ACTIVISM IN ART HONG KONG ARTISTS
Tuesday 3 May marked one month since Ai Weiwei’s controversial arrest and the Hong Kong art scene took to the streets again, holding performance art protests, writing letters and hijacking city light shows.
In Times Square, Causeway Bay, a group of student artists staged performance pieces in protest. Letters were sent to Ai Weiwei’s Fake Studio in Beijing. In Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), it was reported that the usual Hong Kong light show was “hijacked”.
Outside Hong Kong, the world has been in uproar at the sudden detention of the high-profile Chinese artist. Notable among the efforts of the resistance were the 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei protests, coordinated around the world. The Chinese government has issued a statement that Ai Weiwei was arrested under allegations of “economic crimes” and insists that the arrest has “nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.” However, many deem the accusations as vague, and Ai’s relatives consider them absurd.
One of the individuals heading the protest movement in Hong Kong is acclaimed artist, Kacey Wong. Known for his distinctly poetic and innovative sculptures, Wong’s artistic practice stems from the city he is so immersed in: its architecture, people and distinct culture. From the initial protests held around the city to these latest efforts to “Free Ai Weiwei!” – a demand repeatedly chanted, if not silently impressed upon the general public with supporters wearing badges and pins that bear the artist’s face – Wong has been part of the enormous effort to emphasise the gravity of the situation.
Art Radar spoke with artist Kacey Wong in Hong Kong, asking him to explain why he is so strongly involved in local protest action and what Ai Weiwei’s detention means for the Hong Kong art community.
How did Ai Weiwei influence your practice as an artist?
My previous work has always questioned how art or an artist’s work can contribute to society besides being in the normal gallery setting or practice. Usually, if you look at art in galleries, the contribution to the society is not so strong, the work may end up in somebody’s home or on a wall. It doesn’t really have that impact, which is specific to the artist’s desire. For example, some of my previous work deals with homeless issues, child abuse prevention, etc. So they’re not necessarily work that people would normally collect. Ai Weiwei influenced me to focus on how the art or an artist’s thinking can contribute to society in terms of relating to specific issues, like politics and looking at the world critically, reflecting upon it, which I think artists have been doing since the Renaissance.
Arrests like this have been made before, and with Ai Weiwei being such a high profile Asian contemporary artist, the issue hits close to home. How is this affecting you as an artist? Can you shed some light on what artists in Hong Kong and China are feeling while this is going on?
Personally, this past month has been a re-educational experience because it seems that artists like me in Hong Kong have been living in a bubble. Hong Kong is a relatively free city compared to what is going on in China and our understanding of China is limited because we don’t live in that society. We operate in an autonomous system. Ever since the arrest, I’ve started to look at Ai Weiwei’s work more carefully, to really see what he was talking about, looking at videos, reading books… I want to find out the answer, why and who is afraid of Ai Weiwei? I discovered a lot of things that were going on that were wrong, and I didn’t react before because I felt these were things that didn’t have anything to do with me personally. The arrest is a big wake up call for many of us in the artist community here in Hong Kong because all of a sudden, our own kind is being arrested. And if it can happen to Ai Weiwei, it can happen to any of us. We are still flying the Chinese flag here in Hong Kong. Also, seeing how the police reacted to the graffiti girl [22-year-old student artist Tangerine] is a reconfirmation of a disappearance of freedom. This brings out a desire for righteousness and justice in all of us in the Hong Kong art community. This is why I say that for me, all of it is a re-educational experience.
There have been monumental efforts in the Hong Kong art scene to spread awareness. How do you think this is all going to end?
It’s not going to be easy. Just like many of the issues I’ve dealt with before, like homeless people and child abuse, now we’re talking about human rights which is an even bigger issue and more difficult to tackle. I don’t think it will ever end. I think it is an ongoing issue to bring out awareness and I think this is the function of art, really. [The purpose of] art is not to resolve anything, it’s not like design. I don’t look at art that way. I [see] art as a neutral ground to bring out the issues so that people can have independent and critical reactions and reflections. If art is good, it changes our perception of the world, it doesn’t change the world. We don’t see much of that in China because things are so heavily suppressed in media and education, which is very sad for all of us. There is something similar going on as well in Hong Kong. I don’t know if you know of this, but the Education Bureau, Hong Kong is employing a kind of patriotism and education to primary and high school students that use curricula that don’t look at the real issues critically, it’s all about the positive side of things and not looking at the other end. This is not healthy and this is why I think issues like this will always be ongoing.
What do you think this has signified or underlined in the present day contemporary art scene in Asia and internationally, and what has the response to events been like?
I think this contributes to the question, ‘What is the function of art?’ The recent hype in Chinese art is just like any market that attracts people who are into art for vanity or the money, where you see prices soaring high but the content of the art is not that strong. The market usually looks at the price tag instead of looking at the reasons why and the spirituality behind art. I think Ai Weiwei’s actions and art have reminded all of us as practitioners about the other aspect of art, which is to do good and contribute to society in various ways, along with the importance of the individual. I think this is his mark in art history. He has done so well and his intention is so good, in a way, I think he deserves some sort of an award from the country instead of being arrested. But I think we are facing a system that is so corrupt that it is easier to banish him than to recognise him.
The significance of this issue is also that it brings out the good in all of us. People came out in support for Ai Weiwei, but also for freedom of speech and artistic expression. We have this morality that there should be peace, there should be justice and a good conscience. And this is what Ai Weiwei has been doing for a long time in his practice. I think it’s so easy for us to shrug our shoulders and pretend that nothing big has happened, so I think this has definitely brought out, and not only for the people in Hong Kong, but all around the world, something good.
There was an event in Times Square on 3 May where people could write letters to Ai Weiwei. They were going to be mailed to Fake Studio in Beijing. If you could talk to him or say anything to him now, what would it be?
I would say, ‘You will not be forgotten.’ I think that is what I want to say. I think it’s very clear.
Is there anything else you would like to say to the people who may not be aware of what is going on?
I want to quote [Ai Weiwei]. There is a book that was recently published by The MIT Press, it’s called Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. [MIT] were first thinking of publishing it in Chinese but of course they couldn’t because it would be banned, so this is why it is in English. It’s a very good book that I would highly recommend to people to read to comprehend more about Ai Weiwei and what he stands for. There is a sentence in this book, ‘I think that every person must do something for others. That is the only way the world will see change.’
I think this is a very good line to describe what we’re doing and what’s happening. Here is a chance where we can do something for another person and [do it] today. That person is Ai Weiwei.
- What happened at Hong Kong Ai Weiwei rally? Art Radar breaking coverage – April 2011 – Art Radar covers the Ai Weiwei protest in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
- Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio demolition: top stories, photos, video – January 2011 – Read on about the sudden demolition on the artist’s studio
- Internet best gift to China says artist and social activist Ai Weiwei – November 2010 – While the Chinese government may not favour Ai Weiwei too much, there are many that feel otherwise
- Ai Weiwei’s studio party cancelled? Art Radar was there – November 2010 – Ai Weiwei throws secret house party during house arrest
- Picasso of China or voice of dissent: Who is Ai Wei Wei? Profile – September 2009 – A profile on the controversial artist