Adrian Cheung collaborates with LA-based artist WhIsBe in outdoor art exhibition

The First Initiative Foundation continues its commitment to uplift the best of Hong Kong with TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK, an outdoor public art exhibition led by Adrian Cheung, son of FIF chairman Michelle Ong, in collaboration with LA-based contemporary artist WhIsBe. They talk to Stephenie Gee about the large-scale installation, making art more accessible and celebrating our city’s heritage

Cheung and WhIsBe with the scaled-down teal Vandal Gummy

In Hong Kong, the monumental Clock Tower is a distinctive and prominent landmark. But now, it seems to appear even more substantial and pronounced standing against acclaimed contemporary artist WhIsBe’s (short for What Is Beauty) 8-metre-tall ruby-red sculpture that fuses the forms of a gummy bear and dinosaur – a site-specific reiteration of his signature Vandal Gummy, whose presence has found a permanent home in 4 World Trade Center and been seen at Art Basel Miami, Burning Man and the LA Art Show, to name a few events – that has taken its place before the only vestige of the original Kowloon–Canton Railway terminus erected in 1916 for local charity First Initiative Foundation’s latest exhibition TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK.

“I came to learn about the historical significance of the Clock Tower and so I wanted my latest work to connect with it via the concept of time,” says WhIsBe, who previously visited the city in 2019 to show at Art Central. “I was also inspired by Hong Kong’s unique and colourful skyline with towering skyscrapers and, of course, Victoria Harbour. I aimed for something that would stand out to the many visitors coming to this iconic landmark yet also reflect its surroundings.”

The gargantuan gummy-dinosaur bear certainly makes for a striking display – a dramatic juxtaposition of two icons as well as Edwardian and 21st-century aesthetics that reminds one, rather vividly, of the passage of time.

The artist and Adrian Cheung stand in front the giant red gummy bear-dinosaur

“The Clock Tower is a very iconic location with over a hundred years of history, and it just started ringing its bell again late last year. It’s quite a significant milestone and we wanted to do something to kind of just highlight Hong Kong’s history,” says Adrian Cheung of First Initiative Foundation.

“We think that public artwork has to interact with or reflect its surroundings, so we wanted to focus the concept of the exhibition on time and the art piece to have the concept of time built into it. We discussed a few things – I was talking about how FIF did [The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: The Big Eight – Dinosaur Revelation] so we started thinking about the gummy bear shape, which is a very modern concept, versus dinosaurs, one of the most ancient creatures you can find, and how that could be quite an interesting play on time as well.”

In addition, a scaled-down teal Vandal Gummy, around 2 metres tall, can also be found alongside the waterfront, its high-shine chrome finish reflecting the glistening waters that frame its location. “What we wanted to highlight was really the progression of time so you can say it’s another facet of time in the sense that it’s a baby one and a big one, which was something quite fun to play with. And the fact that it’s actually placed in a different location is really also to highlight Hong Kong,” Cheung says.

The installation can also be interpreted along more subjective lines. “I want the audience to relate to my work in their own way, whether it be joy or amazement, and mainly to consider the evolution within themselves,” WhIsBe says. Likewise, in the eyes of Cheung, what marks the success of the exhibition is not so much the opportunity it affords for its audience to reflect upon the intangible concept of time, but rather simply its impressive magnitude and the joy (what could be more exciting than to see a colossal gummy bear?) it brings to the community.

WhIsBe in his studio

“The one point about this public art installation is that it can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be. A little kid might go, ‘Oh, I really like this thing!’ but they might not know exactly why it’s related to time or understand the concept of it. Our hope and aim is really for the audience to appreciate and just enjoy the exhibition,” he explains. “The message we want to pass on is that art is actually for everyone. It’s not something where you need to go to a museum, a particular exhibition or pay for access to see. It’s very inclusive and you don’t need to have any sort of education or understanding of a complex piece of information. It’s whatever you interpret it to be. Even a coffee cup or water bottle – that could be art as well. One of our key missions, especially for public art, is really to broaden access and broaden people’s minds to art itself.”

Building on this connection between art and the community, the sculpture incorporates numerous digital elements to construct a layer of interactivity, including Instagram filters of gummy bear heads and bear ear-shaped headpieces, and augmented reality camera functions that allow visitors to take a digital gummy bear with them on a Hong Kong landmarks expedition.

The dinosaur elements added to the bear were inspired by FIF’s other recent exhibition

WhIsBe’s signature physical plaque on the bear is also replaced with a LED screen, which plays a variety of videos such as a countdown timer that makes for a stark contrast with the analogue clock and memorable moments of the public collected by FIF. “Being able to display my art in such an iconic location really made me try to find a way to take my work to the next level, not only in size but also in concept by the merging of both the physical and digital realms. It’s the first time that I have done this in my work,” says WhIsBe.

As for what this project has brought forth, WhIsBe’s response is rooted in the mission of TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK: “Being welcomed by the local community and Hong Kong has been a reward in itself! Through this collaboration, I have made lifelong friendships and learned more about how art can continue to inspire and bridge generations and culture globally.”

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