By Amanda Hui, Ambrose Li, and Arianna Mercado
In Hong Kong, a subdivided flat can hardly fit a bed frame, but at least your mattress is about three steps away from the kitchen.
Amidst the glamour of Atelier Swarovski and the flashiness of fashion brand initial’s booth at Art Central, there is an empty box. Hong Kong artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam’s work, Pavilion for Our Living, replicated a 130 sq.ft. subdivided flat—a regular living situation for many of their friends. With lights and audio recordings, they diagram where the bed, kitchen and toilet are located.
Wong and Lam tackle only the tip of an iceberg of problems encountered by people working in the arts in Hong Kong: a curator, a theatre manager, a musician, an artist. While large-scale contemporary art endeavours such as Art Basel, M+, and H Queen’s continue to develop and project a colourful and progressive image of the Hong Kong art scene, the reality among working artists and others in creative fields is often much bleaker.
Vincent Chan, co-owner of Leo Gallery and a director of Hong Kong Art Galleries Association, said one of the biggest challenges local galleries face is actually increased competition from international galleries.
Contrary to popular belief, lack of space may not even be the main problem. “The control of money and spaces that can be allocated to the arts is dominated mostly by the government,” said John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong. That opens the possibility of censorship and homogenisation, he said.
It is common to see the government remove artworks from public spaces. Last year, yarn-bombing pieces in Causeway Bay by a local art group Le Belle Epoque were removed, despite the artist and property owner following proper protocol. Ultimately, the work remained after public protests. Foreign artists receive similar treatment, such as when authorities removed works by French street artist Invader less than a month after its installation in 2014.
Wong said there is a polarised development in the cultural sector. There are plenty of art events in the city, yet few of them actively engage the public. For events like Art Central and Art Basel, he said, “it is 100% profit-making so it is not their main goal to promote local art or educate the public about the arts.” Wong believes that rather than focusing on making millions, arts and culture should stimulate creativity.
The Arts Development Council gives out about HK$1 million each year to support young artists in music, theatre, visual arts and other disciplines. Unfortunately, there are few initiatives that are philanthropic or artist-run.
Batten would rather see the government allocate space to independent groups. Doing so would allow for diversity and a variety of options for younger artists to further hone their craft and express their creativity, especially as commercial galleries tend to prefer more established artists for their roster of exhibitions. In this way, artists may not be as bound to producing revenue or to subscribing only to a particular idea.
Despite its efforts to present itself as a global art hub, Hong Kong continues to be a difficult place for local artists to work. Wong said he didn’t expect to see drastic changes to the industry, but he plans to continue working toward a more public-spirited arts scene.
This story is published as part of CJC Fellowship 2018 with the support from Swire Properties’ ArtisTree at Taikoo Place and MG Interactive.