It’s not every day that the Hong Kong government issues a press release about Andy Warhol. The angle, perhaps predictably, is that the exhibition of the 60s icon’s works in the city’s Museum of Art is the ‘biggest in Asia’. World’s highest per-capita consumption of oranges, most vehicles per kilometer of road, more suicides than road deaths – and now this.
Usually, when the Museum of Art hosts a special collection from afar, a bit of credit goes to some dusty institution – typically on the Mainland – where the ancient paintings of misty mountains are usually housed. Warhol has to be different. Aside from the artist’s own museum and our Leisure and Cultural Services Department, this exhibition has been brought to you by no less than BNY Mellon, Christie’s, the Economist, Bloomberg and the HK Jockey Club Charities Trust. Never have so many people been so eager to help out in transporting a few Brillo boxes round the world.
Did Warhol anticipate how retro his works would quickly become? The old Brillo logo, familiar to many of us from our childhood, seems to have had a revamp at some stage in favour of a tackier or more eye-catching design. Another of his subjects, Campbell’s soup cans, have also been redesigned over the years – though, wittily, the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of his most famous work by producing limited-edition Warhol-ized labels.
That garish silkscreen effect has become something of a cliché, with even Chief Executive manqué Henry Tang getting the treatment. But at the time, it must have seemed zany at best and odious at worst. A young Communist revolutionary fighting for freedom from colonial oppression would surely have hated the decadent bourgeois capitalist American’s portrayal of China’s adored Great Helmsman. One such teenager was Tsang Tak-sing, a school student in the mid-late 60s who was arrested by the Hong Kong police for distributing pro-Communist leaflets. Even today as Secretary for Home Affairs, Tsang seems slightly nonplussed by Warhol’s Mao prints. I suppose his public viewing of them could be an example of China exercising its warm and cuddly ‘soft power’ – but it is more likely that civil servants released a photo of him alongside the insulting pictures out of pure cluelessness…
Despite the copious sponsorship, the museum is charging a HK$20 admission fee to the Warhol exhibit. Even when no world-renowned Brillo Boxes are on show, there is a HK$10 charge (with concessions for school groups, the elderly, etc). The museum’s counterparts in central London, along the Mall in Washington DC, and in Macau just across the water are all free to enter. They do that because even a modest fee tends to put off potential visitors, and doesn’t even start to cover the costs of running such facilities. The upshot is that the HK Museum of Art rarely seems to have more than a handful of people in it apart from staff, and as a result the cost of each visit to the taxpayer worked out a few years ago at some HK$250.
One thing the government does provide completely free of charge is parking space right in the middle of Hong Kong’s central business district. In theory, parking is illegal on these streets, but in practice you can not only park – you can double park. Today’s Standard reports a police clampdown on the practice, but this is a joke.
The cops primarily blame truck and van drivers who are making deliveries. The second most-guilty parties, according to the boys in blue, would be operators of security vehicles abusing special privileges by eating lunchboxes. Way, way down the page, the Standard’s police spokesman also eventually mentions passenger cars driven by chauffeurs. The truth is that the big black seven-seat tanks and Mercedes are 90% of the problem. (Which reminds me: do you pronounce it ‘alp-hard’ or ‘alfard’?) It also seems pretty evident that the powers that be turn a blind eye to the problem because the alternative – making ever-so important and famous rich businessmen wait or walk – is simply unthinkable.
To quote Assistant District Commander blame-security-guards: “Sometimes, a three-lane road effectively becomes one lane when cars park or wait on the second lane.” In other words, “I’m cool about people parking illegally on the first lane.” Meanwhile, there’s not even enough space on the sidewalks for pedestrians. The Museum of Art’s nice and empty, though.