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Art Basel 2016

A headbanging robot’s squatting in The Peninsula Hong Kong’s stately lobby, in the name of art

Industrial machine that looks as if it is spying on guests may put some off their afternoon tea and scones, though the installation’s British creator, Conrad Shawcross, insists it is both dumb and harmless

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2016, 4:02pm

Tea at The Peninsula is going to be a bit different for the next couple of weeks. A giant industrial robot sits smack in the middle of the normally serene, neoclassical lobby of the Kowloon hotel, swaying its head – which has a long probe attached – to music in a lonely dance.

Its maker is British artist Conrad Shawcross, who has brought it over for The Peninsula Hong Kong’s second “Love Art” collaboration with Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts to coincide with the Art Basel Hong Kong fair.

The robot’s presence is slightly menacing; a seemingly sentient being reacts to the music while using its probe to gather the sights and sounds of humans gobbling down their tea and scones. Its spidery legs are fixed, at least, so there is no danger of its proboscis getting too close.

Shawcross assures us it is no threat. “The robot is dumb. It doesn’t interpret the music. It is pre-programmed and I asked a number of composers to write music as a response to its movements,” he says. In fact, the robot is at the mercy of visitors, who can select one of four sequences – much like a jukebox – that determines what music will play and the way the robot moves. On March 23 and 24, Hong Kong soprano Joyce Wong sang Mira Calix’s If Then While For to the robot, a beautiful lament appealing for the machine’s affection.

The robot is part of Shawcross’s long-running ADA project, named after Ada Lovelace, a Victorian mathematician (and daughter of the poet Lord Byron) who is now considered one of the world’s first computer programmers. He has previoulsy installed robots in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia, and The Vinyl Factory Space in London.

“Having it in The Peninsula is the most controversial location yet, in these conservative, beautiful colonial surroundings. People come for tea and jazz but they are confronted by this startling, sexual machine. The ... past is destabilised,” he says.

The ADA Project, The Lobby, The Peninsula, Salisbury Road, Kowloon. Ends April 5