Naked truth too much to bare

A CARDBOARD fig leaf has been used to cover the distinguishing features of a sculpture by an internationally acclaimed artist following a ruling by the Obscene Articles Tribunal.

Art experts are outraged over the ruling which has deemed the bronze sculpture New Man, by Dame Elisabeth Frink on display in Kailey Tower in Central, as indecent because it depicts a nude lifesize male.

The Hong Kong Arts Development Council criticised the ruling as an appalling exercise of judgment which may set a precedent for curbing artistic freedom of expression.

'It's a terrifying precedent of censorship,' said Oscar Ho Hing-kay, exhibition director at the Hong Kong Arts Centre and a development council member.

'This is going to have tremendous implications for artistic freedom. If you look at the sculpture, in no way is it implying any kind of arousal, there's nothing sexual about it,' Mr Ho said.

'The whole judgment almost makes Hong Kong society go back to the 19th century - it's like saying nudity is a bad thing.' The owner of the sculpture, Woo Po-shing, through his company Kailey Enterprises Ltd, made the application for classification to the Obscene Articles Tribunal after the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority responded to an anonymous complaint.

An avid art lover, Mr Woo also recently had a Henry Moore female figure on display in the building, although it is now on exhibit elsewhere but not because of any complaints from the public.

Licensing authority officers inspected the work of art - which Mr Ho has estimated was bought at Christies in London for GBP40,000 to GBP50,000 (HK$491,200 to $614,000) - and advised the firm to cover up the allegedly offensive parts.

'After the complaint, to be 100 per cent sure, we thought it was best to make an application for classification. We thought it was best to cover up the genital area with the fig leaf in the meantime,' a spokesman for the company said.

'The company, and the owner, are extremely disappointed at the outcome, we think it is a very fine piece of art.

'We are quite surprised by the ruling, that people in Hong Kong look upon it with a different eye. The ruling is saying that displaying the full nude body is indecent.

'If you look at the kind of obscenity that is implied in some comics, there's no way that compares with the sculpture,' he said.

The future of the bronze is currently up in the air following the June 1 ruling, he added, saying that the firm will be consulting their lawyers.

A tribunal spokesman said after the request was made for classification by the owner, it was declared indecent by the panel.

'We do not give reasons for our classification,' she said. 'But from the photographs the panel saw of the sculpture, they made their decision.' Legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai has also expressed anger at the tribunal's decision.

'What this decision seems to be saying is that if any nude is exhibited in a public place, it's indecent.

'The tribunal was made up of an all-male panel who were intent on protecting the morals of young girls.

'They took the same approach as they would if they were watching a pornographic film - just cut out the unacceptable bits.

'Elisabeth Frink's sculpture is not about sex, it's about humanity. The emphasis is on the face, not the genitals,' she said.

Dame Elisabeth's work has been regularly exhibited in collections at major art museums such as the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1989 she had a major exhibition of male nudes similar to New Man at Exchange Square, where another piece The Pair of Water Buffaloes currently stands.