by John Batten
In Hong Kong’s political sphere, the Chief Executive election is now over. It was a ‘done deal’, ‘fixed’ for another five years. The new administration is planning its succession to government right now. It will be more of the same with the addition of a few new faces in the Executive Council, but the same old faces in the back-rooms doing the deals and networking amongst themselves as they have done for generations. The general public can shrug and look on – but, at crucial moments, can still raise their voices at the obvious wrongs and mistakes that inevitably will happen when government like this gets too cosy and complacent.
Also, just ended, is the little storm that arrives every year: Art Basel Hong Kong, the yearly art fair that fills the Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Centre with international art galleries and rich collectors, art voyeurs and the promoters, sales and marketing hangers-on that always mix at any high-monied event. And like a sudden storm, Art Basel disappears as suddenly as it came, and Hong Kong’s art rhythms return to normal.
Combining aspects of the political and art is an impressive exhibition now on at Rossi & Rossi art gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, running until mid-April. Siah Armajani was born in 1939 in Tehran, Iran and moved to the USA in 1960 – leaving behind the politically repressive Shah regime then in power in Iran; an experience that has influenced his thinking and art. In this comprehensive exhibition are drawings, conceptual architectural models, sculpture and recent works on paper covering sixty years of work.
Armajani studied philosophy in Minnesota and settled, setting-up a studio, in the supportive art environment of Minneapolis. His interests cover Persian poetry, philosophy – particularly political ideas of free will and democracy – and a strong appreciation for American vernacular architecture. These have been translated into objects and architectural spaces, often in homage to literary, philosophical and political figures and displayed in public places. His artwork is both sculptural and practical. He says, “I am interested in the nobility of usefulness. My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places – gathering places that are neighbourly.”
He designs and then makes models from wood, steel, plastic and other materials; these are often later built for a range of practical uses: elevated walkways in the form of bridges and stairways, and pavilions, gazebos and shelters; places to meet, socialize or for solitary meditation. In this exhibition, a cross-section of models are on display, complemented by drawings. Armajani’s models however are not just theoretical ideas. His architectural renditions are practical forms, finished with a touch of artistic naïveté: the work of the non-architect, but an artist wishing his forms realized and of practical use for people. His ideas are rooted in the real word: with the hope that engineers and contractors build these ideas into a large-scale form.
And, amazingly, most of his architectural ideas are built! His fantastic bridges cross busy roadways and his quiet gazebos are placed in parks around the USA and in Europe. That is inspirational. His ideas are translated into public art that is both practical and artistic. It is spiritually uplifting to see Armajani’s public art. His work often fills spaces that are bleak – there is nothing more depressing than climbing a steep stairway to reach a barren concrete overpass to cross a road with speeding, noisy traffic below. A person, the human condition itself, is reduced to insignificance in such a harsh environment. It is no wonder that such places are chosen by some in which to end their lives. But Armajani’s stairways and bridges are an extension of good living and good planning – it says: someone cares, even if that ‘someone’ is an anonymous government official working in the name of a faceless government department.
Our built environment mirrors those that build it.
With just a little care, and appreciation of art and creative thinking, Hong Kong’s hostile concrete spaces can be loosened up to offer the physical proof of a brighter future. We too can follow Armajani’s inspiration: can’t we build some wacky, fantastic and unconventional pedestrian overpass bridges to replace the dreadful, concrete, soul-destroying eyesores we now have?
John Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group