'Police are frank and open-hearted'. One of Phoebe Man’s ‘Birthday Cakes’ (2015).

Visitors to Duddell’s lavish restaurant and gallery in the heart of Hong Kong will, from next week, be able to nibble on some fetching cakes festooned with marshmallows and chocolate drops.

The “birthday cakes” are a “consumable sculpture” made by local artist Phoebe Man. Drizzled in chocolate across the marshmallow peaks are phrases in traditional Chinese characters — including “Hong Kong is China’s direct-controlled municipality” — that point to the city’s recent meltdown.

Occupy Central protesters sang “Happy Birthday” during pro-democracy “umbrella revolution” demonstrations last year (hence the title of Man’s arty treats). The artist offered her cakes to grateful demonstrators and photographed them savouring the desserts.

Her small-scale but provocative piece mirrors Hong Kong’s attempt to mould its own identity ahead of direct elections in 2017. It features in Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese, an exhibition organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. A triumvirate of curators — Gregor Muir, Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki — has worked on the show, bringing together 20 international artists including Zeng Hong, Haroon Mirza and Dexter Dalwood. Artists connected to Hong Kong or practitioners who, according to Al-Senussi, “have bodies of work that speak directly to the idea of transformation and evolution in a metropolis”, come under the exhibition umbrella. “We all believe Hong Kong is a transformational city where you see a fusion of east and west, with a smattering of south too. Hong Kong is a unique metropolis that provides business efficiency yet maintains that necessary, not to mention sexy, touch of reality — the grit is what makes it special.”

Al-Senussi’s high-profile positions include Middle East VIP relations manager for Art Basel and chair of Tate’s young patrons committee. AlTurki, a Riyadh-born collector and founding member of the Saudi Art Council, is just as ubiquitous on the global art scene. All three collaborated previously on another off-site ICA event in 2013 called “Cinema on the Steps”. Muir quips: “Alia and Abdullah are not card-carrying curators — they’ve educated me.”

Abdullah AlTurki, Gregor Muir and Alia Al-Senussi, curators of the ICA’s ‘Hong Kongese’ exhibition

“We hope that Hong Kongese provides a sense of nostalgia, a sense of politics too, along with an appreciation of what growing pains means, for the ancient along with the new,” adds Al-Senussi. She points to the work of Taryn Simon and Ahmed Mater. The latter is showing “Artificial Light Construction” from the “Desert of Pharan” (2012) series, which has caused a stir by depicting the redevelopment around Mecca. “Mater’s work is uniquely Saudi, but at the same time deals with global themes on the tensions of valuing history yet moving forwards with modernity,” she says.

There is a weighty story behind Simon’s “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, Censored Edition”, about state-controlled restrictions on art in China. These intricate pieces usually depict family bloodlines and related stories, but here they consist of Malevich-esque redacted blocks.

The “chapters”, as Simon calls them, were covered up in 2013 for a show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. After the authorities ruled that images from the series were un­acceptable, the centre’s director, Philip Tinari, and Simon decided to black out the original content. “The work, and the problems surrounding it being shown in Beijing, tell us much about fraught subjects and the importance of cities such as Hong Kong in giving them expression,” Al-Senussi argues.

‘New York, New York (Empire State)’ (1979) by Tseng Kwong Chi

Annie Lai-kuen Wan, a local artist, is another highlight; she has turned two books filled with 1970s images of Hong Kong into ceramics by covering the publications in stoneware slip. Muir is also keen on Tseng Kwong Chi’s images of New York (“Empire State”, 1979) and London (“Tower Bridge”, 1983).

Since he joined as director in 2011, Muir is largely credited with reinventing and salvaging the ICA, which was threatened with closure due to a ballooning deficit. Hong Kongese takes the ICA brand abroad; the Duddell’s show marks the first time that the gallery’s off-site events and exhibitions programme has ventured overseas.

“There are important patrons in Hong Kong, and the ICA has some good friends there,” says Muir. “We wanted to create a show that reflects the movement of the art world during the week of Art Basel in Hong Kong. The show is all about global dialogue; we want the works to matter, but also want it to be fun.”

Muir, Al-Senussi and AlTurki are in good company — in late 2013, China’s best known dissident artist Ai Weiwei organised an exhibition of works by 13 local artists at Duddell’s. The venue helps fill a gap for art spaces in the city, raising questions about whether a healthy art scene is developing there.

“It still lacks a complete art ecosystem. It grew and expanded rapidly within a short period . . . mainly driven by art trading. That said, with M+ [the new museum for visual culture] coming soon, I think Hong Kong will soon find its balance and develop into a world-class art scene,” says Adrian Cheng, the Hong Kong-based collector and founder of the K11 Art Foundation.

A neon sign emblazoned with the word “Millie’s”, a famous Hong Kong shopping centre, comes from the M+ collection. The dazzling, exuberant piece — a mini replica of the huge, peacock-inspired creation — should make Hong Kong’s citizens feel at home.

‘Duddell’s Presents: ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese’, March 12-June 22, ica.org

Photographs by Ben Brown Fine Arts/Muna Tseng Dance

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