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* A Cosmic Requiem for Kai Tak Mansion

Chan Lok Yiu

Our species is constantly held spellbound by natural wonders. And it explains the eager flocks of local trippers who visit the outlying islands of the city every few months. As the night wears on, the bumper crowd turns their gaze skyward, yearning to catch the merest glimpse of beaming streaks across the sky. Eliciting the awe in whoever witnesses it, the allure of a meteor shower stems from a sense of uncertainty — there is no guarantee that one can get a sight of shooting stars, and oftentimes the efforts of stargazers are doomed to be in vain.  


A few years ago, artist Kevin Ling, after a disenchanting astronomical experience in which his solid hours spent on the beach went futile, decided to create his own meteor shower using two types of objects alone: paper airplanes and sparklers. Composed solely of a long static shot, Meteor (2017), is a video art capturing the artificial meteor shower. Very often it is precisely the videomaking techniques such as editing, voice-overs, and subtitling which add a narrative to a video. Nevertheless, Meteor is not a sophisticatedly edited video, but an unembellished record of the artist’s repetitive actions in lieu. Taking the same stretch of time as the actual event, the work is a sheer twenty five minutes of the artist throwing paper planes with sparklers. 


Situated at the back of the picture is a line of typical residential buildings. Their beauty is not only rooted in their familiarity with anyone who dwelled in the city for years, but also in their repetition which creates a visual rhythm. At the edge of the frames sit a clump of trees, shrouding a greenish building. With over half of it hidden from the sight of the camera, its rooftop is left particularly visible, and it is the place where the paper planes are thrown. Standing on the rooftop, the artist flies a plane that carries a sparkler on the day the Perseid meteor shower peaks. The bright light emitted by the sparkler climbs into the darkening sky as the plane hovers in the wind. In the blink of an eye, the flight comes to a halt and its soft luminosity dissolves into thin air. The sky recedes into momentary silence within seconds, and it is not until the artist flies another paper plane that the stillness of the night is again pierced by some flying sparks. Despite the similarity in the appearances between paper planes, their voyages are distinctly different due to factors such as wind conditions and the drag each of them experiences, and it is the unpredictability of it that resonates with the random paths of meteors.  


There is a tendency that Meteor is taken at face value due to its simplicity — after all, its name has already dropped a clear hint about what to expect in the video: a plethora of shooting stars. Whereas the work is a passable imitation of an astronomical phenomenon given that it is executed only with highly accessible objects, the building where the artist tosses the paper planes suggests an underlying theme of the work. Perhaps a quick scan of the artist's statement is required for some of the audience to realize what the greenish building in the video is — the main building of Hong Kong Baptist University’s Visual Arts Academy, the place where the artist always stayed while he was a university student. Unlike concrete constructions built from stretch for educational purposes, the campus consists mainly of two historical buildings surviving from the 1930s. Once an essential part of the Royal Air Force station, the site in Kai Tak has long been leased to Hong Kong Baptist University to house its Visual Arts Academy, and the Colonial Neoclassical architecture of the buildings marks a striking difference with the newly constructed structures nearby. There is no surprise for Visual Arts students to be found hammering away at their artworks in the wee hours inside the buildings’ studios. With the copious amount of time spent there, the immense familiarity with the environment constitutes a sense of belonging between the place and the students who constantly linger on the campus. The artist’s special fondness for the place, together with the area in which the campus is situated, is well exemplified by his series of artworks, namely Art Archive: Kai Tak Series (22.331130.114.210124).  

Being one of the eight artworks composing the series, Meteor does not only relate closely to the heritage campus but also its surroundings. Opposite the campus sat Kai Tak Mansion, a complex consisting of four buildings that accommodated hundreds of grassroots households. The deeply intertwined relationship between the campus and Kai Tak Mansion not only lies behind geographical propinquity but also the entwined histories of both sites. Formerly owned by the Royal Air Force, the land on which the campus and Kai Tak Mansion were sited witnessed a significant slice of history during the colonial period, and the two adjoining sites housed the quarters compound and the dormitory buildings respectively. It is, however, only the former which was able to dodge demolition while the latter underwent a major renovation, hence Kai Tak Mansion. 


Standing at the foot of Ping Shan, the Kai Tak campus is isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city. Thanks to the height of the four low-rise buildings standing between the campus and the Kwun Tong Road, students were allowed to take in the rural landscape bathed in warm sunlight. However, it just takes a bus journey on the thoroughfare to realize that Kai Tak Mansion is no longer there to be found, but a building site of a towering edifice is set instead. In fact, Kai Tak Mansion has already been demolished in 2016 and was redeveloped into a high-end residential building despite resistance from tenants who were eventually evicted from their homes. The tragic denouement of the ill-fated mansion is of course, undesirable, but not unpredictable as it is just another common occurrence in the city whose norm is money, and it is always mankind who accounts for the key decisive factor in both conservation and demolitions of buildings.  


Kevin Ling was yet to graduate from university at the time Kai Tak Mansion was under threat of demolition. The incident urged him to create artworks that revolve around the demise of the buildings, and thereby an artwork series dedicated solely to the two abutting sites which share common originals. Despite their seemingly distinct fate, a proposal to relocate the academy in 2012 shook the students’ sincere belief that the halcyon days on the heritage campus would never end. It was fortunate that the cooperative efforts of students, staff, and various parties paid off, and the academy could remain on the site for another decade. Still, the incident sows seeds of worry and anxiety in students who have already developed a strong attachment to the campus, and they come to realize that the loss of their campus is in fact within the bounds of possibility.  

An alternative perspective is now provided to interpret Meteor not only as a recreation of a celestial event but also as a lament for the irreversible change in Kai Tak. Although it is by no means possible to notice while watching Meteor, the paper planes are in fact thrown towards the site of Kai Tak Mansion according to the artist’s statement. After a paper plane is thrown, it drifts towards the lot as its glimmer of light continues to fade. Departing from the rooftop of the campus, the bright luminescence on the plane serves as an elegy dedicated to Kai Tak Mansion, the building whose lights had been extinguished, and was ready to be replaced anytime.  


In the face of development plans in the neighborhood of the campus, students experienced utter powerlessness arising from cases of forced demolitions where collective resistance is always proven fruitless. The sparks carried by the paper planes is a silent scream of anguish let out by Kevin, alongside students who take issues with the demolition of Kai Tak Mansion and, more importantly, the hierarchical structures that hold the fate of old buildings in their clenched fists. Coupled with a grudge towards institutions that willingly dispossess people of their places, the flickers of flames drifting through the air in Kai Tak have points of resemblance to those seen in different catalysts for change, such as the glow of fire hurled across the sky by young opposition forces who combatted the construction of the new international airport in Japan, the flame belonging to the thousands of candles on the Hviezdoslav Square which later acted as a prelude to the Velvet Revolution, and so on. In Meteor, the full wrath of the artist is converted into the shooting stars, and as the planes spread their wings, the scream of anguish echoes loudly through the motionless night.  


Time and again people wish upon a shooting star that carries with itself the inevitability of an ending as it traverses the sky, and they appreciate the last glaze of its beauty before its disappearance. In danger of sinking without traces, every single construction is built to be flattened in the future, with the dormitory buildings and Kai Tak Mansion which shared the same piece of land serving as striking instances. Buildings are never immune to redevelopment plans even if they have proven themselves of great historic value as they are situated in Hong Kong, a city notorious for its toothless heritage policy. Thereby, shooting stars that are doomed to fall and vanish have always been prevalent before our very eyes, and they appear to us as physical places of all sorts — piers, streets, villages, to name but a few. Like the unpredictable trajectory of the manmade shooting stars in Meteor, uncertainty is also firmly embedded in the destiny of every single piece of land, together with the constructions on it. Therefore, it is just possible that the place that we come across every day will only exist in archival materials — if any — in the not-too-distant future.  


Resting on the artist’s sensitivity to the physical environment where he was situated, Meteor is not only a work of art that uses shooting stars as a metaphor for the demise of Kai Tak Mansion but also a piece of art archive that puts forward evidence for the presence of a demolished building.    


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