Thursday, March 24, 2011

Campaign to Fight Air Pollution in Hong Kong Gets Visual

From New York Times, March 21st, 2011

A leading anti-pollution campaign group in Hong Kong is deploying a new weapon in the fight for clean air in this Asian financial hub: art.

Enlisting the support of 40 artists and the auction house Sotheby’s, the Clean Air Network has organized an auction of 51 environment-inspired works of modern art in what it says is the first awareness and fund-raising event of its kind.

Most of the pieces went on display Monday in the upscale International Finance Center shopping mall in Hong Kong’s financial district, where they will remain until March 27. They will go under the Sotheby’s hammer April 4, where they will form part of the auction house’s twice-yearly sale of contemporary Asian art .

Many of the artists, who include well-known names from Hong Kong and elsewhere, created works especially for the event, donating them to the Clean Air Network’s fight against pollution.

BSI Investment Advisors, which is part of the Italian insurance giant Generali, donated two more works by the photographer and video artist Jiang Zhi, each estimated by Sotheby’s to be worth as much as 70,000 Hong Kong dollars, or nearly $9,000.

The artworks include sculptures, paintings and photographs. But all illustrate environmental issues and problems, like smog, waste, climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.

Perhaps the most striking work is a pair of gray lungs standing 83 centimeters, or 32 inches, tall, crafted by the Chinese artist Ma Han. Made of fiberglass, rice and car paint, illuminated and covered with tiny human figures, the piece could fetch as much as 150,000 dollars, Sotheby’s estimates.

If Sotheby’s estimates are realized, the 51 works could raise more than 1.9 million dollars in total.

All this, and the fact that Sotheby’s is offering its auction expertise free, highlights the serious support that the campaign for clean air is getting from increasingly high-profile names in the city.

The Clean Air Network has tried imaginative approaches to campaigning before, including a spoof infomercial featuring the heartthrob Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu selling canisters of “fresh air,” which became an instant hit among YouTube users in Hong Kong.

Now, the group is roping modern art into its cause.

“The auction is not just an elite exercise for opinion leaders but a new way to approach the general public,” said Joanne Ooi, chief executive of the Clean Air Network. “Art is undoubtedly less daunting and more appealing than activism. On top of that, such a public show of support by well-known corporate partners Sotheby’s and BSI will definitely mainstream the clean air issue.”

Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby’s Asia, said the auction house had decided to support the event because of the deteriorating air quality Hong Kong has seen over the past few decades.

Pollution levels in some mainland Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, are thought to be even worse than in this city of seven million. But the air in Hong Kong is bad enough now to persuade some people to leave for cleaner places and to risk hurting Hong Kong’s reputation as one of Asia’s most advanced cities.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has cautioned for years that the poor air quality is making it hard to persuade some expatriates, especially those with children, to move to or stay in Hong Kong.

A series of surveys by recruitment and relocation advisers has backed up this point.

Last July, Hong Kong’s medical profession added its voice with an urgent appeal to the government to do more about the poor air quality.

The “Clean Air Auction” display at the International Finance Center mall comes exactly a year after pollution levels in Hong Kong went off the scale, streaking past the upper end of a 500-point government air pollution index.

A sandstorm sweeping in from mainland China was largely responsible for the heavy pollution last spring, and smog blowing in from the industrial zone in the nearby Pearl River Delta is blamed for much of Hong Kong’s pollution.

But campaigners, scientists and many ordinary residents argue that the authorities could — and should — do more to contain air pollution generated within Hong Kong itself.

On Monday afternoon, roadside measuring stations in the central financial district showed a reading of 64. That may seem low compared with the 500-plus levels last March — but even 64 is defined as “high” by the city’s environment department.

Outdated trucks and buses generate as much as 90 percent of roadside pollution and help make Hong Kong’s air three times as bad as that of New York and twice as bad as that of London, the Clean Air Network contends. And a recent study by the University of Hong Kong linked the city’s poor air quality to hundreds of deaths a year.

William Furniss, a photographer from London who has lived in Hong Kong since 1993, said Monday that there were only a few days in the year now when the air in Hong Kong is clear enough for professional photography.

His flame-and-skyline image, created especially for the auction, could raise 25,000 dollars, according to Sotheby’s estimates.

“We have to make people much more aware of this problem,” said Lam Tung Pang, a Hong Kong artist whose paint-and-fabric image of a sad-looking polar bear was estimated to fetch as much as 75,000 dollars at the auction.

No comments: