(China Daily HK Edition 05/16/2008 page 4)
In the Hong Kong public mind, the images of freight containers point to the city's status as a commercial hub. The functional objects cannot be further away from art, just as the livelihood of Hong Kong seems to exist on a different plane from its cultural life.
Jasmine Chan, a student participant in the Art Container Departure Exhibition, is painting on one container. Nicole Wong
A group of local artists, however, dream the impossible with their Art Container Project. With the theme "Beautiful Journey, Beautiful World", the project will sail around the world, bringing Hong Kong art to the global audience.
The idea of marrying cargoes and art was born in November 2006, when the core members of Mere Independent Artists (MIA), a self-financed group of artists and art administrators, sought a new channel to promote art in the Hong Kong community.
"Art containers aren't a new concept in other countries," said Grace Tang, the project's program coordinator. "It would mark a significant moment in local art history, if we could do a large-scale exhibition in the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD)."
The call drew response from 38 artists, ranging from visual arts to ceramics and architecture. On 37 containers, the artists express a variety of social and personal concerns, such as environmental protection and sense of identity.
Alex Heung is one of the participating artists and the project's designer. In his work Journey, Heung realizes his hopes of introducing Hong Kong art to the world through his loving brushstrokes.
"I joined the project because it's meaningful," Heung said. "The painting is just the beginning. The container will travel around the world and come back with traces of its journey, and interpretations of its meaning by viewers."
In the project's second stage, the cargoes will be used by Emirates Shipping Line to ship its clients' products to worldwide ports for three years. The artists can track the journey of their works on the company's website.
As ambassadors for cultural exchange, the containers will stop in Dubai, where MIA will organize meetings and workshops with local artists. Other ports may be in Africa, India or mainland.
"We chose Dubai because Arabic culture is rich in history and beauty," Tang remarked. "It's a great opportunity for us to learn from their art, especially when it's under-represented in the modern art scene."
An aerial view of the Art Container Departure Exhibition shows two Chinese characters meaning 'Where is Hong Kong art going?'. Courtesy of MIA
"As the containers arrive in different ports, the artists can create new artworks to expand on their original ideas," said Carol Lee, the project's vice-convener. "If there're sufficient funds, the artists will visit their containers overseas."
The meeting of different cultures is represented in Mirage by ceramics artist Lam Chi-kwong. Using a traditional pattern in ceramics, Lam portrays the co-existence of Western and Eastern cultures in a harmonious utopia.
"My work depicts the sea travel, using Western representation and Chinese perspectives," Lam explained. "The most exciting aspect of this project is that my artwork will develop a life of its own throughout its travel."
The identity of Hong Kong is another popular topic in the show. William Lim, architect and artist, celebrates the second decade of Hong Kong's return to its motherland in his work The Journey Home is the Most Beautiful.
"The travel adds a forth dimension - time - to our three dimensional artworks," Lim pinpointed. "It represents a new and apt direction for Hong Kong art, which continues to evolve through its journey home and abroad."
Local art schools students also have the opportunity to express their creativity. Jasmine Chan, a 6-year-old art student, joins her classmates in painting on one of the containers.
"It's the first time my daughter took part in a major art event. I'm terribly excited," Chan's mother, Tracy Liang contended. "The project takes on a wonderful concept, and it's encouraging for young children interested in art."
The project has launched the Art Ambassadors Scheme, which aims to promote art in local schools and different sectors in the city. Under the guidance of art ambassadors, school children create their mini-containers, which will be displayed in the exhibition.
"There'll be future events under the Art Ambassadors Scheme," Tang stressed. "One of our goals is to educate local students on Hong Kong art, which has had a lesser place than Western art in our art education so far."
While the project has won the appreciation of art lovers, the event preparation has not been smooth sailing. Funding is a major issue, since MIA has received rather dismal response to their requests for corporate sponsorship.
"We managed to meet our budget of over HK$4 million," Lee elaborated. "We hope to show that small art groups can succeed in hosting large-scale art events, and we're the ones who're most in need of financial support."
Sky is not the limit: Art containers in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Courtesy of MIA
With the help of friends and associates, MIA has recruited over 200 volunteers for the event. Support from sponsors and official partners also allows for remunerations for participating artists.
"It's crucial for artists to be rewarded for their work, if we're to develop our cultural industry," Tang noted. "It's wrong for some people to think that artists don't get paid, as long as they get exposure."
After the departure exhibition in WKCD on May 17 and 18, the containers will embark on their trip to foreign seas. Upon their return to Hong Kong, MIA hopes to obtain government support and to exhibit the containers in different spots in the city.
Evelyna Liang, a fellow artist who witnesses the painting-in-progress, holds the mission of these containers in high esteem. As the containers leave the port, they carry with them the hopes and ideals of Hong Kong, as well as its identity as a global city.
"They highlight our position as an international shipping port, which is central to Hong Kong's identity. At the same time, they commemorate a very happy event, which brings together diverse perspective in our city's artistic journey," Liang said.