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Speech by the Secretary for Home Affairs


Following is the speech delivered by the Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho, at the opening of "Soul of the City: International Symposium on Art and Public Space" held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre today (February 13) (English only):

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning and thank you for joining us for this international symposium on art and public space. I would like once again to warmly welcome our overseas guests, as well as colleagues and co-presenters from Hong Kong. I hope you enjoyed the dinner and light show last night and are as eager as I am to get proceedings under way today. As I mentioned yesterday, we are very excited about the enthusiastic response we have received to this symposium - the first international cultural exchange programme on this topic we have held - and are looking forward to the discussions over the next two days.

In October 1963, in one of his last public appearances, John F Kennedy spoke at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Addressing the students and guests, he said that: "If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him."

What I would like to do in opening this symposium is to take my cue from Kennedy, to provide some insights into life in Hong Kong, and to pose some questions, to "nourish the roots" of our discussions today and tomorrow. After these discussions, and after you have had your own brush with the soul of our city, I am sure you will draw your own conclusions about how we cultivate, use, and experience art here in Hong Kong. I do hope it is a positive experience. But regardless of whether it is or not, I am sure that we will all learn something new about the possibilities of artistic endeavour in its many forms.

In opening up the floor for further discussions, I would like to share some thoughts about what we mean by "art and public space".

Art is simple enough - or is it? We can define it in terms of the visual arts and performing arts - for example, painting, sculpture, design, dance, music, drama, film. Or, we can broaden our horizons to include all creative work - architecture, engineering, landscaping, planning, advertising, fashion, the print and electronic media, the Internet, the sound of water gurgling in a park, or a new ring-tone on a 3G phone. The creativity of the human mind can manifest itself just as easily on a canvas as it does in clay, as it does on film, as it does on a typewriter, as it does with the everyday items we use in our homes. In fact, art is pretty much everywhere that we care to look. So, when we talk about "art", I would like to think that we can give it as broad a definition as possible so that we can "follow our vision wherever it takes us".

Let me now turn to how we define and look at "space".

Space can be real and virtual and, indeed, both of them are equally important. Real space is what we find ourselves sharing with other people and things, whilst virtual space, as manifested by painting and graphic arts, is represented on a surface - space we "seem to see". If we look deeper into the concept of real space, it offers a number of variations. In its narrowest sense, it is only a metric thing - the physical size of a room, a building or a place.

In metric terms, Hong Kong is only a tiny spot on the world map. Only 22% of our land - some 230 square kilometres - is urbanised. Is that adequate for the 6.8 million of our population? The answer could be "yes" or "no". For a person sentenced to solitary confinement, a minimum requirement of seven square metres is prescribed in the case of Hong Kong. This is probably the minimum space requirement necessary in order not to drive him or her insane over a period of time. Seen in this perspective, our urbanised area could, in theory, accommodate as many as 34 million people. This, I should add, only takes into account the surface land area, but not the multiplier effect of vertical expansion of floor space into the sky.

But we could also take a broader view to include "personal" space as well as "social" space. By personal, I am referring to space represented by the art form such as sculpture, which provides relations to the real spatial conditions of our embodied existence, that is, our sizes, uprightness, vulnerability, temporal finitude, capacities for movement, strengths, reaches and grasps. As for social space, it is best represented by architecture because it encloses and includes institutions. It is the means by which human groups are set in their actual arrangements.

Having dealt with the concept of space, I would like to turn to the second leg of this symposium, public space. In the broadest sense, public space is just what it says - those areas that are public, or open to the public, or that have been designed for public use. In Hong Kong, for example, about 80% of our land is designated green areas such as country parks, woodland, shrub land, grassland, mangroves, swamps, reservoirs and streams, all for the enjoyment of residents, most of whom live in high-rise apartments. We have what we call New Towns - satellite cities that are home to upwards of 300,000 people. Because we have limited land resources, we have what could be called "vertical urban sprawl". This approach allows us to free up valuable space for community facilities such as parks and gardens, playgrounds for the kids, performing arts venues, public thoroughfares, shopping centres and transport interchanges. With limited living space, people in Hong Kong basically use their homes to dwell in and spend the night. But we interact with each other in the cityscape that we have created - in the parks and gardens, in shopping malls and restaurants, in street markets. All over Europe, people interact in grand piazzas and plazas; in the US people join sporting clubs, gyms and social clubs; in Australia and New Zealand family and friends will often gather around a BBQ in a park or a neighbour's backyard to establish, renew or reinforce links within their particular communities. So public space can also be regarded as not just areas that are open to the public, but areas where social interaction takes place. And if public space is where social interaction takes place, then it must also be an integral part of the culture of that society.

Now, what do we mean by "art and public space". At a rudimentary level, it can simply mean incorporating some form of art into the living environment or public space. This could be something like a sculpture, which people will stop and admire; or street performances; or a large mural on the side of a building. We do have elements of this in Hong Kong, but limited space coupled with high population densities do present some difficulties. If you have ventured onto the streets at rush hour, I am sure you will know what I mean. If, for example, we wanted to "install" more artistic works in public spaces in Hong Kong, we would have to do this in areas that allowed free movement around, and interaction with, that art. Or, we would have to make existing sidewalks and public thoroughfares wider. Or, when designing New Towns, we would make sure there is ample space for artistic works - static or live - to be displayed or performed. But for this type of art to have any meaning, it must interact with the space itself, the environment, the people around it, the historicity and the time element singular to that space and that piece of artwork. In the absence of the right spatial temporality, an art work created solely for the work itself might end up having no soul and character. Art, being part and parcel of the culture and history of the place where it is created, must be a timely artistic response to the values held by the people living there and to what they regard as aesthetic. Just imagine the awkwardness of building a Chinese-style pavilion in an European park, or how a Roman-style sculpture could ruin the Zen and tranquility of a Japanese garden.

Another way of looking at "art and public space" is a subtler one. As I mentioned earlier, art is almost everywhere we care to look. It is in the "look and feel" of our streetscape. In the design of a bus stop. Or a litter bin. Or a seat. In the positioning of a planter box or railing. In the pattern of bricks on the pavement. So, we can make a conscious decision to "dress up" our public space so that it is pleasing to the eye and transforms the everyday street furniture, or the parts that make up our everyday public space pieces of artwork, or just carries an artistic dimension. Or, as will also happen, we might want to look at our city with new eyes, to see beauty and functionality in the form of the mundane. Whether by accident or design, art is already in the public spaces that we move through each day. The question is whether we want that to be more of a contrived feeling, or more of a natural evolution.

Yet another way of interpreting "art and public space" can be a metaphysical one, and this is hard to conceptualise and even harder to achieve. That's because it involves the feelings we get as individuals toward the environment we find ourselves in. It's about incorporating art into our way of life, so that it becomes an ambient aspect of our culture and existence. It's about building a culture that leaves an impression on people who live here as well as visit - an impression that there is more to this city than buildings and infrastructure; that this is a city of creative endeavour and activity; and that in our spectrum of achievement, art has become a part of our way of life. That is something we must nurture but cannot engineer. And it is something that I believe we must always aspire to, and never take for granted.

People who visit Hong Kong often remark that we live in a fast-paced city full of hustle and bustle. That we live in an exciting city brimming with energy. That there's a certain "buzz" you get here that you can't find anywhere else. I cannot disagree with those sentiments. I feel that energy and excitement too. On a clear night at The Peak, the bright lights of our skyline still manage to take my breath away, even though I've seen that vista hundreds of times. It is like our city is a giant piece of art - and the number of times it has been painted and photographed would seem to bear testament to that feeling. That vista can be said to embody the spirit of Hong Kong people.

Ladies and gentlemen, your presence here today will help us to nurture that spirit of endeavour, of creativity and achievement. We are in the middle of formulating our cultural policy, a policy that I hope will help Hong Kong to become a city where life is celebrated more and more through cultural pursuits; where the people who live here and visit are enchanted by the arts; where different cultures and social diversity will enlighten all who live here.

We are also embarking upon the development of a landmark arts and cultural district, across the harbour from here at West Kowloon. It will be a massive project and one that has already led to considerable debate within the community. I certainly hope that our discussions over the next two days will provide us with some new ideas or insight into how we can bring this ambitious project to fruition for the benefit of everyone in Hong Kong. I am not just talking about the shape and size and scope of buildings or facilities; what I am really interested in is learning how other cities and communities around the world have nurtured and developed art and culture where they live, and how "art and public space" becomes an integral part of that process.

I wish you all the best in your discussions over the next two days. Thank you very much.

Ends/Friday, February 13, 2004


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