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Platform for world-class art

As more metro lines open in the city, the MTR is dressing up its new stations with fresh arts that are a delight to watch and often have a role in aiding passenger movement. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Professor Lee Ho-yin, head of architectural conservation programs, University of Hong Kong (HKU), was impressed. He seemed quite taken by the happy marriage between aesthetic appeal and functionality in Benson Kwun Tin-yau's installation, Flow, put up in the yet-to-be-opened Ocean Park Station of Hong Kong MTR. The fish-shaped sculptures were arranged in a loose crescent suspended from the ceiling, each reflecting the spiffy, new, untrodden interiors of the station on its polished steel surface.

"The piece is very dynamic," said Lee, who only saw an image of the artwork but knew from experience that this one checked a lot of boxes. It was clever, unobtrusive and contained a dash of local flavor, the fish motif being an apt metaphor for a station which doubled as the gateway to the city's favorite marine park. "Also it follows a principle of modern design by leaving visual cues to help commuters, conforms to the modernist way of designing things in which form follows function, and does it aesthetically," said Lee.

Indeed, it is possible to read the shoaling fish overhead as a giant circular arrow, pointing in the direction of the turnstiles leading to the exit. It was a smart move by the MTR design team, arrived at after a careful reconsideration of the artist's original pitch.

"When I looked at the original, it failed my basic safety test on many levels," says Andrew Mead, chief architect of MTR. Kwun had visualized his creation as a free-standing sculpture, to be installed on the ground level. This was impractical, given the many pointy ends the sculpture had.

"So we took that sculpture from the floor and lifted it up to the ceiling," says Mead. "We wanted the curves to echo where people would actually be turning in the station. At the point where passengers turn to ride the escalator we have the fish swimming down to indicate it's a downward escalator."

When MTR opens its much awaited South Island Line on Dec 28, there might be more to look forward to than just a faster way of reaching downtown from the southern tip of Hong Kong Island. A fresh set of artworks created by Hong Kong artists Tse Ngan-sum, Castaly Leung Ching-man, Cheung Wai-lok and Karen Pow Cheuk-mei promises to enhance the travelling experience of those who pass through Lei Tung and South Horizon stations, both aesthetically and in terms of aiding ease of movement.

The primary objective of making art a part of the transit experience, however, is to be able to connect with at least a section of the 5 million people the MTR ferries every day. "We are trying to do art that engages with our communities," says Mead. "We are not trying to get controversial, do nothing that's unsuitable for the kids - no politics, no sex, no religion. At the same time we want to expose people to different aspects of art and different movements of art."

He would like each passenger to find a favorite among the around 65 permanent exhibits installed across the MTR stations, and even criticise a piece they may not particularly like. "I don't want passengers to draw a blank. I want a reaction," he adds.

Lots in a name

The artist Lam Tung-pang had a taste of art triggering emotion and memories even as he was creating the two rather large murals (23 and 21 meters long) recently installed at Whampoa station on the Kwun Tong Extension Line.

Lam created the murals on the basis of children's drawings. He led workshops with over a 100 primary school children who were asked to respond creatively to their immediate surroundings in Whampoa. Lam had collected an enormous array of old photographs of the Whampoa docks to serve as reference, as the murals were also going to be about local heritage.

"Some of the adults accompanying the children had memories of the area which were rekindled after I showed them the old photographs," says Lam, describing how more and more people kept participating and adding to his amorphous bag of resource as the workshops progressed.

"For instance, parents remembered the power station in the photos emitting charcoal smoke, and them having to wear a mask in class. So we had firsthand recounting of lived experience," says Lam. Much of these memories informed Lam's murals - called History and Imagination -many actually figuring in them.

And then to give the children a sense of ownership of the piece to which they had contributed, Lam urged them to put down their names as well as that of their schools in the picture. "I would like their classmates to discover these names as they walk past the murals, and say, wow, that's my school or that's someone I know. I would really like to spread the word through their experience."

Safety issues

The MTR authorities, it seems, are fine with the idea of people trying to claim a piece of their art. The Blooming Bud sculpture - an enormous metallic split apple created by Lao U-kei and Lau Kung-wah in Kennedy Town Station - makes for a much favored selfie-background. It's also a hit with children who sometimes climb on top, treating its smooth-cut sides like a slide in the park.

Mead is cool about it. He assures well-wishers worrying about the life-expectancy of the sculpture that "it's stainless steel and bullet-proof" and will probably withstand a few more scratches left on its surface. The handprints of local residents left on the skin of the apple, he says, represent their involvement in and support to the growth and development of Kennedy Town. "The highly polished finish reflects not only the interior of the station, but also the people that pass by in a never-ending kaleidoscope of color and pattern. The artwork is a permanent tribute to the people of Kennedy Town."

In fact, Mead seems more concerned about the safety of people rather than an artwork's resilience against the marks of public affection. "Basically we work on the principle of having nothing combustible in a station. I tell artists you can work with any material you want to as long as it is stone, steel or glass. Every artwork you see in the MTR is a variation on those."

Supporting local talent

The artists commissioned to create site-specific artworks for MTR stations are mostly from Hong Kong, or - like John Young and Louise Soloway Chan - have a strong Hong Kong connection. They know the local turf well and are often keen to put their relationship with the city at the center of their MTR project.

Chan, originally from Britain, married a local Chinese gentleman and has lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years. Her artwork, bass relief panels in Sai Ying Pun Station, bring together the past and present of a neighborhood where a congested, traditional wet market shares a wall with trendy Western-style cafeteria, both overflowing with the intense minutiae of daily life.

Mead, who is particularly fond of the piece although he did not commission it, remarks "how an outsider can bring in a particular view of a location that sometimes the locals can miss", capturing the spirit of the place in its raw essence.

Lee says the piece illustrates that art in MTR has come of age. "I find while in the past the artworks in the MTR would be simple, if slightly provincial, those installed in the last few years are sometimes of a world-class artistic quality," he says. "Moreover, these are stuff local people can relate to. Most art pieces in the MTR would inspire people to spend a few minutes thinking about the city and the neighborhood they belong to. These artworks mirror the living culture of Hong Kong."

By giving local artists an opportunity to display their work in spaces through which millions of people, including a huge number of visitors from abroad, pass every day, the MTR has proved to be a platform for promoting local talent. Although most people do not step inside an MTR station because they want to check out the latest installation, few other exhibition spaces in the city can give an artist as much exposure.

It could be the reason why Frog King (aka Kwok Mang-ho) - something of a local celebrity, well-known for his distinctive artistic idiom and personal style, and someone whose creations command a reasonably high price in the local art market - did not mind competing with others for an MTR commission he eventually won. A two-sided sculpture and a couple loopy arches bearing his signature frog motif now stand outside the Ho Man Tin station, giving the natural greenery around that space a quirky spin.

Meg Maggio, director of Pkin Fine Arts gallery, applauds MTR's concerted effort to support local artists. "MTR was an early advocate on behalf of public artworks in Hong Kong, with a decent budget to pay the artists," says Maggio. "These projects are a terrific opportunity for artists to interact via their artwork with huge daily audiences. It's a great chance for an artist to show his work to all, reaching audiences beyond art-world circles."