The Story of Looking For a Studio
Phoebe Ching Ying MAN
I like making sculptures and installations but for quite a long period of time, I did not have a studio of my own. So how did I do that? The art works displayed at my first solo exhibition were produced in the corridor of a housing estate. I transformed the abandoned furniture there. Back then, people did a lot of things in corridors, such as playing mahjong, napping, refurbishing sofa and slicing and distributing barbecued pigs during Tin Hau Festival. Making art was nothing special compared to these activities. Once I had finished my work, I cleaned the space and left my stuff aside; nobody would pay attention to it. Years later, I studied in an art school and during that period I created my works in the campus. When I worked, my office desk was my studio. If there was an exhibition, I worked on site. I also make public art or do performance in public space or over the Internet. This kind of work usually does not need a studio but somehow I still want to have more time and space to develop three dimensional works. I asked a friend to accommodate me. I am sharing my friend’s studio. However, once when my work clashed with hers because her work needed to be displayed in absolute darkness while my work needed focused light, I thought the moment to move out had come.
I was making an art work and doing performance at Queen’s pier in 2007.
Revitalization Scheme pushes the price up
I have visited a number of vacant studios through agents after I knew that I needed a studio. I wished to buy one once the price dropped. Unfortunately, prices of industrial buildings have never dropped after SARS. In the process, I have found some speculators left vacant their flats, traded in and out frequently to push the price up. The rise in price in the year 2012 was most ridiculous – 50% in a single year. Instigated by the Industrial Buildings Revitalization Scheme, launched by the government in 2009, prices of industrial buildings multiplied. Just in four years, the price of Fo Tan industrial buildings tripled over 2009. When the policy was first launched, I fantasized that artists might benefit from it. The usage of industrial buildings could be changed and exhibitions could be legalized. In the end, the scheme only benefited big businesses and speculators. It has facilitated them to renovate the whole blocks and to make profit from the concepts. Exhibitions in industrial buildings are still illegal. However, artists have suffered from the negative impact of the policy: the rising rents and the compulsion to move from places to places.
I did not want to move in and out and so later I did buy a studio, hiding it from friends and family. It was not until later, when the property price increased, that I felt less like a spendthrift so I dare to tell others. They asked me to sell it. This is odd. Could we live our lives just for money?
Settle my studio in Fo Tan
Having my studio in Fo Tan is a result of fate as well as calculated action. A friend’s friend once got a cheap place to rent, so I moved to Fo Tan about a decade ago. According to a survey of industrial buildings, Fo Tan has the largest number of artists’ studios in Hong Kong 1, approximately 400 artists 2. Fo Tan has the largest and most longest-lasting art event in industrial area in Hong Kong. Fotanian Open Studios has been held for 14 years. In just three weekends last year (2013), the number of visitors reached over 20,000 3. In my studio, around 800 catalogues were taken (of course not every visitor came to my studio, or took my catalogue.) The figures are stunning. In Hong Kong, it is quite good to have 70 to 80 visitors to attend the opening of an exhibition. During other hours, there might be only 10 viewers. Without a doubt, Fotan has been a good place for artists and audiences to meet. I have received good responses from and interactions with my audiences. Having my studio in Fo Tan is the best choice of all.
Opening a studio = Feeding vanity?
Some artists said that opening a studio in Fotan is like feeding vanity and to draw attention. Fotanian Open Studios should not be held as it attracts property agents to visit the flats and promoting trading activities. It indirectly facilitated the gentrification of Fo Tan.
If one made an artwork, it is very natural to have the desire to share it with others, and to promote some of his or her ideas. I am not sure if that is vanity. I like the idea of opening studios where artists do not need to go through a middle man, galleries or museums to approach the audience, art works do not need to be scanned or selected by the middle man and there is no need to predefine what is good or bad art. Artists simply open the door and get in touch with the audience. On the other hand, once the Hong Kong public knows there is a group of artists in Fo Tan, they can hardly say that Hong Kong has no art or Hong Kong is a culture desert. Seeing is believing. There exists a group of people in Hong Kong who have values different from the majority, not pragmatic, not caring about making money and enthusiastic about art. In fact, the society also needs the existence of culture and cultural voices.
Did Open Studios add momentum to the rise of property prices? The president of Fotanians, Chow Chun Fai, analyzed this with data: the average increase in Fo Tan industrial area is similar to other industrial areas in Hong Kong 4 . Also, some property agents claim that there are more than a few thousand units in Fo Tan. Artists’ share, around a hundred, is far from enough to influence the market. However, the market price of flats in Wah Luen Industrial Centre, titled “Artist village” by property agents, is rising particularly fast, which is suspected that prices are being pushed up by artists. Wah Luen has its own advantages: the flats have high ceilings and it is more popular during Open Studios events. However, one needs to consider the maintenance and hygiene of the building when choosing a studio. Studios located close to food factories face the prospects of having cockroaches and mice. We also need to check if there is loosened concrete in the corridors. This year I have switched from Wah Luen to Wah Lok to hold my exhibition. The audience size is more or less the same. Wah Luen does offer attractive space for studio finders, however, there are still many other choices in Fotan.
Opening studios may be just for public good.
Artists do not get much benefit from this event since it does not seem that more exhibiting opportunities for individual artist were created. Visitors are mainly students. It seems that they are sent by their teachers to collect information for different school projects. I was frequently interviewed by students there. Because of the nature of Fotanians Open Studios is promotion of art, I made a short video to introduce my work. The response was good. Some in the audience even stayed and discussed housing problems with us. As observed, there were not many art buyers coming to Fo Tan. I used to exhibit with artists with appealing works, yet no one asked about the price. It is very likely that Hong Kong people prefer to buy art in commercial galleries in Central. They seldom buy works in Fo Tan. Therefore there are not many galleries here. One gallery has even closed down. Open Studios could not generate much profit and incidents of works being damaged by general public were reported. A painter once told me that his impasto oil painting was peeled off by curious visitors. Furthermore, I once witnessed a ceramic work crashed by a long lenses used by someone taking a picture. However, these are just minor cases. After all, there are a lot of nice people in the audience and it has been an interesting experience communicating with them.
Some rich people in the audience bawled in my exhibition, that a few-millions-dollars unit and over-10-thousand-rent studios were cheap. The prices, as for many artist tenants, are exorbitant as few of them can afford such prices. Studies showed that 80% of industrial building artists are tenants, 20% are owners 5. They are mostly young people with limited incomes. Most of them pay the rent with one-third of their salary. They can only afford around four thousand dollars of rent 6. Rents over 10 thousand are not cheap at all.
Forced to move out finally?
During my exhibition, I was frequently asked by the audience if I was worried about the impact of Industrial Buildings Revitalization Scheme, and might I be forced to move out? In 2010, a large scale housing project was approved by the Town Planning Board. It is owned by the SEA Group near Fo Tan MTR station. Moreover, public housing estates and Home Ownership Scheme flats will also be built in the temporary bus parking and maintenance sites by the Hong Kong Government. These projects might accelerate the transformation of Fo Tan industrial area. Industrial buildings might soon be hosting high-value-added industries. Existing industrial buildings might face compulsory sale by means of auctions. Artists village being destroyed is not impossible. It seems that what one can do now is to make the best art. If the art is good, more people will come to Fotanian Open Studios. As long as it remains the most visited visual art event, and more people still express concern about it, it might be hard to be destroyed. At worst, we can make art in the streets. Art is most flexible.
1. Policy 21 Limited and Centre for Culture and Development, CUHK. Survey on the Current Status of Industrial Buildings for Arts Activities and Future Demand. Dec. 2010. Web 8 Mar. 2014. <www.hkadc.org.hk/ftp/survey-industrial-buildings.doc>.
2. Chow, Chun Fai. “Fotanian, People of Fo Tan.” Fotanian Open Studios 2014. Hong Kong: Fotanian, 2014. 6-10. Print.
4.Fotanian talk, “Artdea Night” , G/F 1 Goldfield Industrial Centre, Sui Wo Road, Fo Tan, 12 Oct. 2013.
5. Same as note 1.
6. Same as note 1.