Visiting Crafts on Peel
Following my previous visit to Crafts on Peel, I had the pleasure to meet Penelope, the Creative Director, this week. She had kindly walked me through the building, including the artists-in-residence and the research & archiving space on the upper floors. She also 'walked' me through time as she shared with me the history of the site and the process of revitalising this tenement building to turn it into what it is today.
As a reflection exercise, I have tried to capture some of the observations and points we discussed through a quick sketch of the space.
The revitalisation project at Crafts on Peel is beautifully executed. In Hong Kong, in fact, revitalisation of historic and heritage buildings have become more frequently seen in the past decade, but for me, Crafts on Peel is unique in the sense that within the space, there is a feeling of crafts at work and organically evolving, rather than only being on display. Further to the attention directed to the 'behind the scenes' processes behind each piece of work at the exhibition, I thought that perhaps this sense of things being a 'work in progress' is fostered by the presence of multiple engaging conversations that are taking place across the building between staff, curators and visitors, so the interpretations of the work are always revisited. Spatially, perhaps, this is also because of the unusual openness of the office at the mezzanine level that visitors would pass through between exhibition rooms, or the lack of warning signs prohibiting visitors from engaging directly with artisan's crafted items and antiques.
Following the Founder's acquisition of the site in 2017, roughly a year was spent on structural reinforcement works, and another 7-months on interior fit-out, before Crafts on Peel was officially open to public early 2020. New and old parts of the building are orchestrated and put in dialogue with one another, that this is a place that cherishes history and heritage, and is actively thinking about its place in relation to contemporary and rapidly changing Hong Kong. This is clearly manifested in the building's details: how cigarettes were left in the walls as 'wall plugs', the variation in brick colour and types, the preserved window with steel mesh, how fallen bricks were salvaged and reintroduced into the building as a low to mid-rise terrazzo wall, how wall shelves are designed to be minimal and flexible with movable decks... the list goes on. A lesson learnt here is how 'flexibility' can be designed within the constraints of a unique, historic site, maintaining the building's character in the retrofitting process by working in dialogue with the amalgamation of materials that exist on the site. Maybe the design and building of cultural spaces be more sensitive and more sustainable by tapping into the stories of seemingly 'outdated' or 'obsolete' features and cherishing the perceived clash between new and old cultures and values.
An interesting question that arose in our conversation was how might we (or I) categorise Crafts on Peel - is it a gallery or exhibition space? A library? an archive? An arts events venue? It was difficult to put Crafts on Peel in these defined categories. Maybe this is telling of the kind of 'cultural venue' we need in the socio-cultural context and historical background of Hong Kong. With no shortage of the large scale, globally-oriented cultural venues, one still see debates over whether or not Hong Kong is a 'cultural desert', a term that has become popular (but also more superficially applied) to criticise the city's cultural landscape. Perhaps, what is lacking in the local cultural landscape are places that enable both professional and lay interaction with various aspects of 'culture' - be it an art form, a craft, a performance - to occur at a human scale, and to occur as 'live' processes that engage with the everyday.
All in all, Crafts on Peel - both in terms of the exhibition and workshops it hosts and the space itself, is a reflection of the belief that craft, intimately tied to everyday lives, is the richest and most valuable when continually practised. It is no doubt that history and tradition play a key part in our understanding of the craft, but the critical question lies in how the craft interfaces with the time and context we are living in. I am glad that such an initiative is realised, making craft very tangible for locals and visitors alike, but am also eager to explore how such an attitude may be encouraged more generally when we speak of built and intangible heritage, local histories and cultural practices.
P.S. it would be interesting to consider Crafts on Peel in the context of the branded 'cultural triangle' that is emerging in Central, consisting of large scale cultural destinations: Tai Kwun, PMQ and Central market, but that is an exploration for another time.