The warrior of the arts talks strategy

John Aiken took over the job as director of Baptist University's Academy of Visual Arts just as the ground was almost taken from under it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 5:44am

A Zen ink painting with just one broad, black, horizontal stroke hangs in Professor John Aiken's neat office at Baptist University's new Communication and Visual Arts Building in Kowloon Tong.

"I like this stroke," says Aiken, who left London to become the director of the university's Academy of Visual Arts in August. "I thought it was a very appropriate image for AVA."

The minimalist work is by the academy's associate professor Daniel Lau Chak-kwong. Aiken says the calligraphy symbolises "oneness" - especially apt as his arrival coincided with the university's fight to keep hold of its original campus.

"We had all those debates about one school, two campuses," added the ex-director of University College London's prestigious Slade School of Fine Art.

AVA has just submitted proposals to the government on how it plans to use its original Kai Tak campus, which the arts school almost lost last summer when a new lease pushed up the monthly rent from HK$50,000 to HK$300,000.

In August the government agreed to extend the lease for another year at the same concessionary rate of HK$50,000 which the university has been paying since leasing the site in 2005.

Refurbishing the lovely, 3,500 sq ft, Grade II-listed former Royal Air Force Officers' Mess had cost a big chunk of AVA's HK$30 million start-up fund from the University Grants Committee.

Now, retaining the Kai Tak campus is Aiken's first mission in Hong Kong, and it is understood the colonial building is at the heart of a three-year HK$4 million project to increase the scope of the academy.

Aiken says that while the Communication and Visual Arts Building would remain as the main teaching centre, Kai Tak campus would focus on sculpture and ceramics as well as host conferences, artist-in-residency programmes and outreach projects that can engage the community. Students' open studios would also be here.

The government's decision on the application would be announced in the next few months, according to Aiken.

"Kai Tak campus is an important part of AVA's identity and there would be a problem if AVA lost the Kai Tak campus," Aiken says, adding that the facility had been one of the reasons he signed the three-year contract for the director's job.

The fate of the campus has seen students and alumni staging protests and organising petitions. In the face of the higher rent demand, they held an auction in early August which raised more than HK$680,000 by selling works of art by staff, students and top local artists. Now that the university is paying the old rent for the time being, the money has been put in a foundation for AVA development projects.

"I was very impressed by the students' campaign. It was very committed, proactive, determined, inventive - all those factors made it very impressive," Aiken says. "The auction showed the support from the arts community, collectors and galleries. If [students] take the imagination they put into this problem and apply it to their work, this will be an amazing institution."

However, Aiken warned: "It has overlapped with some social and political issues going on in Hong Kong … The danger is [students might] lose sight of what the original intention was, which was to retain Kai Tak campus and make it a part of the community.

"This comes to a wider agenda - art schools cannot be ivory towers. Artists don't opt out of life; they opt in. Connection with the outside world is very important."

Aiken understands this well, as both a veteran arts educator and as an artist. Born in 1950 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he went to the Chelsea School of Art (now known as Chelsea College of Art and Design) and studied sculpture at The British School at Rome. He had been with Slade for 30 years, directing the school for 10 years and was the Slade Professor of Fine Art.

His own sculptures are on display around the world. His £70,000 (HK$870,000) Monolith and Shadow, a 2.7 metre-long piece of polished Brazilian granite, at University College Hospital, caused controversy when it was unveiled in 2005, with some people arguing the money should have been spent on health services.

Other commissions for public spaces are on the mainland - in Guilin , Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region , and in Jiande, Zhejiang province - and in his home town of Belfast.

It is this connection with the public that Aiken wants to bring to Hong Kong's academic setting.

"There needs to be more of an understanding of what artistic research is … The whole idea of research presented in exhibitions and artistic books is very important and is not fully developed in Hong Kong," says Aiken, a founding member of the European Artistic Research Network.

"I hope to put it more on the agenda, and show that the traditional route is not necessarily the best route when it comes to artistic research. The key is, artists as practitioners need to be at the forefront of the academic institutions. The centre of focus should be artistic production, because that's what we are about."

Aiken is optimistic about the future of Hong Kong, which is why he decided to leave London, where cuts in funding, increases in student fees and "academisation" of fine art - he calls it "demoralisation" - had made him uncomfortable.

Today, AVA is among the top five Baptist University departments - 34 to 35 applicants compete for one place at the AVA, a ratio similar to that at Slade School of Fine Art, says Aiken. And although the art market is rather dislocated between the local artistic community and the international art world, he believes that will change.

"There will be a market for well-trained, well-motivated and articulate students," Aiken says. "Hong Kong, for me, symbolises cultural development at the moment."


John Aiken

Age 62

Director of Baptist University's Academy of Visual Arts.

2000 Slade Professor and Director of the Slade School of Fine Art
1986 Head of Sculpture at Slade School of Fine Art, University College London
1973-75 Rome Scholar in Sculpture at the British School at Rome
1968-73 Studied at Chelsea School of Art [Now Chelsea College of Art and Design]