Sitting in a Sheung Wan cafe over brunch, Simon Birch is torn. While his career has flourished since becoming a full-time artist in 2003, he says it’s becoming harder to hold public exhibitions.
“I’m simply an artist, but I have to be an entrepreneur to find opportunities,” the 40-year-old Briton says.
“But in the last two years, I’ve failed more than succeeded, not because of the lack of ambition but because of hurdles in Hong Kong.”
About 18 months ago he was given the use of a four-storey parking space in a building in SoHo rent-free for 10 years. Excited at the prospect of developing the 10,000 sq ft space into a private gallery featuring contemporary art from Hong Kong and around the world, he sprang into actionand had an architect draw up plans. During the year-long process Birch got approval from the fire, police and health and safety departments. The only objection was from the Buildings Department, which said the building should have a certain number of parking spaces and visitors were not permitted to view art in that space.
“We’re still trying to find a way to get this off the ground because we have pledges from wealthy people to renovate the space. It’s a shame there seems to be no loophole or government body to allow this to happen,” Birch says.
While artists in Hong Kong usually have difficulty finding space, Birch has plenty but can’t use it for bureaucratic reasons. He is not alone in being entangled in red tape that prevents him from showing his work outside of museum and gallery spaces.
In the past, live music and arts events at venues in industrial buildings such as Hidden Agenda and Osage, both located in Kwun Tong, have been cancelled or postponed due to either the lack of an entertainment licence or being in breach of fire regulations.
Because of the challenges of government regulations, Koon Wai-bong, artist and assistant professor at the Academy of Visual Arts at Baptist University, says many local artists avoid red tape by collaborating more with museums and galleries, though he admits it’s hard for younger ones to find good platforms to increase their exposure.
“Places like City Hall organise exhibitions, but it takes a lot of time to get approval and the rental fee is high. Hong Kong especially doesn’t have enough space for artists, not just young ones but those mid-career,” Koon says.
“The government-run exhibition spaces are for amateurs and limit the range of art work that can be displayed. But in Australia and the UK, they have different kinds of spaces for different kinds of artists.”
He adds that there is no platform to apply to use public spaces.
Artists can rent space at the Hong Kong Arts Centre but the level of art work is not very high, Koon says. “As long as you have money, you can exhibit.”
But the space at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place is not appropriate because it is located in the centre of office complexes, he adds. “Maybe it’s OK for young artists, but not for those in mid-career or [those who are more] established. If you know people who work at a particular organisation, it’s easier to access the exhibition space.”
According to visual artist Michelle Fung Kuen-suet, part of the problem is that Hong Kong is too small, so it’s difficult to find suitable exhibition space. Fung’s latest exhibition, in her own studio in Shau Kei Wan, explores the boundaries between food and animals and the human connection between both. “The so-called public spaces are not public and you encounter a lot of resistance,” she says, citing the example of Taikoo Shing, where the “public space” is actually owned by Swire.
“I had [artist] friends who wanted to do something on the MTR but were politely invited to do it elsewhere. Site-wise, artists are challenged.” Most spaces that are not in museums or galleries are controlled by the government or corporations, and getting into the government system means going through the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which presents a huge barrier. “You have to be acknowledged by official channels, like the ADC and museums to be included in the system.”
Fung admits it was not her goal to get into the system, although she is working on a project with some friends that may require application for government funding, which means lots of paperwork. “But I’m not looking down on the system,” Fung says. “Every industry has its system.”
Veteran curator Oscar Ho Hing-kay, who is an associate professor of cultural management at Chinese University, laments a lack of professional art spaces.
“There are town hall centres like the lower block [of] City Hall and the basement of the Central Library that have exhibition spaces,” he says.
“But they are amateurish. If you want a proper exhibition space, then you have to put in lots of money to build panels to make it look professional. And then there’s the issue of lighting. You spend all this money just to mount your art work and then take it down, so it’s not very environmentally friendly either.”
Although he concedes that there are decent spaces, such as the Cattle Depot Artist Village in Ma Tau Kok, they are often located too far from the city and lack sufficient promotion. . And at ArtisTree, the art work is examined by the corporation before it is deemed acceptable, presenting another restriction.
“The problem is a lack of variation in [the sizes] of the spaces to be able to accommodate different exhibitions,” Ho says. “Artists always want bigger and bigger spaces, and we do need more spaces of various sizes. Para Site is good for young up-and-coming artists, but what about medium-sized spaces? We need a well-rounded ecology of small, medium and large spaces to be able to nurture artists and curate them before you can put them into the huge M+.
“There is an ecological gap and it’s a problem for cultural management people, because in the development of the artist they need to experiment with larger pieces, but this is missing.”
Multimedia artist Kingsley Ng Siu-king is slightly more upbeat. It would be difficult to be an artist in many parts of the world, including Canada, France, Britain, Australia and Japan, he says, citing economic woes in Europe and cuts to the arts in education.
“Hong Kong is not that bad, but it’s still in its infancy when it comes to cultural development,” he says. “During colonial times local arts and culture were not a priority ... after 1997 things started changing, but slowly.”
Ng acknowledges there is government support but wryly observes that art exhibitions come under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which not only looks after museums but also swimming pools and parks.
Nevertheless, he feels the public are more aware of the importance of art because they are exploring their self-identity through culture. Art is also being cultivated universities, which are producing the next generation of artists and curators in so-called “creative industries”.
“It’s about building relationships, like between man and machines, art and science, image and form. You have to learn the operation of the world to make sense of it.”
Because large spaces in Hong Kong are so expensive, the city has the potential to be at the forefront of site-specific work, Ng says.
“With great density comes spontaneous encounters, unpredictable situations and surprising juxtapositions which ultimately means more unusual and interesting sites.” Limited space also forces people to “be creative about finding interesting and unexpected spaces for artistic interventions”.
“I had a bunch of friends who took the abandoned Ping Che village school that was closed down in 2007 and turned it into a venue for live performances, art activities and where sculptures are integrated into the surrounding environment.”
Ng also cites another group of artists, part of Detour 2013, who explored the space inside a tram and how that could be designed for dining, as an art space or as a social venue. “It is about their response to the condition of the place,” he says. “Hong Kong is condensed and artists are more keen on finding cracks in the city. Sometimes these are more exciting.”
Late last year, he showed a multimedia work at Osage that combined the visual representation of vibrations, a playing piano and photographs and videos projected on a long white wall. Titled Études it was his largest work so far and sought to engage the public and ask them to integrate art into their everyday lives.
Although funded by the ADC, it took a year before he received the money. “I had to do a lot of paperwork. Sometimes it’s very tiring, but it’s rewarding in the end,” Ng says.
Birch is disappointed that finding spaces and dealing with red tape has taken up time and energy he could have spent on making art. He has, however, found time to create work for an upcoming exhibition at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London this October.
He has also scheduled for the end of 2014 an ambitious multimedia project in New Yorkcalled The 14th Factory, a show about Hong Kong, China and England. “My career seems like it’s going overseas. It’s just a shame I can’t do it in Hong Kong,” says Birch.