Asia Society exhibition offers a glimpse into a bright design future

Asia Society exhibition featuring the works of local designers examines changing perceptions of beauty and improved ways of life

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 6:42pm

The future's not just bright - it's eco-friendly and beautifully designed.

How do we know? Because we've been there, courtesy of Asia Society Hong Kong's new exhibition, Imminent Domain: Designing the Life of Tomorrow.

Although design showcases are popping up everywhere, this intriguing show, curated by the director of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, Fumio Nanjo, marks a significant development in the style and quality of work.

"Stimulating thoughts about Hong Kong design, future living and how that will ultimately change our aesthetic perceptions of beauty and enhance the way we live is at the core of all the works on display," says Asia Society gallery manager Dominique Chan, who oversees the organisation's public art installations and exhibitions.

"Fumio Nanjo was our first choice as curator because we knew he would bring a fresh, interesting and global perspective, and felt it was especially important for the exhibition to be led by someone forward-thinking and multi-disciplined."

Nanjo lives up to his reputation for ambitious and creative shows: here, 12 of Hong Kong's most innovative, award-winning designers and artists drawn from diverse fields such as lighting, architecture, jewellery, fashion and cars have been tasked with creating an ambitious mixture of one-off pieces, artfully presented at the Asia Society's premises in Admiralty.

Nanjo admits the unique setting, on a heavily forested hillside in the heart of Central, was a key attraction, with its unique blend of old and new architecture amid nature. Asia Society executive director Alice Mong says the site, designed by New York-based architectural firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien, was a key inspiration for the exhibition.

"Good design can be both aesthetically pleasing and multi-functional," Mong says.

The designers transformed the grade-one and two historic buildings, formerly a 19th-century British Army explosives magazine, into a minimalist headquarters complete with a modern art gallery and restaurant. The interiors were created by local architect Joyce Wang.

The 1.3-hectare site took 10 years to plan and construct and preserves the colonial-era buildings and wooded hillside. A sleek walkway suspended over the trees and glass-walled halls sets the tone for the society's focus on creating a world-class facility dedicated to Asian arts.

"The exhibition space itself is suspended in one of the rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the trees," Nanjo says. "I thought it would be wonderful to show some of the works outside of the formal gallery space so that it would be visible to the public."

He describes one piece - a monumental red bamboo gate by William Lim, a local artist, architect and interior designer - as the "symbol of the show".

Lim, whose projects include Hotel Icon, Nike's local offices and the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Beijing clubhouse, constructed a portal hung with 1,200 bamboo strips creating a giant wind chime. The work is lit using solar energy.

"Bamboo represents Asian culture, while its use as scaffolding is unique to Hong Kong," Lim says. "The work was also inspired by Chinese beliefs and culture: red is auspicious and the creaking noise that bamboo makes is believed to ward off bad spirits.

"I also want this work to remind people of the importance of passive energy and start people thinking of a simpler form of habitation using simple construction techniques," Lim says.

Although the designs are wide-ranging in scale and form, the mix does not feel disjointed, with the futuristic theme acting as a powerful unifying concept.

"The making of an exhibition is design in its own right," says Nanjo, who has curated numerous architectural shows in the Japanese capital. His ground-breaking show in 2007 of Le Corbusier's art and architecture famously drew 600,000 visitors.

"We've learned that creating a unique experience of how visitors see and appreciate the art, for instance by making life-sized models of an architect like Le Corbusier's work, is critical to the success of such exhibitions.

"Design always needs a concept, and that doesn't always come from existing aesthetics; sometimes it comes from other fields," Nanjo says.

One gem is by lighting designer Teddy Lo, who draws on ancient natural sciences and advances in LED technology with his Techno Nature - Bacillus II, a "techno-inspired" sculpture that provides interactive feedback based on visitors' "responses" to it (apparently simulating the emotional reaction of bacteria).

"I want to inspire visitors with the possibilities and sustainable qualities of these sorts of green technologies," Lo says. "The Bacillus signifies the essence of a new age incorporating traditional methods of structural welding with the new, sustainable luminous technology, 3-D prototyping and interactive systems for its expression.

"New technology allows electronics to be more compact and flexible, which make organic electronic sculptures more plausible," he explains.

Meanwhile, new-media designer Kingsley Ng, who has a master of science degree in advanced sustainable design from the University of Edinburgh and lectures at Baptist University's Academy of Visual Art, describes his work created for the exhibition as "speculative".

It illustrates a future in which humans can no longer undo the damage they have inflicted and the only chance of survival is travelling back to the past. The design is also a tribute to late filmmaker Chris Marker, referencing the film La Jetée, in which a man travels through time from the post-apocalyptic future.

Ng's virtual "train" uses an existing railway track, simulating a train travelling through time: visitors enter a virtual carriage where they experience lights streaming into the train interior while moving through fictional spaces. At one end of the carriage, they hear the voice of a young girl, who urges them "to remember - not to forget".

"The outdoor locations of these exhibits are particularly interesting," Chan says, "especially those that involve a "seek and find" element brought upon by the designers."

Nanjo says the exhibition "is not bound by the typical narrow vision of design".

"The title of the show reflects the thinking that what design can do is an urgent issue and opens up people's way of looking at what design is," he says.

Imminent Domain: Designing the Life of Tomorrow runs from tomorrow until March 31. Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, tel: 2103 9511