On the edge: How acclaimed 'man on rooftop' sculptures nearly fell victim to fear of public criticism in Hong Kong
Bernard Chan says an art installation's difficult journey to a Hong Kong launch underlines how risk-averse businesses and government officials have become
This is about the hosting of public art. Early last year, British sculptor Antony Gormley was due to put on a large outdoor installation here of fibreglass human figures called . Some of the statues would have been positioned on office blocks in Central. Seen from the street, it would look as if someone was standing right on the edge or corner of the rooftop.
The work had already been shown in London, Sao Paulo and New York. According to the artist, the public often liken the works to "guardians protecting the city from harm".
Unfortunately, the exhibition did not take place in Hong Kong. An investment bank in one of the office blocks asked the landlord to pull out after an employee committed suicide by jumping off the building. We can see why the tenant would perhaps be concerned about what employees or their families might feel.
But from most people's objective point of view, the sad event was unconnected to the art show. The landlord was in a potentially difficult position and ended up taking the easy and safe option - avoid any possibility of controversy - by cancelling the event.
As chairman of the art working group for the Central Police Station revitalisation project, I know that organisers are taking precautions.
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To some extent, these are necessary. In London and New York, the police received calls from members of the public who mistook figures as suicide attempts. The display also prompted concerns about the statues' possible effect on people suffering depression.
In Hong Kong, organisers have to be especially careful. Will someone complain about the nude statues' genitalia? Elisabeth Frink's work had to appear with a cardboard fig leaf some years ago. And an advertisement featuring Michelangelo's David drew complaints of obscenity. Officials do worry that creative work involving nudity will lead to complaints.
Organisers have considered the possibility that passers-by may feel someone is watching them - and even the statues' possible impact on feng shui.
It is not that someone will simply see a figure and decide to jump from a building. The concern is more that the statues could trigger memories or thoughts among people who might be vulnerable or depressed. That could lead to further depression, which could lead to further problems.
But of course all sorts of sights and sounds could trigger negative feelings in someone at any time. It is hardly a reason to cancel an art show.
The delay and nervousness over suggest that Hong Kong people are oversensitive. Personally, I do not think it is local people who are being oversensitive. The real problem, I would say, is that businesses and public bodies are so scared of criticism.