Staring out of a window I caught sight of him: a grey man standing on the ledge of a roof opposite. Perched there, facing the street, he stood completely still — but stretched out, inhuman, his wiry body elongated and smooth. This was five years ago and since then every time I passed that street in Central in Hong Kong I would look up and see him. Though after a year or so he disappeared, and after a while, I stopped looking, and why he was ever there in the first place remained something I never intended on finding out.
But in minute 15 of Andrew Hevia’s documentary Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window, he appears, or they appear — men surveying the city from rooftops, punctuating the horizon with their long grey bodies. The film explains: it’s an art installation, a series of sculptures by Antony Gormley named Event Horizon. It’s travelled all around the world, not just Hong Kong. Gormley in his project statement, writes,
“EVENT HORIZON hopes to activate the skyline in order to encourage people to look around. In this process of looking and finding, or looking and seeking, one perhaps re-assesses one’s own position in the world and becomes aware of one’s status of embedment.”
The film itself feels stocked with other men on high edges. There is another man on a ledge of a rooftop in Leave the Bus, who is real, who appears in the beginning of the film, and who jumps off before the title sequence. That is art too, I assume, though it plays more like a punchline. And Hevia, whose journey runs as the plot of the film, arriving in the foreign city lost and confused sans confidence or itinerary, seems to be exercising his own plunge in the dark.
Even thematically, this leaves cause for the unexpected. Hevia’s stated purpose for Leave the Bus is to cover an international art fair in Hong Kong — Art Basel — but the film is about that and a dozen other things, a half-touristic journey through the Hong Kong city sprawl, guided by an Alexa-esque robotic speech voiceover who speaks in the second person and details Hevia’s actions and thoughts as if commanding them in real time. As a tourist does, Hevia simply observes the city around him, but like a wandering mind (or, just a mind) often skids along on tangents, making synaptic connections from one thing to the next: wherein a confused, drunken nap leads to the mulling of an ex-girlfriend, which then leads to a factoid of the blushing pink dolphins of Lantau Island.
Despite its often meandering, digressional style, underneath Leave the Bus runs a thick current of alienation — Hevia’s own sense of loss and isolation in an entirely foreign city — one where he cannot understand the language, where he isn’t acquainted with the culture, and where he hasn’t researched the history. To him, the local art feels almost impenetrable. To him, Hong Kong is threatening in its loneliness, brimming with crowds, bright, unnavigable malls, jammed with undecipherable chatter — where much of the art scene feels disparate and underground, at times seeming as cryptically subversive as a stranger under an umbrella, passing a folded slip of paper to another on the street.
Leave the Bus’ signifiers of alienation, however, were almost entirely lost on me, a Hong-Kong-born-Aussie who still very much misses the place. Hevia’s supposedly disorienting Kafka-esque maze trail through Pacific Place in Admiralty only brought to me a bout of fresh nostalgia; the specific melodic tones of the MTR turnstiles, the harsh Cantonese barks of a protester, the rippling clicks of a pedestrian crossing, the neon lights in the orange city glow — even the speckled grey design of the airport floor were things utterly distinct and familiar. Ironically enough, his sense of isolation in the city forced my homesickness for it: just as those grey men failed to instigate any self-awareness.
Despite being all about the art world, the film tells little on its face about the meaning of art, a crux which still seems to escape me. When Hevia finally gets to the art fair he’s been tasked to cover, he’s less interested in the art itself than those art people, videotaping the antics of the visitors, collectors, artists, and curators that inhabit the pictorial labyrinth. By constantly acknowledging his own ignorance of the art of the city (in skin-saving, self-deprecating fashion), Hevia makes a movie that is a shallower exposition of the city’s art scene than most art-world-docs may seek to achieve — though clocking in at a brisk, thematically miscellaneous 68 minutes, Leave the Bus evidently intends to be less exposé than travelogue. However, the type of refreshing and often humorous candidness that accompanies his journey – where the art itself becomes subsidiary and less interesting compared to its creators and its environment – doesn’t quite pass to his other, more personal expositions. Hevia’s short relationship with a Ukranian intern remains largely opaque – and it seems a bit queasy to see her videotaped again and again, a silent smiling face, without much context or agency, as she acts as a near-apparitional figure in Hevia’s idiosyncratic adventures.
As Hevia trails an art collector in the fair, the robotic voice narrates the collector’s task: “He seeks to understand value, worth, beauty.” That the first two of these words are essentially synonyms feels symptomatic of the often-circular lexicon that accompanies the acclaim of art — value derived from worth, or vice versa. “You find it at once practical and insanely impractical,” the voice continues.
While the veil around this area remains tightly drawn, Hevia presents the way that art can force contemplation. A photo exhibition of Hong Kong’s domestic workers summons forth shots of an earlier encounter of the city’s Indonesian and Filipino maids, gathering in their down time in Hong Kong’s parks and passageways — pictures of stiff, serious black and white faces loosen into informal clutters of mundane life. In another striking scene, Hevia stumbles across a protest — a sudden loud, terrifying eruption of rage and violence, only to run a block away to find pedestrians standing around as if nothing is happening. Though this was filmed back in 2016, this swift change in tone shows how eerily commonplace such demonstrations have become in Hong Kong today. It also lends frightening context to a piece of art Hevia cuts to a bit later, in a montage showcasing the region’s fractured relationship with China: a lit up neon pink text in a dark room that reads, ‘NOTHING WE DID COULD HAVE SAVED HONG KONG IT WAS ALL WASTED.’
This all reminds me of a protest I happened across last Christmas – swarms of people, dressed in black, marching through the top floors of a shopping centre. Below, children went on playing, barely batting an eye as the chants erupted and grew across the floors. People continued to shop; life went on. It was barely covered in the news. Was it all wasted? Was it a waste to simply try, despite being potentially doomed to fail? The didactic pink text offers less of an answer than Leave the Bus’ news-clip montage. (A NYT op-ed or a podcast episode would offer a far more interesting take.) The oft spinelessness of art’s many ambiguities and oversimplifications only seems to frustrate – especially when things as concrete, threatening, and complex as politics are concerned. As does its many disconnects between artist and audience, through which consolidation seems near impossible.
In this way watching Leave the Bus as well as the art within it felt somewhat like standing on the lip of a void, peering in. To look in and make sense of the darkness requires a great deal of thought and effort, or a small miracle. But from tiny coincidences spring small bright lights. Things may appear again and encourage us to think a little deeper. And the simple mental gymnastics of untangling ambiguities and contradictions may force a little more insight. We’ll just have to keep on looking. “Later,” the robotic voice says to me, or to Hevia, or to you, referring to those strange big Event Horizon sculptures, “you will forget they exist, only to see them out of the corner of your eye. A figure perched on a ledge. A jumper.”
Leave the Bus through the Broken Window will be playing on 22 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.