The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong is known to locals as The Pen, or to worldy travellers under the more affectionate moniker; the Grand Old Dame of the Far East. Established in 1928, the hotel’s colonial presence offers a glimpse in to the city’s past and it is one of few remaining buildings that doesn’t radiate a 21st century dystopia in the city. Instead it exudes old-world elegance and a part of Hong Kong’s bygone glamour. However, in recent years, the Peninsula has made an effort to bolster its contemporary art credentials in a series of partnerships with the Royal Academy in London, the latest of which is just coming to an end, that has transformed the building's exterior in to a public art space. The programme also highlight's Hong Kong's importance on the art fair circuit, as the second home of Art Basel, from where it moves on Switzerland this month.
The partnership unveiled this spring, a monumental art installation, which now dominates the skyline of Kowloon Bay, by the leading British artist and Royal Academician, Sir Michael Craig-Martin. Craig-Martin grew up and studied in the States at Yale, before moving to London in 1966 to pursue his artistic career. His early work drew together materials and objects to question the nature of artistic representation and he quickly made a name for himself for his large scale artworks that reshaped how 20th century art could operate. In one of his most famous works, An Oak Tree (1973), the artist proclaimed a glass of water on a glass shelf was in fact an oak tree, and in an instant the nature of contemporary art changed forever. His more recent works, which include print making, painting and installations, still draw on this theme of everyday objects and their changing nature in society and artistic practice, using their pre-defined contextual symbolism as a way to make an audience re-think what we see, and what we know.
For his commission at The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, in order to celebrate the fifth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong this year, and as the third instalment of the three year partnership between the hotel and the RA, Craig-Martin has presented Bright Idea (2016), a site-specific installation in the shape of a giant yellow lightbulb made from powder-coated steel.
The sculpture rises from the famous fountains on the hotel’s forecourt suggesting at once both the notion of a new dawn as well as a history of innovation – a perfectly fitting theme for the city and hotel. The work recalls the ideas presented at the artist’s now infamous Chatsworth House exhibition in 2014, which saw the house and grounds of the privately owned stately home transformed in to a public contemporary art space. The Bright Idea sculpture depicts what appears at first to be an every day mundane object, but through changing the dimensions, setting, appearance, and use, the artist has flipped the everyday nuances of such an object on its head.
The work is part of the ‘Love Art at The Peninsula’ partnership that celebrates the hotel’s commitment to contemporary art – and this latest incarnation has caused quite a stir. In Hong Kong visitors are known for queueing up to take a snapshots of the hotel’s historic façade, and each is now greeted with the yellow lightbulb, although it seems to have been met with great approval and thousands of hashtags.
Inside the Peninsula, the hotel’s own patisserie chefs have been hard at work recreating their own edible chocolate versions of the artwork in their famous kitchens. This collaboration not only showcases the hotel’s dedication to the preservation of their own artistic legacy, but also their commitment to helping shape the city’s contemporary art scene, as well as highlighting the rich legacy of the relationship between Hong Kong and London. In previous years the hotel has been lit up by Tracey Emin’s neon signs across the outside, hosted beguiling installations by Conrad Shawcross and Richard Wilson hung a bus off the edge of the terrace – so their curation credentials are definitely top notch.
The hotel has become known to both locals and travellers as the place to visit for the culturally discerning for almost one hundred years now. Gleaming through a grey-stone neo-classical façade, the Peninsula looks like it has been lifted straight from Park Lane, Paris or New York, and inside, the lobby contains a grand salon with white and gold ornamentation where guests queue around the block to sample the famous English style high tea that has become one of the hotel’s signature offerings. It has also become known as the place to stay during Art Basel, not only because of its artistic legacy but also for the trappings of elegance it offers. Beyond the marble lobby guests are swept off to rooms in a series of elevators rising up the building's twenty-two storeys, which offer unrivalled views back across Hong Kong Bay, from its position on Kowloon Peninsula.
Inside the hotel there is a state of the art spa on the eighth floor that, weather permitting, has a retractable glass wall which seamlessly blends the infinity swimming pool with the water of the bay and the sky-scraper dotted horizon. Each room comes with state of the art electronics integrated – even the smallest has no fewer than three wireless control tablets that administer lighting, air conditioning, music, food orders and more. The interiors combine an old-world feel of green marble bathrooms and traditional Chinese painted silk artworks, with contemporary design touches such as bronze flower installations on the walls and sleek teak cabinets. As for getting around the city, the hotel has its own fleet of famous ‘Peninsula Green’ Rolls Royce Phantoms that can whisk you to your next auction or exhibition – or if you’re in a hurry the Peninsula is the only hotel in the city with a private helipad.
There are also seven restaurants offering Cantonese, Swiss, Japanese and French fine dining, as well as a rooftop restaurant called Felix with unrivalled views from Kowloon across to Hong Kong Bay that contains some of the most art-inspired interiors around. A new art gallery space inside the hotel that is currently exhibiting a collection of Craig-Martin’s two-dimensional works, transforms what was once a 1920’s restaurant in to a bright and lively contemporary art exhibition space.
Because of the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon is quickly becoming one of the city’s most important arts hubs. The Hong Kong Museum of Arts is situated opposite the hotel, and due to open after a multi-million pound refurbishment in 2018, and a flurry of commercial galleries are currently springing up along the busy side streets. The latest installation of this collaboration between the Peninsula and RA proves that cultural institutions of even the most opposite forms can effectively collaborate across the globe, to bring art to the people, as well as people to the art.
It means there has never been a better time to visit Hong Kong, and make the most of visiting the famous sites such as The Peak, with its historic tram, the SKY100 Observation Deck, take a historic walking tour around the colonial old town, dine on contemporary Asian cuisine at Little Bao or explore the modern skyscraper districts with your Octopus Card. It is the city where east meets west, old meets new and function meets fun. You might just struggle fitting it all in.
The Peninsula Hong Kong, Room rates start from: £393 (HK$3,980) per night for a Deluxe Room.
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