Eric Niebuhr finds unexpected moments of poetry in Hong Kong’s urban landscape

The theme of American artist's upcoming solo exhibition is dragon holes – those gaps in buildings that, in feng shui parlance, allow the dragon to fly through freely

Dragon Holes No. 4 (2014) by Eric Niebuhr.

Artist Eric Niebuhr  lived in America, Europe and Australia before moving to Hong Kong three years ago, whereupon he was immediately struck by the city’s unique visual identity.

To the eyes of the abstract painter, Hong Kong is more than the clichéd concrete jungle, the harbour and the hills. Niebuhr wants to capture what he sees every day, walking down streets where patches of  sky are framed by endless rows of skyscrapers, and where amid the polluted, harsh, urban landscape, unexpected moments of poetry can be found.

The theme of his upcoming solo exhibition is dragon holes – those gaps in buildings that alleviate the suffocating “wall effect” of giant developments, or in feng shui parlance, holes for the dragon to fly through freely.

Dragon Holes No. 7 (2015) by Eric Niebuhr.

He keeps a logbook of buildings that have them: The Repulse Bay; the Bel-Air high-rises; the Arch in west Kowloon; the Central Government Offices, to name a few. These holes appeal to his interest in exploring the mysterious, he says.

“My friend said something about feng shui and the dragon holes the other day that I agreed with. With dragon holes, Hong Kong has managed to find a spiritual dimension in an incredibly material environment,”  says the artist.

The other visual ingredients he has incorporated into the Dragon Hole series are the colours that are so popular with builders here most long-term residents have simply blocked them out.

Dragon Holes No. 6 (2014) by Eric Niebuhr.

“Hong Kong really is a multi-coloured canvas of pastels. I was walking down Shau Kei Wan Road  and, suddenly, looking down the street, there was an arrangement of pinks, teals, pale purples and dull beige,” he says.

The Dragon Hole series of pictures capture the concentration and the “overlapping” (some would read, clashing) of these colours against gaps that open up to the sky, he adds.

Square canvases are filled with close-up studies of dragon holes of various shapes and colours, the latter reflecting the different shades the Hong Kong sky comes in. The holes are framed by thick, viscous, paint of different pastel colours that run into and merge with each other, an amorphous quality that is perhaps absent in reality but suggestive of how the changing light – or indeed feng shui energies – bounce off the tiled buildings.

Dragon Holes No. 8 (2015) by Eric Niebuhr.

These are more than abstract images of dragon holes, he says. “I became fascinated with the idea of a portal, both in the architecture and in the painting, which could take the viewer from one space into another,” he says. He is also interested in how the framing of space relates to the use of the void in traditional Chinese paintings.

Born in Texas, Niebuhr has taught art extensively, including at the National Art School in Sydney,  and was previously a visiting artist at the Australian National University. Here in Hong Kong, he makes his living teaching English at a local kindergarten, which may have little to do with art but leaves him time to work in his studio in Fo Tan.

On November 7, Niebuhr and three other speakers will hold a discussion on feng shui and Hong Kong architecture as part of Art Gallery Week.

Dragon Holes, Ka Kee Gallery of Objects, Shop C6, G/F, 143 Second Street, Sai Ying Pun,  Tue-Sat, 12:30pm-6:30pm. October 28 to December 11