Some say the latest public art project at Harbour City, a shopping mall in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, looks like gigantic hanging portraits of death.

The project – collages of monochrome photographs showing smiling Hongkongers and celebrities celebrating the end of the mask rule after three years of Covid restrictions – is being mocked as inauspicious. Driven by curiosity, I recently paid a visit to the shopping mall. 

Harbour City Inside Out Art Exhibit
Community art project Inside Out: Harbour and the City. Photo: Inside Out Project.

Titled “Inside Out,” the collages were developed by French street artist JR. The global project began in 2011 and “helps individuals and communities to make a statement by displaying large-scale black and white portraits in public spaces,” according to its website.

The artist takes individual portraits of people and exhibits their print-outs in public spaces, turning streets and building walls into urban landscape galleries. Over the past decade, “Inside Out” has been on show in various cities in New York, France and the UK.

This is the second time “Inside Out” has been exhibited in Hong Kong. The first time was in 2012, when 16 monochrome human portraits were pasted on top of a footbridge above Connaught Road in Central.

The installation, called “Patterns,” was courtesy of an invitation from a local gallery and the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau. Back then, no one seemed to associate the photos with portraits of the deceased. 

JR pattern 2012 footbridge
JR’s “Pattern” installation on a footbridge in Central in 2012. Photo: JR, courtesy / Galerie Perrotin.

Coming back to today, I find the decision of Harbour City – a luxury mall – to host the exhibition intriguing. One of the collages has been displayed between shopfronts for Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Additionally, one of the mall’s main entrances that is connected to the Star Ferry terminal has been covered with another black-and-white collage.

Why would a high-end shopping mall engage an artist-activist like JR?

I have no answer to this question. But when I see these collages, I don’t see funeral portraits. I see men and women, adults and children, celebrities and ordinary people, all relaxed and enjoying themselves.

Harbour City Inside Out Art Exhibit 3
Community art project Inside Out: Harbour and the City. Photo: Inside Out Project.

Would we have a different impression of the photos if they were coloured? I also have no answer to this question. An award-winning filmmaker friend of mine prefers black and white when it comes to still images. Every time I spot his black and white photos in a sea of colours, I pause and think. I think it is his deliberate attempt to freeze that particular moment, to catch the viewers’ attention and spark their imagination.

Every individual is unique and thus sees the world differently. One viewer’s perspective can vary hugely from another. Someone else may see my filmmaker friend’s photos in a very different light than I do.

As writer John Berger suggested in his seminal essays Ways of Seeing, we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.

Harbour City Inside Out Art Exhibit 3
Community art project Inside Out: Harbour and the City. Photo: Inside Out Project.

What makes art matter is that it gives us a different frame of reference and therefore changes our perceptions of reality. It shows us things previously unseen, opens perspectives previously unknown and brings to light ideas previously not considered. Art is about being open to inconveniences and the unfamiliar. Art is a test of our open-mindedness. 

In turn, the openness of art encourages different interpretations. No one can force those who see portraits of the deceased in the monochrome exhibition at Harbour City to change their mind. But the city as a whole has to value and embrace creativity to let art flourish in our busy streets. 

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Chloe Lai is a journalist-turned-urbanist. She is a PhD in Comparative Literature. Archaeology of the present is her favour way to see the world and conduct researches. She is chairperson of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage.