‘I love the history of this room,’ famed photographer says of Kennedy Town space, empty for 20 years, where she is showing portraits of women of ‘outstanding achievement’, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Yao Chen
Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer best known for her perfectly lit and elegant shots of the rich and famous, has chosen a run-down, unassuming industrial building in Kennedy Town as her exhibition venue in Hong Kong – a vote against gentrification.
Her “Women: New Portraits” show, which is on a 10-city tour, will take over the third floor of the Cheung Hing Industrial Building for just over three weeks. The 44-year-old building – at the bottom of Smithfield Road in the until recently gritty neighbourhood on the northwestern tip of Hong Kong Island – is of note only because its various owners in 2014 collectively turned down a takeover offer by the Urban Renewal Authority, which wanted to knock it down and replace it with a block of flats.
Leibovitz is showing dozens of portraits of women she and her friend Gloria Steinem, the American feminist, have selected for their “outstanding achievements”.
They includes recent works commissioned by UBS, the Swiss bank sponsoring the touring exhibition, as well as older magazine shoots, photographs from Women, the book she co-created with Susan Sontag in 1999, and images from her private collection, such as a mesmerising, black-and-white portrait of her mother.
These are displayed in the stripped-down factory space as A4-size prints, casually pegged to a display board, and as large projections on screens. The venue used to be an electronics factory and had sat empty for 20 years until Leibovitz’s team moved in.
Most of her subjects are American, since Women has always been an “American project”, she told SCMP.com in Tokyo earlier this year.
These include Sheryl Sandberg, the prominent Silicon Valley executive and activist; Wendi Deng, art collector and entrepreneur, who is emerging from the shadow of a bitter divorce from Rupert Murdoch; and US Senator Elizabeth Warren. They are probably not as instantly recognisable, at least in Hong Kong, as the few non-Americans included in the show: Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar; Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for girls’ right to education; Adele, the British singer; Jane Goodall, the primatologist; and Yao Chen, the Chinese actress who speaks on humanitarian issues to her 78 million Weibo followers.
The exhibition was first staged at London’s Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in January and has always been shown in unusual industrial spaces, including an art space inside a printing factory in a Tokyo suburb and an old railway station in Singapore.
Around 40 potential venues were picked out for her in Hong Kong, but the photographer, who creates such flawless, polished images for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, didn’t think they were raw enough for her show.
“I wasn’t so pleased with the Tokyo experience because it was a place that really showed art and I didn’t want to use a place that already had an identity,” she said on Tuesday at the Cheung Hing Industrial Building, which she approved of except for the low ceiling.
“We don’t have the ways and means to actually come here to look at the spaces, but eventually I was so dissatisfied with what I was seeing that I sent one of our frontmen to go out and look. We wanted a place that we can claim for ourselves, a space we can participate in the revitalisation of. Nobody’s been in this place for 20 years. It’s a bit of old Hong Kong. It’s in a place that’s up and coming. I like that it’s centrally located and not what you expected,” she said.
Her determination to avoid “museum like” venues is because the “women” project remains unfinished. “This is a pop-up show. Part of the art, the installation, is about found places. In New York I think we are going to a women’s prison. [The venue] doesn’t have to connect totally with the ‘women’ show. I have always been in love with history and architecture. I have worked in Hong Kong several times and finding old Hong Kong can be hard. I love the history of this room,” she says.
After Hong Kong, the exhibition will move on to Mexico City, Frankfurt, New York and Zurich.
For more information, visit www.ubs.com/annieleibovitz
Women: New Portraits, 3/F Cheung Hing Industrial Building, 12P Smithfield Road, Kennedy Town, Mon-Sun 10am-6pm (Last admission 5pm), Fri 10am-8pm (Last admission 7pm). From June 3 until June 26