If you travel by MTR, you might have noticed sculptures and art pieces dotted around train stations. Installing public art in stations is not a new idea, but the creation and selection process of each piece has evolved. For Hong Kong-based artist Momo Leung Mee-ping, the best public art considers community living around it.
Leung is an artist and Associate Professor at the Academy of Visuals Arts at Baptist University. She has been commissioned to create artworks for one of the stations on the MTR’s upcoming Sha Tin to Central Link project.
Public art comes in many forms, from sculptures and street performances to park decorations and architecture.
Leung says good public art is often “site-specific”: designed to suit a specific community, serve their interests, and fit into the space.
When the MTR first started putting artwork in stations, explained Leung, it would often just buy any piece of art and stick it inside the station.
“They didn’t care about the site; they only cared about how to fill [gaps] on the wall,” she said. “They did not consider [whether] a piece would relate to the culture of that station ... community art takes quite a lot of time, and it is more convenient to just buy things to move in.”
Leung says one example of this can be found in Mong Kok Station, where the MTR has added a sculpture to a wall in an inconvenient spot.
“I don’t think there should be any artwork there, because no one pays attention to it, and it’s really crowded,” she said.
Fortunately, says Leung, the MTR’s art initiatives have improved since then. “They really [started to] care about what [artworks] should be used, in respect to the people and where they are living, and also the station’s culture,” she said.
This is Leung’s first time creating artwork for the MTR. She was been working for nearly two years planning and testing designs for her piece – a large glass wall made up of more than 100 tiles. The tiles will feature images of meaningful objects collected from residents living around the station, including old passports, rice bowls and doll houses. Underneath each image is a caption, handwritten by the residents themselves, about why that object is important to them.
“Anywhere the MTR moves in, sets up, and establishes itself ... the land value will change, old buildings will be torn down, and new buildings come up. You will forget the specific local culture,” she said.
The images of the objects in her piece will act as a time-capsule, helping to record the area’s culture and heritage.
Although Leung says the MTR gave her a certain amount of creative license during the project, some compromises needed to be made. She wasn’t allowed, for example, to place the actual objects in the station as she originally intended, as they could be easily damaged.
“They didn’t really ban my work or ideas, but [we discussed] how to finalise it.”
Leung added that artists can sometimes be at the mercy of the institutions that control certain public spaces, and they sometimes put limitations on what an artist can do.
“Institutions should give artists more freedom,” she said, particularly, when it comes to site-specific pieces that should reflect the local community.
But Leung added that it is also up to artists themselves to make works that people will like. “If you are making a commissioned piece for a place, try to respect the local people,” she said. “If they don’t like it, then [there is no point] having the artwork there.