"If I were in the government I would have a brigade of policemen assigned to keeping an eye on people who paint landscapes outdoors. Oh, I wouldn't want anyone killed. I'd be satisfied with just a little buckshot to begin with." —Edgar Degas
A few years ago while hiking on Po Toi, I came across a pair of plein air painters—pleinarians, as I like to call them—with their delicate easels set up on the hillside. It was a shock, and Degas' words came to mind. Two or three other times in the past eight years I've spotted people in Hong Kong sketching outdoors. I might be projecting, but they each appeared somewhat furtive, with a hint of shame even.
Things started to change a little over a year ago. The Hong Kong Urban Sketchers appeared, run by architect Alvin Wong. There were 30 or 40 members posting sporadically on Facebook; then in May, they got a nice write-up in Apple Daily and membership leapt to over 1000. Recently another HK urban sketching website appeared here, and a week ago the Asia Art Archive sponsored a "walk and draw" near their headquarters in Sheung Wan. Get the buckshot, Edgar, it's a full blown craze!
I know plenty of 'serious' artists who are snobbish about the urban sketcher thing. Within a certain milieu it's deeply unfashionable—your great-aunt's batik work has a better chance of getting shown at the Venice Biennale—which is why Gagosian Hong Kong's May show was so brilliant. It was more or less against the grain of the dominant mode of the art world, but at the same time completely blue chip. A show of urban sketches (gasp); but it's okay—they're by Giacometti! His suite of lithographs of Paris seemed to have been stuck in a drawer and forgotten for a long time, then rehabilitated when the time was ripe. (Which reminds me of Jack Goldstein's story: "One day I was in a bar with Gagosian, and he told me how he could live off of one Brice Marden painting. He knew when to sell it and when to buy it at auction again.")
Some of the urban sketcher manifestos mention their desire to document vanishing buildings. This for me is not the most interesting aspect of what they're doing (after all, a camera and a measuring tape would be better suited). What's compelling is the wider scope of their activity. The drawings are often accompanied by anecdotal information, such as "After 10 minutes a security guard asked us to leave." "There was no shade, so I had to work fast." Or, "There was nowhere to sit, so we ended up here." It's clear that the choice of subject matter is not dictated entirely by what's endangered, historic, or even what's most visually interesting, but is also determined by how hospitable a neighborhood is, whether it's over-regulated or unregulated, whether it's possible to linger at a location or not. In this regard, their project is closely related to Debord's dérive. Their drawings and notes are an index of movements through the city; movements influenced by appealing or repelling ambiance as much as by preconceived agenda.