Hong Kong heritage complex’s first contemporary art show a thought-provoking mix

Taking in everything on show in Dismantling the Scaffold exhibition at former Central Police Station compound will take more than one visit, but on first impression it is witty while making some serious points

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 1:39pm

The official opening exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary begins the moment you set foot in the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, as Hong Kong’s revitalised Central Police Station complex is now known. That’s intentional – the group show is “a response to the rich history of the site”, according to curator Christina Li, of the independent art and culture outfit Spring Workshop.

How the works in the “Dismantling The Scaffold” show, by more than 30 Hong Kong and international artists and art collectives, connect with the city’s newest contemporary art venue may not be immediately apparent, but finding your way to the 1,500 square metre space is an experience in itself.

Entering through the “footbridge gate” above Hollywood Road, I cross the parade ground (look out for the 60-year-old mango tree), and navigate a series of staircases (including the Laundry Steps, one of Tai Kwun’s heritage features) before reaching the prison yard, where the complex’s two new buildings – designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron – loom over its 16 conserved structures, red-brick buildings which date from between 1864 and 1925.

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The first piece from the exhibition, Number of Visitors (2005) by Superflex and Jens Haaning – is right by the entrance to Tai Kwun Contemporary, apparently keeping tabs on the visitors passing through its doors.

The installation asks whether success should be quantified by numbers alone and suggests quantitative measurement can be manipulated – if the counter was accurate, the show had received 26,078 visitors by the time I visited on the morning of June 19, but I have no idea if that number is real or not.

Bing Lee’s installation Animal Farm (2018) covers an entire wall of the gallery’s first floor. The work is part of the artist’s Pictodiary series, which consists of three decades of daily drawings that run to more than 20,000 pages. Despite its Orwellian title, the work is not overtly political. It highlights the artist’s consistent and personal approach to art making, and the venue’s high ceilings and spaciousness enhance the visual impact of the work.

Next is Chapter 4: I Love Xijing – The Daily Life of Xijing Presidents (2009), a mixed media work by the Xijing Men collective that takes a satirical look at the day-to-day running of the fictitious country of Xijing. A video showing how its “presidents” formulate national policies – on education, agriculture, defence, and finance among others – at first seems comical and bizarre, but is uncomfortably close to reality. Banknotes made of tissue paper are a comment on global economic volatility.

There are other works both witty and historically significant on show, from Kwan Sheung-chi and Wong Wai-yin’s Everything goes Wrong for the Poor Couple (2010) and collective LH02’s Killing 3000 (2018), to Roman Ondak’s interactive Measuring the Universe (2007), and Talking about Similarity (1976), a seminal piece by performance artists Ulay and Marina Abramovic.

The exhibition includes two Spring Workshop projects: 2017’s “Precarious Tasks #9: 24hrs Gathering (Timeline)” and “Engaged Gestures” (2018), both curated by Li, that reimagine the history of Hong Kong and suggest all history is personal.

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Taking in all the works on show will need more than one visit. Contemporary art, especially in its conceptual form, challenges audiences. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which financed the Central Police Station project, should be commended for dedicating a good part of the site to fostering not only art and design, but critical thinking.

Dismantling The Scaffold, Tai Kwun Contemporary. Until August 15