Historic Hong Kong police compound’s mystery ‘Rehearsal’ as future arts hub

An exclusive ticket, complete with a warning, and a ban on photos intrigues the Post before a visit to the former Central Police Station compound

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2018, 9:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2018, 9:48am

The invitation came shrouded in mystery.

It started with a chirpy “See you at Rehearsal!” but ended with a warning that the invitation could not be duplicated, exchanged, transferred or sold, and the invitees may be required to show their identification before entry.

It was an exclusive ticket to a private art exhibition, aptly called “Rehearsal”, as it was the first event to take place at Hong Kong’s 154-year-old former Central Police Station compound, which has been turned into a heritage and arts centre after a makeover lasting several years.

The HK$1.8 billion (US$230.8 million) conservation project on Hollywood Road, led by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is expected to partially open to the public in late May.

“Rehearsal”, a test exhibition at the Central Police Station’s centrepiece, Tai Kwun Contemporary, is a 22-day exhibition that started on March 25, featuring 20 local and international artists.

A Jockey Club spokeswoman said about 1,300 members of the art community – including students and overseas art stakeholders – and their friends were invited to the exhibition in the newly built art gallery space on top of a historic printing house.

Tai Kwun, or Big Station, is the compound’s colloquial name.

“Rehearsal is an exercise of the future contemporary art space in operation,” the invitation reads. “[It emphasises] the discovery of errors, and the corresponding adjustments and solutions. With this invitation, you are invited to engage with us in making the first experience of a new art space tangible.”

So the Post went.

Before entering the compound, visitors were required to leave their business cards, and put on a helmet and reflective safety gear. Those in heels or open-toed shoes were also required to change into a pair of white trainers on the site.

“[The compound] is still a construction site,” a staff member kindly reminded guests, looking apologetic for the trouble. “We just opened this gallery for this exhibition.”

Taking photos was not allowed at the site.

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Invitees could only move around the art galleries with the rest of the compound barred for entry.

The sound of construction reverberated in the air. From an open space in front of the gallery one could see the back of the old Victoria Prison, marked by three long rows of high windows. First built in the 1840s and reconstructed in the 1860s, it only ceased to function in 2006, making it Hong Kong’s longest operating prison. Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was jailed there for more than six months in 1931, the Japanese military tortured prisoners in the compound during the second world war, and during the bloody 1967 leftist riots, officers set up a control room in the compound.

The gallery building is connected to the prison yard, where inmates used to have their exercise. Four tall trees stand in round planters in the centre of the yard and each is surrounded by four stools.

Guests used a stone staircase spiralling through the four-storey gallery like a ribbon. The spacious exhibition rooms all had high ceilings, white walls and white lighting.

“Our exhibition selected artworks that enhance the space,” another staff member said.

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One example, she said, was the famous sound artwork I Am Sitting in a Room by American experimental composer Alvin Lucier. The piece features Lucier recording himself narrating a text, playing the recording back into the room, and then re-recording it. The process is repeated until the resonant frequencies of the room render the words unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself.

“[Lucier] also came on the first day of the exhibition,” the staff member said, her eyes glistening with excitement. “It was really surreal because he was a real person sitting in front of you making his recording, while his recording was also played in the room. It was quite amazing.”

Other artists featured in the exhibition include Hong Kong’s Ko Sin-tung, Lee Kit and Lee Lee Chan, New York-based Japanese artist Aki Sasamoto, and Chinese landscape painter Qiu Shihua.

A third staff member told the Post that the galleries would later be open for the public to apply to hold exhibitions. She said there might be one or two such application chances a year but details such as who would be qualified were still unknown.

The compound, built between 1864 and 1925, consists of 16 historic buildings grouped under the police station, the former Central Magistracy and the prison.

“As the name ‘Rehearsal’ suggests, the exercise involves testing of the facilities and systems and collecting participants’ feedback, which is part of the preparation works for the operation of the art galleries,” the Jockey Club spokeswoman said.

The Post earlier reported that the Jockey Club had targeted to partially open the compound in late May.

But at least one building – the three-storey Married Inspectors’ Quarters built in 1864 – may remain closed due to ongoing efforts to restore a wall and part of its roof, which collapsed in 2016, a few months before the conservation was expected to be completed.

The gallery and a newly built 200-seat auditorium were both designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. The gallery has a total exhibition space of 16,000 square feet and the ceilings are as high as seven metres (23 feet).

In a blog post last September, Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun said the arts centre was expected to feature six to eight exhibitions every year. It is hoped to become one of the most important contemporary art centres in Asia.