Oasis.Mirage: Hong Kong International Sculpture Symposium Sculpture Exhibition, 6am-11pm daily, West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, free. Ends Apr 19