Material whirl

YOU MAY HAVE seen art in shopping malls. But how about a shopping mall inside a museum? A new exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum examines the issue of consumerism in art by playing on one of Hongkongers' favourite pastimes.

MEGartSTORE, which opens on Sunday, showcases art in the context of a simulated mall. Curator Judy Chan Lee Suk-yee says the idea is to let viewers experience art in a familiar environment. 'We're trying to place art in the public's daily life,' Chan says.

A team of architects and designers was recruited to help transform a 7,500sqft museum gallery into a mini-mall, in which will be displayed more than 300 pieces from the museum's collection of contemporary works, including sculptures, paintings, photographs and installations.

The show is part of the museum's continuing efforts to balance its role in displaying antiquities as well as contemporary art. 'This is the third, large-scale contemporary art exhibition we've had in the past four years,' says Chan. 'Heritage is about contemporary as well as traditional. We have a good collection of both.'

Walls and partitions divide the gallery into five shopping-related areas - Food & Beverage, Health & Beauty, Home & Garden, Leisure & Entertainment and a Rest Area - each of which has been designed accordingly and displays grouped thematically. The museum also picked five local artists to create installations for each area: Lam Wai-hung, Stella Tang Ying-chi, Annie Wan Lai-kuen, Amy Cheung Wai-man and Tsang Kin-wah.

Chan says the main curatorial goal of the project was to create a highly visual experience that would challenge the way people approach and appreciate art. In some cases, the presentation is unorthodox, with pieces dangling from clothes' lines, hanging from supermarket shelves and installed in a make-up counter.

Shopping bags will be handed out at the entrance, and visitors can fill them with cards describing the artworks. There will also be interactive audiovisuals giving information about the pieces. And volunteers, dressed as salespeople, will be on hand to answer questions and 'sell' people on the displays.

By putting art in the context of a shopping environment - in which people act on impulse and respond to stimuli such as light, colour and texture - Chan hopes to elicit more instinctual reactions. 'We want people to look at these pieces and say, 'Wow, I never thought art could be like that'.'

She also hopes to take some of the solemnity out of viewing art. 'Going to a museum doesn't have to be so serious,' says Chan. 'It's for appreciation, enjoyment; it's for everyone. The public isn't used to thinking of art as something accessible at all. But you can decorate your house with art.'

Tsang, whose installation in the Rest Area marks the last stop on the shopping route, says the exhibition is particularly experimental for Hong Kong. 'It's looking at art as a product.'

Given the increasing visibility of art in public and commercial spaces during the past five years, Hong Kong may be ripe for this kind of exhibition. Having art in public places increases its exposure to people who might not go to museums, Chan says.

Although the museum is using Hong Kong's obsession with shopping to lure viewers, the aim isn't to poke fun. 'We're not being ironic,' says Chan. 'We're just trying to present art in a different way.'

And she says that, despite appearances, the intention is not to reproduce a shopping mall. 'It's just a conceptual idea,' she says.

There's social critique among the specially commissioned installations. Possibly the most provocative is Cheung's life-sized wooden army tank modelled after the second world war Russian T34. It's in the Leisure & Entertainment area, and visitors can go inside it and play war video games.

Cheung says the inspiration for the piece came during a trip to Vietnam. After visiting a war museum, she saw Vietnamese hawkers selling small wooden souvenirs of tanks. 'It made me think about the relationship between what's consumable and what should not be consumed,' says Cheung. 'I wanted to create a real life-sized confrontation with this idea.'

Cheung's work and architect Humphrey Wong's design of the Leisure & Entertainment area - with walls made of dozens of stacked plastic toy packages for life-size guns, knives and other weapons - should give visitors plenty to ponder.

'I hope to bring out the message of thinking about violence and how we consume it,' Cheung says. 'There's little discussion of politics in Hong Kong. We can just shop and not think about politics.'

MEGartSTORE, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Rd., Sha Tin, Jun 4-Nov 27, 10am-6pm (closed Tues). Inquiries: 2180 8188