Arts show that's struggling to stay afloat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am

It was an unexpectedly warm day as Syren Johnstone stood, in shirt-sleeves and a bit of sweat on his brow, over a hole dug in the West Kowloon Reclamation site. He held a shovel in his right hand and stared down at a rusted reinforcing bar poking out of the earth.

'This is reclaimed land, but we're still making archaeological finds here,' said Johnstone, who worked with two other architects, Kingsley Ng and Daniel Patzold, to create Excavation, a mock archaeological dig on the site of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. The biennale, which has attracted an eclectic range of installations and exhibits, is being held until the end of next month on a vacant part of the reclamation grounds, and covers about 73,000 square metres.

As the architects' work progressed, they found the remains of construction waste that had been mixed with the soil used to reclaim the land - a reminder, Johnstone said, that something can never come from nothing. He turned and looked at the craggy grass and gnarly trees dotting the site, and the half-dozen unused shipping containers housing some of the works. 'It's becoming a bit like Christiania here,' he said, referring to the infamous anarchist enclave in Copenhagen. 'People are just coming and doing all sorts of interesting things.'

Since it opened last month, the event has won plaudits for avoiding the academic stuffiness of many architecture showcases, first by situating itself outdoors but also by stressing public participation and the constantly evolving nature of art and architecture - concepts reflected in the theme, 'Bring Your Own Biennale'.

But that approach came as much from necessity as it did from curatorial vision. Pressed for time and strapped for cash, the curators had no choice but to stage a more rag-tag production than they would have otherwise. From the beginning, the biennale's curatorial team, led by the architect Marisa Yiu with partners Eric Schuldenfrei, Alan Lo and Frank Yu, had to work on a tight schedule and budget. They were awarded the curatorship in July, more than a year after the curators on the biennale's Shenzhen side had been chosen. The disarray behind Hong Kong's effort, some involved say, reflects the wider organisational problems holding back arts development in the city.

'This is something Hong Kong needs to realise if it wants to stage these kinds of events - they cannot be done in less than six months,' Schuldenfrei said. 'For a while we thought of calling it the Instant Biennale.'

Two-thirds of their original ideas had to be scrapped because of a lack of time and money, Yiu said. With an operating budget of HK$6.8 million - HK$5 million of which came from the Home Affairs Bureau and the rest from a private donor - the curators were forced to cut corners to reduce costs. The biennale's signature pavilion, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, was completed only because Ban offered to reduce his fee and scale down the design. Many of the biennale's other 80 exhibits and installations faced a similar fate. If each had been funded according to plan, Yiu said, there would have only been enough money to build four.

But more than money, she said, it was the lack of time that prevented the curators from securing more funding. 'Pretty much the minute we got the curatorship, a lot of people like banks were really excited about this, but they couldn't commit to funding because of the time,' she said. The curators gave up their HK$600,000 fee to make ends meet. 'There was no way we could do this if we hadn't put that money back into the biennale,' Yiu said.

Their experience contrasts sharply with Shenzhen's, which launched the biennale in 2005 and invited Hong Kong to join as a partner in 2007. Shenzhen's biennale was given a budget of more than 10 million yuan (HK$11.4 million), according to its curator, Ou Ning. Most of the funding came from eight large real estate companies that were pushed to contribute by the government, which also provided the city's largest public space, the Shenzhen Civic Centre, as a venue, as well as support for marketing, logistics and security.

The Shenzhen arm is run by a permanent office that receives funding from the municipal government, while the Hong Kong side has no dedicated funding and is organised by a steering committee made up of members from the Institute of Architects, the Institute of Planners and the Designers Association.

Committee members said the reason the call for curatorial proposals was put out more than a year after Shenzhen's was because they were waiting to make sure the Home Affairs Bureau could provide funding. 'The organiser needs to have confidence that sponsorship funding is available before calling out for curatorial proposals,' wrote committee members in a statement.

Eve Tam Mei-yee, the curator of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, served as a liaison between the biennale and the Home Affairs Bureau. She said it was not until April that the steering committee approached the Home Affairs Bureau for funding.

Though it had only given HK$1 million for 2007 biennale, the bureau said it could provide more if the event was hosted in West Kowloon, where its opening could coincide with the East Asian Games and it could stimulate public interest in the future West Kowloon Cultural District. Under those conditions, the Home Affairs Bureau agreed to sponsor HK$5 million of the biennale's proposed HK$6.8 million budget. Tam said the committee did not give the bureau a firm proposal because the curators had not yet been chosen.

'It was a very tight schedule that they were working on, she said. 'They were going to open in early December but I was told they were seeking additional funding in November, but they did not have enough time to work out the details of that extra funding.'

The steering committee's original vision for the biennale was more modest than what took place. The committee estimated the current edition would cost only a little more than HK$6 million - the 2007 edition had a HK$8.42 million budget. The original plans submitted to the Home Affairs Bureau called for a maximum of 30 exhibits installed along the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade. Those plans, said Yiu, would have made for a biennale that would have attracted little public interest. After her curatorial team was chosen to lead the event, they nearly tripled the number of installations and expanded the biennale site to include a large undeveloped piece of land that fenced off from the public. Hosting only a handful of exhibits 'on a very manicured promenade' would have had less of an impact, she said.

The tight budget forced many participants to rely on their own wits to get things done.

'I think it's a miracle that [the curators] were able to pull it all off,' said architect turned artist Kacey Wong, who is in his 30s. He used his own money to build Paddling Home, a houseboat that resembles a miniature Hong Kong apartment, complete with pink exterior tiles, a bay window, a metal gate and a door altar. A meditation on the state of homes in Hong Kong, the piece has proved one of the most popular installations at the biennale. In a city where people pay a fortune for good views, his floating home has 360 degree views taking in all the harbourfront.

Yesterday, Stanley Wong took his Heaven on Earth - a sampan with tree and greenery - out onto the water as a pastoral counterpart to Kacey's house.

In the future, the steering committee wrote in a statement, the government should follow Shenzhen's model and commit long-term funding to events like the biennale.

'The organiser should be able to plan well ahead without fear of lack of funding or finding a suitable site for the exhibition,' they wrote.

Yiu, who said Shenzhen was already organising for next year, is more blunt in her assessment: 'It's been kind of ad hoc, which is the spirit of Hong Kong, but you can't always depend on the passions of people to drive it along. You need time and money. The biennale cannot be served up on a platter.'