Cleaning up their acts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

Can artists make a difference? Joanne Ooi thinks so. The co-founder of Ooi Botos art gallery and environmental activist is behind what is billed as 'the first exhibition and auction in Asia of its kind'. The aim is to raise funds for Clean Air Network, a non-governmental organisation set up in 2009 to raise public awareness of the impact air pollution has on this city, and to get the art community involved in promoting the cause.

The group show, featuring more than 30 artworks by 40 local and international artists, will run from tomorrow to March 27 while the auction will be held on April 4 as part of Sotheby's upcoming auction of contemporary Asian art. Nine pieces were created specifically for this event. Many of the works are aimed at getting viewers to think about the serious consequences of pollution. Accompanying the show will also be information addressing some serious questions - did you know Hong Kong's air is three times more polluted than New York's? Last year's roadside pollution was the worst in Hong Kong history? And air pollution sends about 20,000 people to the doctor daily?

Ooi says there are a couple of objectives to the exercise. One is to reach out to members of the local artistic community and to educate them about the basic facts of air pollution. The second is to increase their sense of participation in civic society. The former creative director of Shanghai Tang attended a workshop at a global environmental conference last year and learnt about how culture can 'influence attitude and engineer a shift in attitude in a way that is non-confrontational'.

'That is very appealing,' Ooi says. 'Activism is not something your ordinary person is going to identify with strongly, whereas art is a universally appealing medium and it's a very approachable medium.' She doesn't want to make the event a pure fund-raising endeavour, either. 'I want it to have a deeper rooted effect,' Ooi says.

Amy Cheung Wan-man is among the nine artists who've created a new piece for the auction. Her work, comprising 'one artwork, one manifesto and one proposition', is likely to make an impression. The artist says even the act of creating art can be environmentally unfriendly and she believes in the Buddhist philosophy that we are all responsible for our actions.

'For every action, there will be consequences,' Cheung says. 'So with this new piece, I will document every step of our art-making - from conceptualisation to the final work - and keep a record of the impact each step has on the environment. Documentation of the process is more important than the work itself. This will be a collaborative effort between me, the environmental auditor and the collector.'

From this exercise, Cheung hopes also to come up with a general environmental index or standards for art-making. 'For instance, if we decide to use photographic materials, what sort of impact would that decision have on the environment?'

Another artist with a new piece for the auction is Adrian Wong. His untitled piece is inspired by a wall that he found behind Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui.

'It doesn't sound like it relates specifically to the environment and it doesn't really. The reason why I keyed in on this opportunity to realise this work is because ... we're talking about environmental issues that are specifically related to Hong Kong,' Wong says.

He says his piece gives the concept context. 'For that reason I decided to create a work that really does set a backdrop and bring everything back to our specific surroundings. We're talking about clean air in Hong Kong. It's very hard to localise the feeling of that gesture and one of the ways that I felt compelled to do it was to grab something that really does shout: 'This is from Hong Kong, this is from our home, this is the space we're talking about.''

Nadim Abbas, who was already aware of Clean Art Network because he is asthmatic, was immediately interested in participating in the auction. His work for the auction is a lightbox window with the image of a waterfall in the background. Its aesthetics are drawn from those kitschy lightboxes found in old cafes.

'In relation to this question of the environment, I think my work is concerned with how we are placed within an environment,' he says.

'You could say my work is about how humans interact with the environment. This is the so-called natural environment we create ourselves, a kind of footprint; and not just the footprint we make but the sense in which the environment in turn inputs to us psychologically and pathologically, in reverse.

'A lot of my work is based on a kind of urban landscape or urban environment because I'm living in a city and I react to the environment which I live in.'

Like Abbas, Lam Tung-pang is also asthmatic. To him, air pollution is a silent killer. 'You might know the air quality is not so good, but you might not know that it's slowly killing you every second.'

Lam says he didn't realise his work was related to the environment until he looked through a series of paintings inspired by the image of a polar bear and made the connection. 'So the [first] painting was done rather intuitively. That's why I said it's an opposite process - it's my work that made me concerned about the environment and reflect on my relationship with it. My work ponders on the relationship between an individual and the situation in which he or she is living. It's about how an individual puts him or herself in a situation, and how he or she reacts to it. Environmental issues and air pollution are only topics under the same umbrella theme.'

Both Wong and Abbas believe that if artists want to push a certain position, there are much better ways to do it than through art. '[But] I think the function of art in this situation is slightly different or maybe has a complexity about it, which if you were just to try to tell people the air is bad or whatever, then it would be too didactic,' Abbas says. 'What art can do in that sense is to create or initiate a dialogue.'

Ooi says she wants to approach the exhibition and auction with a lot of integrity by creating a proper curatorial platform for the works.

'I don't want [the exhibition] to be an elitist exercise, which all too often art is; it has to be appreciated at all different levels ... I want this to be a proper exhibition where people can learn a lot from,' she says.

Additional reporting by Janice Leung

Exhibition at Oval Atrium, IFC, Mar 21-27; Sotheby's spring auction of contemporary Asian art, HK Convention and Exhibition Centre, Apr 4