Lars & the big poo

Published May 28, 2013

At the end of another Hong Kong Art Fair – now rebranded as Art Basel in Hong Kong – one image stays in my mind. On an elevated platform stands Lars Nittve, executive director of the much-heralded M+ Museum, due to open in 2017. He is wearing a brown suit and giving a speech, in front of a gigantic brown inflatable pile of poo by American artist, Paul McCarthy. Was it coincidence, or did Lars carefully choose the suit for the occasion?
Behind the giant-sized poo towers the Ritz Carlton Hotel, whose management probably has its own views about this piece of impromptu public sculpture. When something like this dominates the view to and from your front door, it must feel uncomfortably like a comment.

The poo and other blow-up sculptures, such as Cao Fei’s suckling pig, and a bouncy Stonehenge by Jeremy Deller, are part of a temporary show called Inflation, which occupies the site where the new museum will be built. The positive spin is that this project has had an amazing impact on Hong Kong’s citizenry, affording them the revelation that shit can be art. It is only a small step to realise this also works in reverse.
At the very least it is an antidote to Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck, currently bobbing up and down in Hong Kong Harbour, like it bobbed in Sydney Harbour at the start of this year. The apotheosis of cuteness, it is once again proving wildly popular, which is a reminder of the true nature of the public’s taste in art. It drew even more attention a fortnight ago when it deflated, turning into something that resembled a floating omelette.
The title, Inflation, makes one think of the inflated prices of contemporary art works sold this week at the fair. Yet it also has resonance for the West Kowloon project itself, which is feeling the squeeze due to a hundred percent rise in construction costs over the past few years.

The original budget of HK $21.6 billion, which seemed wildly generous, has now ballooned to HK $47 billion, meaning that CEO, Michael Lynch, and his colleagues, have got to add fund-raising to their list of responsibilities. Perhaps only someone as tough-minded as Lynch could be relied on to pull this off. He will still be obliged to make lots of compromises with the site, and is unlikely to repeat the international architectural contest that has seen six of the world’s top firms (3 European, 3 Asian) submit designs for the M+ Museum. By all accounts the winner has been chosen and will soon be announced.
I’m a little hesitant about giving endorsements on this site, but after spending much of the week at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I feel obliged to say thanks. In most hotels there is a trade-off between what you want and what you need, but the Mandarin seems to have anticipated every desire. It’s also amazing that night after night they shower you with gifts and extras – spray for the feet, spray for the face, anti-jet lag treatment, and so on. Because of the art fair they decided I needed a huge book on art in Hong Kong, and a strange, coloured chocolate sculpture made in the form of a paint pot, brushes and palette. I could make a case for the book, but the chocolate concoction was a bridge too far.

I better stop before this begins to sound like a Susan Kurosawa column, but work lands me in a lot of different hotels and the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, remains my all-time favourite. Although I’ll usually settle for anything that puts a roof over my head, this place always captures my imagination.
At the end of the week came the big announcement that UBS has committed to a global partnership with Art Basel for the fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong. This begs the question: “What happened to Deutsche Bank, who were major partners for the 2013 Hong Kong show?” It also suggests that happy days are here again for the Swiss banks. UBS was hit hard by the GFC and had to scale down its burgeoning art activities. Now it seems to be scaling back up again.
How typical that the first thing UBS does when it feels like flexing its corporate muscle, is to start sponsoring major art events. This is also true for Deutsche Bank, and a range of other big financial institutions. It would be marvellous if the habit caught on in Australia, where the big four banks make rather tokenistic contributions to the visual arts. Little by little one sees the NAB, Commonwealth and ANZ logos appearing on signs and brochures, (Westpac seems more resistant to art than its peers), but it remains small scale considering the profits these banks accrue every year – largely due to fees, charges and inflated interest rates on credit cards.

As Art Basel in Hong Kong demonstrates it is possible to use art events to reach a very wide audience – an audience that may have previously had no special interest in art. It is also a fact that contemporary art is associated with a particular sort of upwardly mobile lifestyle, and such people are exactly the sort of clients coveted by the banks. Ten years ago Hong Kong had less interest in art than almost any metropolis that could rightfully call itself a world city. Now it is home to some of the leading dealers in the world, it has the third biggest art fair, and is undertaking the world’s largest arts development project.
Could it ever happen in Sydney? It would require a complete revolution in the way corporate and government entities think about the visual arts. It would also help if we could shift the country a little closer to China. If we can’t do it geographically, we might think how to do it in cultural terms. It would be a shame if the much-vaunted resources boom came and went without conferring any lasting benefits on the arts. When all the iron ore is gone people will still be visiting art museums.