Hong Kong’s skyline is turned into a catwalk thanks to artist’s gift for painting skyscrapers as fashion models
For the past 10 years, Wilson Shieh has been working on a series of paintings mainly depicting women dressed as some of Hong Kong’s most iconic buildings, and it has resulted in his ‘Architecture Costume’ exhibition
Is it possible to combine voluptuous female figures with the dull-looking vertical lines of the city’s skyscrapers?
This is the question Wilson Shieh has been exploring over the last 10 years, creating a series of paintings mainly depicting women dressed up as some of the most iconic buildings of Hong Kong. Some of his latest artworks can now be seen in the exhibition “Architecture Costume”, which will be held at the Experimental Gallery of the Hong Kong Arts Centre until Sunday.
The paintings portray demur figures wrapped up in the likes of the HSBC headquarters, the Hopewell Centre or the IFC Tower. They are re-imagined by Shieh as semi-transparent dresses, with their top floors, roofs, and telecommunication repeaters becoming improbable hats.
“I am trying to create a contrasting image: architecture is very masculine, and I combine it with the female body,” Shieh says.
The 47-year-old artist created his first “architecture costume” a decade ago but since then, he has dabbled in other styles – such as his 2012 solo outing at the Osage Gallery in Kwun Tong – but kept returning to this theme. His continual reinterpretation of the Hong Kong skyline has become one of Shieh’s signature series.
“In fairs and exhibitions, people started asking me if I had more of them,” he says.
To avoid repetition, the artist has started adding new elements, using heritage buildings such as the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower or The Peninsula hotel, and creating playful paintings that group together constructions like the six tallest skyscrapers of the city, or Hong Kong’s most pointed towers.
The depiction of women embodying skyscrapers, the ultimate sign of male-dominated corporate culture, has been at times read as a subversive feminist statement. But Shieh prefers to shift away from such explanation. “I open up my works for people to interpret them, I am focused on creating interesting images,” he says.
Shieh is one of the most successful visual artists in Hong Kong, and he became well-known during the late 1990s thanks to his erotic and mischievous vignettes, painted in Chinese traditional fine-brush ink painting technique, or gongbi.
It’s not by chance that the artist has found inspiration in the towering buildings of the city, as he studied architecture for a year in the University of Hong Kong, before pursuing a degree in fine arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“We used to go out and look at the facades of buildings, they tell a lot about the history of the city,” he remembers.
In the past, Shieh took part in a campaign to save an endangered old village in the New Territories, Ma Shi Po. But “Architecture costumes” only includes the flashiest buildings of Hong Kong, leaving aside part of the disappearing architectural heritage of the city, such as the residential walk-ups, seen by many as quintessential Hong Kong.
“They are very difficult to recognise from a distance … I have not found the best way to use them,” Shieh says.
At the same time, the exhibition surprisingly stays away from any in-depth exploration into the changing political landscape of the city since the handover.
Instead, there are two sets of paintings with males and female characters portraying the main skyscrapers of Hong Kong before and after 1997, that focus on the changing architectural features of the city over the last three decades.
“It’s a way to capture the change,” Shieh says.
Architecture Costume – Gongbi Figure Painting by Wilson Shieh, open daily, 11am to 6pm, until June 24. Experimental Gallery, 3F, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai.