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The art of drawing a crowd

Hong Kong, 21 February 2024: Sixty years ago this month, a renowned Gothenburg gallery hosted an exhibition of contemporary paintings by avant-garde artists, including four works by an obscure Frenchman named Pierre Brassau. Critics gushed over his “powerful strokes” delivered with “the delicacy of a ballet dancer”, unaware that Brassau didn’t exist. The paintings had been done by a chimpanzee called Peter, who lived at the city’s zoo, in a stunt devised by Ake Axelsson, a journalist who was sceptical about the merits of modern art. Perhaps proving his point, even after the hoax was revealed, a private collector purchased one of Peter’s works.

Art, clearly, is in the eye of the beholder. Hence the fact that some citizens are captivated by Hong Kong’s latest creative masterpiece: giant heart-shaped balloons floating above the skyline. The “Chubby Hearts” art installation, by renowned British fashion designer Anya Hindmarch, has been running since Valentine’s Day. It comprises one giant heart, measuring 12 metres in diameter, tethered to a site in Central, and multiple smaller ones which make “pop-up” appearances at different locations each day.

City leader John Lee approves, telling citizens at the launch ceremony: “I trust your hearts are as chubby as mine on this splendid day!” Ms Hindmarch considers it “an art piece within the landscape” conveying a simple message of love, while Sam Lam from the Hong Kong Design Centre, organiser of the installation, believes it “transcends a sense of empathy”. Quite.

So, love is in the air? Perhaps. The installation has proved popular, attracting 200,000 people in its first three days, while UK-based data analysis firm Brandwatch credits it with gaining huge traction on social media. Even so, if some onlookers praise the balloons for bringing “romantic ambience” and being “good for photographs”, others are unmoved. One florist, irked by Yau Tsim Mong district council giving out roses and chocolates at one of the sites, asks: “Who will buy my flowers?” Her comments echo frustration in the industry over reduced Valentine’s Day sales – down by 40% according to some – a trend reflected in just 180 couples getting married on the auspicious day, almost half the number who did so in pre-pandemic 2019.

Then there is the cost to taxpayers. After some persuading, the government has revealed it is donating HK$7.8 million from its Mega Arts and Cultural Events Fund to cover curation, production, security and the like. Hong Kong Tourism Association executive director Timothy Chui insists it is money well spent, citing fierce competition among tourism-reliant cities: “I think the brand effect and internationalisation displayed are what Hong Kong needs now.” Doubtful lawmaker Doreen Kong wants “more transparency” over such decision-making and questions whether, despite drawing decent crowds, the balloons deserve “mega event” status.

If nothing else, the “Chubby Hearts” installation has at least brought smiles to faces and, hopefully, focused the spotlight on arts in general. Which is appropriate, given that our city, beneath its financial market sheen, has a creative core. One example is “Paint Beautiful Hong Kong”, an ambitious project by businesswoman Vikky Tam, in conjunction with Finnish artist Riitta Kuisma, to create brightly coloured murals of exotic animals and flowers on walls around the city. A small army of volunteers has waded in with paint pots and brushes, resulting in 27 such displays.

Already, expectations are high for next month’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, with more than 240 galleries worldwide displaying works. The exhibition is the flagship event of our city’s Art Week, which will begin with the first-ever Hong Kong International Cultural Summit, on 24-26 March, when almost 30 overseas arts institutions are expected to sign deals with the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority to bring major exhibitions, events and performances to town. Attendees will include officials from the British Museum, France’s Palaces of Versailles and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar (which I can proudly claim to have visited, albeit on a football-free day at the World Cup).

Good news all around, then? Not quite. The same West Kowloon Cultural District Authority which is about to sign up for these artistic blow-outs is running out of money. CEO Betty Fung has revealed the arts hub’s HK$21.6 billion funding endowed by the city’s legislature in 2008 will fizzle out next year. Even with its two biggest attractions, M+ Museum and Palace Museum, drawing a combined four million visitors per year, ticket sales cover less than half the running costs. Without further government support, the body may have to rely on bank loans, a predicament she labels “unheard of”. Culture minister Kevin Yeung assures us: “We will continue to work with them to solve the problems.”

Happily for Betty and Co, our government does have a record of largesse in supporting attractions that put Hong Kong on the map. Aside from the sum handed to “Chubby Hearts”, some HK$16 million was earmarked to help stage Lionel Messi’s exhibition match here earlier this month, until red-faced organisers withdrew their funding application after his infamous no-show. The fallout from that episode continues, with the Argentine superstar this week releasing a video on Chinese social media explaining why he couldn’t play. Will it appease irate fans? Unlikely.

Still, “Messi-gate” may one day be portrayed on canvas, if Callan Grecia is suitably inspired. The South African artist currently has an exhibition in Cape Town entitled Beef in which he has painted images of red cards, fouls and other notorious football incidents. Will his show come to Hong Kong? We can only hope.

Either way, it is reassuring to know that six decades after Peter’s brief brush with fame, modern art is still embracing suspect behaviour and – ahem – other monkey business.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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