CAO FEI, House of Treasures, 2013. Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, electric fans, dimensions variable. Photo by Noelle Bodick for ArtAsiaPacific. Courtesy the artist.


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Beyond a shabby wire fence, the scrubby waste of the West Kowloon headland was crisscrossed by slender concrete paths, which occasionally kinked upward to form minimalist benches. Pausing at the entrance, the visitor’s gaze was met by a huge, black lotus slowly inflating and deflating, while behind lurked a squat, shiny pig with cherry-red eyes. Visible in the distance was a colorful circle of ancient stones, and, in front, the jet-black bodies of a cockroach and a woman jutting skyward, their heads buried side by side in the dirt. But, by this point, the immense, brown, air-filled turd directly to the right had probably captured viewers’ attention.

This last work, Complex Pile (2007) by Paul McCarthy, was perhaps the slightest on display, and in most contexts would be just one more hackneyed subversion of accepted notions of beauty in public sculpture. At “Inflation,” the latest show from Hong Kong’s incipient museum for visual culture and the first hosted on the site of its future park alongside Victoria Harbour, it was imbued with surprising energy. From the south, Complex Pile resembled an appropriately scaled cowpat dumped nonchalantly in front of the engorged pomp of the International Commerce Centre tower. From the north, it seemed a provocative gesture toward the glitter of Hong Kong’s skyline, and perhaps also toward the sterile charms of its commercial art scene.

Almost all the works were similarly enhanced by their setting. The gleaming plastic cockroach and woman of Tam Wai Ping’s Falling into the Mundane World (2013)—a critique of our competing instincts for survival and pleasure and growing environmental desensitization—acquired an appropriately futuristic, subversive allure. Nearby, Jeremy Deller purported to overturn archaeological and cultural snobberies with Sacrilege (2012), a life-size re‑creation of the prehistoric monument Stonehenge as a highly colored bouncy castle. But the end result made such artistic verbiage redundant—the piece is a gloriously tactile, inviting space for primal, physical escape, particularly when set against a wonderfully inappropriate backdrop of brash monuments from the postmodern age.

Emptiness is Form. Form is Emptiness (2013), the latest in Choi Jeong Hwa’s long-standing series of oversized lotus flowers, was less successful. Resembling a tired black weed, the piece proved incapable of holding the required conversation with its surroundings concerning artifice and beauty. The star of the show was Cao Fei’s site-specific suckling pig. Disdaining the porcine cartoon of Pop art, House of Treasures (2013) was served with floral embellishments at its feet, boasted an enlarged photographic skin that was both compelling and repulsive, and contained inflated innards that acted as cushions for those venturing into the sheltering hollow of its rib cage. The pig was chosen for its role in traditional banquets across the Pearl River Delta, and House of Treasures was perhaps the one work that suggested purposeful engagement with reality amid the general feast of the surreal.

The show proved, once again, that public service is not easy. In Utrecht, in 2007, Complex Pile was displayed under the candid title Complex Shit, yet M+ director Lars Nittve artfully suggested in a video accompanying the sculpture’s Hong Kong iteration that its excremental appearance was in the eye of the beholder. And fortune can be harsh. Within days, all but three inflatables had fallen prey to the elements. Among the victims, Complex Pile deflated entirely, while Emptiness is Form flapped helplessly in the wind, briefly threatening to recapture former glories before collapsing again. Finally, the financial heft of commerce can guarantee spectacle on a grand scale. A week after the show’s opening, Florentijn Hofman’s inflatable duck—one meter taller than anything M+ had to offer—paddled into Victoria Harbour to float alongside the glamorous Harbour City mall, resulting in an enviable bout of citywide hysteria.

Despite such travails, “Inflation” does suggest that M+ is taking its public duties with utmost seriousness, presenting robust yet open projects in a manner that no other body in Hong Kong—commercial or otherwise—is attempting. And the number of visitors of all ages suggests that there is a real appetite for such offerings. One may not want to invite Paul McCarthy back too often, and it is to be hoped that quieter interventions will be pursued alongside such necessary acts of audience building. Yet this was public art on an ambitious, entertaining and ultimately successful scale.