May 9, 2014 6:48 pm

M+ stages online exhibition of Hong Kong neon signs

The Chinese Palace nightclub was once located on Nathan Road in the Jordan district©Hong Kong Sign Book

Chinese Palace Nightclub

The Herzog & de Meuron-designed building for M+ – Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture – will not be finished until late 2017. But since its announcement last April, the institution is already on its seventh show. The first was an exhibition of outsized inflatable sculptures on its West Kowloon site last spring, and in March it launched its first online show to flag up its nascent collection of neon signs.

“A year ago we read in the local paper that the huge sign for the restaurant Sammy’s Kitchen – shaped like a cow, and a Hong Kong landmark – was being taken down: the zoning laws have changed since it was put up in 1977,” says the museum’s curator of design and architecture, Aric Chen. “So we decided to acquire it. As a new museum, we can look at design and craft from a fresh perspective. Collecting neon is something of a case study for how to deal with unexpected things.”

A multiple layering of neon signs once defined Hong Kong’s streetscape, providing an ideal solution for signage on its densely arranged, vertical buildings, but they are now being rapidly superseded by cheaper, more efficient LED ones. With their passing goes a particular craft. The glass tubes containing neon and other gases are narrow, brittle and hard to shape: creating a line of Roman script or Chinese calligraphy takes a certain expertise. With that in mind, and the signs’ relationship to both architecture and graphic design, they seem a valid category for collection by the museum. “They are things we take for granted, but which won’t be around forever,” says Aric Chen. “One of the purposes of the project is to get people to look at their own environment more closely.”

To this end, the public has also been invited to contribute to the exhibition, sending in hundreds of images of signs – those which have already vanished, others which may not be around for long – which have been assembled into an online gallery. At the time of going to press, over 1,000 signs had been posted.

So far no one has ob­jected to the suitability of the project. “Except my mother,” says Chen. “She sent me an email. ‘Sorry son, but neon signs are visual, but not art. Hope I don’t offend. Love Mum’.”

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