Sounds fun, but do we really want tourism-spectacle work from world-class artists?

Hal Foster got it right. His 2011 book, The Art-Architecture Complex, described the immense market pressures forcing artists into architecture and architects into art. Think Ai Weiwei designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Or Carsten Höller building a slide through the New Museum. Or Diller Scofidio + Renfro trying to inflate a giant bubble at the Hirshhorn Museum.

So when Cao Fei turned a Hong Kong tower into a giant Atari for this year's Art Basel Hong Kong, it wasn't a first.    

Cao Fe, Same Old, Brand New, rendering, 2014 (Cao Fei)

For the 2015 third edition of Asia's most important art fair, Cao Fei illuminated the surface of the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong's tallest building. The artist projected animated visuals from iconic arcade games such as Pac-Man and Tetris onto the curtain wall of the 1,588-foot-tall building. Her installation even included a chiptune soundtrack broadcast from the building.

With the work playing five times a night over the past five days, Cao Fei's work was something Hong Kong residents and thousands of art-shopping tourists must have had a hard time avoiding. Art Basel Hong Kong has proved Hal Foster right. Built spectacle is a global trend in contemporary art—maybe the global trend.

Hell, Cao Fei isn't even the first artist to use the ICC skyscraper as her palette. During last year's Art Basel Hong Kong fair, it was Carsten Nicolai, the German media artist, who used the façade of the building for a 50-minute synchronized light show.

Carsten Nicolai, alpha pulse, 2014 (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

His pulsing digital installation was the more successful piece of artwork. But this sort of thing happens all the time in Hong Kong. Videos in the ICC Light and Music Show channel on YouTube date back at least a year. The light show's website—that's right, the lights on this skyscraper get their own page—promises more video installations coming up. Graduate students from the City University of Hong Kong's School of Creative Media will be exhibiting selections of their work on the building later this month, for example. (I'm particularly looking forward to "Hong Kong's Rugby Spirit," a light-installation show about the history of Hong Kong rugby.)

In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator and co-director of London's Serpentine Gallery, Cao Fei says that Hong Kong has had an enormous impact on her practice. (She also cites Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a masterpiece, and of all things, AMC's The Walking Dead.) A better representation of that mega-city influence might be found in RMB City, a gorgeous planning installation the artist constructed in Second Life. (Remember Second Life?)

As fun as Cao Fei doing Tetris on a skyscraper sounds—it'd be cooler if she let you play it, of course—make no mistake about it. This Blade Runner tower is a tourist trap masquerading as new media. Cities are free to choose to build Ferris wheels or light-up towers if they like, but artists of Cao Fei's stature ought to steer clear.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. Two men plant a young tree in a lot in Detroit.
    Environment

    Why Detroit Residents Pushed Back Against Tree-Planting

    Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.

  4. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
    Design

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  5. A gun-control rally in Pittsburgh's Market Square, Saturday, March 24, 2018.
    Equity

    Inside Pittsburgh's Battle Over Gun Control Laws

    Pittsburgh could be the bellwether city in Pennsylvania, defying state law to pass gun control ordinances, but first it has to get past its own district attorney.