Anthony Gormley's sculptures to pay Hong Kong a visit

Artist hopes his visiting sculptures give Hongkongers pause for thought

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 3:59pm

Antony Gormley is a sculptor who evangelises about the provocative power of his chosen art form. He has dotted diverse landscapes with statues that pose questions about relationships between people, time and places: from a barren, remote salt lake in Western Australia to a plot squeezed between Osaka office blocks and a grassy knoll above defunct coal mines in northeast England, where his Angel of the North spreads its giant steel wings.

In 2007, he started placing 31 statues, loosely cast from his own body, temporarily on top of buildings in major cities. They have been in London, Rotterdam, New York, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and each place responded to the statues differently.

"A project like this is a diagnostic tool. It's like acupuncture. You poke a collective body like a city and depending on the nature of the body, you get a reaction," he says from his London studio.

"In the Netherlands, the reaction was most 'normal', in so far as people were delighted in the temporary visitors," says the British artist. In Rio, the reception was less positive. He recalls a sign saying "bad art" tied to one of the statues, and chewing gum stuck on others.

The project, called Event Horizon, will be unveiled in Hong Kong on November 19. It has already proved provocative during the two years it's taken to bring the statues to the city. The statues were meant to have been displayed last year, but Hongkong Land pulled out as main sponsor after a J.P. Morgan employee jumped to his death from the roof of a Hongkong Land property in February 2014.

Hongkong Land did not comment directly, but news reports quoted unnamed sources saying that J.P. Morgan was of the view that having life-size statues on rooftops would be too much of a reminder of that tragedy.

One year on, organisers appear to be struggling still to find enough buildings to host the statues for six months. Only three of the buildings have been publicly named: Hong Kong City Hall, LKF Plaza and St George's Building. Altogether, 27 rooftops are required, as four statues are supposed to be on the ground.

It's not that the organisers are short of 24 more venues. They don't want to give away all the ones they have secured: Gormley says the element of surprise is part of the reason the project stirs curiosity among people who rarely pause to take in their surroundings. But landlords' nervousness means they are still looking to place some of the statues.

Bernard Chan, in his role as chairman of the art working group for the Central Police Station revitalisation project, wrote in the South China Morning Post recently that organisers were so concerned about the issue that they approached the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention for direction. He wrote that the centre's director was of the view that Gormley's work could trigger negative thoughts among the vulnerable.

Gormley, who confirms that last-minute negotiations over venues are ongoing, takes a philosophical view of the setbacks that have delayed his doppelgangers' arrival in Hong Kong. He says the project always involves intricate negotiations no matter where it is. In Rio, the planning took only six months but 48 hours before the launch, six government buildings withdrew. It was a nightmare trying to find replacement venues at the last minute but the show went ahead.

"This project is about how human will overcomes extreme adversity. It is very much about the place of individuals against forces that are faceless determiners of our lives, such as forces of government and corporate power," he says.

He has less patience with the suicide concerns. "I understand it is a huge taboo. This has caused enormous nervousness. But anyone with half the wit would tell the difference between an iron man evidently not moving and a living body. If this means a taboo is discussed more openly, it's a good thing. But it is not the purpose of the project," he says.

A project like this is a diagnostic tool. It's like acupuncture
Anthony Gormley

Gormley makes a great ambassador for art. Scholarly yet eloquent and engaging, he made a series of BBC radio programmes in 2009 that aimed to answer the unanswerable question: what is good art? His rich voice lulled listeners as he praised the beauty and power of art, and entertained them with such pronouncements as describing Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel as the work of an "intellectual dilettante". He has continued his mission to popularise sculpture with the publication last month of a 240-page book, Antony Gormley on Sculpture.

He says he hopes Event Horizon will prompt Hongkongers to pause in their daily rush and to take a good look at what's around them - something the city's smartphone-obsessed population rarely does any more. "A good work of art can stimulate feelings that were unknown to us until the work was there to render them available," he says.

The withdrawal of Hongkong Land from Event Horizon might have caused conniptions at the time but Gormley is over it.

Not being bound to Hongkong Land properties, which are mainly in Central, has meant shifting the roughly 1km-radius area housing the statues eastward, an apt metaphor for Hong Kong's identity, he says.

"How we occupy Central has changed and that change is for the good. Now, the parts we occupy are not associated with a traditional, colonialist presence," he says, referring to Hongkong Land's 19th-century roots.

His choice of words is deliberate, for he wants people to see ties between his art project and last year's Occupy Central protests. Thanks to the eastward shift that he has mentioned, the statues will now extend to Admiralty, near the main site of last year's sit-in.

"The weight of the installation would have less resonance two years ago. I see a connection between Event Horizon and the protest, because any form of art is an instrument of self-determination. This art is not to reinforce the status quo, but to question it. This art is about Hong Kong's growing awareness of its own unique identity that is neither its colonial past or [derived from] its new masters in Beijing," he says.

He has obligingly dropped hints about where the statues are going to be placed - a mix of public and private spaces. City Hall (High Block) is the centre. He mentions Statue Square and Queen's Road Central. He mentions Pacific Place and the "long views" down Queensway, Connaught Road and Des Voeux Road Central.

The decision to display the statues in the central business district may not be to everyone's taste, but Gormley says it is important to place them on "classic landmarks", so a public housing estate wouldn't work. "We are trying to occupy the conventional view of a place, to challenge stereotypical views and unexamined values. With Hong Kong, what values does it stand for? Is it just a trading centre? The existence of these works, which cannot be owned, is the temporary expression of another kind of value," he says. enid.tsui@scmp.com

"Event Horizon" runs from Nov 19 until May 2016. Sign up for outreach programmes and public discussions at eventhorizon.hk