Occupy Central Hong Kong turns streets into art galleries

Art bursts forth from protests as students, activists and citizens leave their mark on the streets of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s headline-grabbing civil disobedience movement exceeded expectations not just in scale but also in aesthetic appeal. Art Radar investigates the multi-faceted artistry of Occupy Central 2014.

The 'Lennon Wall' in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy movement 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

The ‘Lennon Wall’ in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy movement 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

The large-scale pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has moved into its third week. In a recent development, student leaders issued an open letter to President Xi Jinping stressing that the movement is not a “colour revolution”.

Colours abound the streets, however, as protesters create public art and turn occupied areas into surreal exhibition spaces. Students, activists and citizens alike make their voices heard via posters, sculptures, installations, photographs and public art projects. Art Radar takes you on a stroll through a thriving gallery of living art.

Public installation 'Umbrella Tree' during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

Public installation ‘Umbrella Tree’ during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

The art of Occupy Central

An umbrella aesthetic

The umbrella became the de facto symbol of the movement after demonstrators used them against pepper spray attacks from the police. Umbrellas also kept protestors dry during long nights of heavy downpours. It wasn’t long before a colourful umbrella aesthetic sprang up in the streets. Umbrellas were placed on top of barricades, assembled to form installations and even sewn together to make a giant tent strung across two bridges.

The 'Umbrella Man' by artist Milk during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

The ‘Umbrella Man’ by artist Milk during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

The 10-feet tall wood statue Umbrella Man, named by activists after Jeff Widener’s Tank Man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was created by a 22-year-old art student known by the nickname Milk. The sculpture is eerily reminiscent of the 33-foot Goddess of Democracy created by Beijing students in 1989 – a statue subsequently destroyed during the violent crackdown. When interviewed by The New York Times, Milk said he wasn’t trying to evoke any political associations:

I’m not trying to achieve anything. Art is just an expression […] The movement needs something just to stand there.

Click here to watch an Al Jazeera video on the Hong Kong protests featuring Milk and his Umbrella Man

The streets as canvas

In addition to the iconic Umbrella Man statue and Umbrella Tree installation, the sudden boom in public art adorning protest sites include large and small banners, posters, placards and chalk drawings on roads and pavements. Messages, lyrics and cartoons plaster streets and sidewalks, while altered road signs offer “democracy” as its destination.

Street art in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy protest 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

Street art in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy protest 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

A “Lennon Wall” has received much media attention for displaying an ever-increasing multitude of colourful post-its carrying messages of hope, defiance and mutual support. Professor Michael O’Sullivan from the Chinese University of Hong Kong said to Tammy Ho from Asian literary journal Cha:

The protest site at Admiralty has morphed into a museum piece. They’ve cling-filmed the patchwork of post-it’s on the wall of water bollards and strolling along the post-its and posters on the outside of government buildings felt like a gallery walk.

The 'Lennon Wall' in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy movement 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

The ‘Lennon Wall’ in Admiralty, Hong Kong during the Occupy movement 2014. Image by Victoria Yeung Yat Ching.

Other artists, attracted by the surreal scenes and atmosphere of the demonstrations, camp out at various protest locations to capture the city with ink and brushes. Many then post their works on Facebook to share their interpretations of the movement.

Local artist working during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

Local artist working during the Occupy movement in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

Alvin Wong, co-founder of artist group Urban Sketchers Hong Kong, tells Hyperallergic that sketching the protests offers a very different experience compared to merely taking a snapshot:

[Sketching] is a form of meditation, and [it] also allows me to observe carefully in details what the people are trying to achieve in this movement.

Click here to watch a CNN video for more images of Hong Kong’s protest street art

Art and the community

In addition to professional artists, citizens and children also wielded their brushes in interactive street painting events hosted by Italian painter Francesco Lietti. Born in Italy, Lietti has been based in Hong Kong since 2006 and creates magical, vibrant canvases depicting the city. The artist and Hong Kong-lover organised several successful collaborative street painting sessions entitled “The Voice of the Streets” to “show [his] support to Hong Kong and its people”.

Interactive street painting during the Occupy protest in Hong Kong 2014. Image courtesy Francesco Lietti.

Interactive street painting during the Occupy protest in Hong Kong 2014. Image courtesy Francesco Lietti.

A multimedia revolution

Media art projects

Alongside humble paint brushes, post-its and umbrellas, Hong Kong protestors also turned to digital media as a tool of social protest. Aside from mobilising participants and organising protests through social media in what The Guardian calls a ‘social media revolution’, an artist group led by Sampson Wong created a media art project which transmits messages of support from around the world for protestors to see.

'Stand By You: 'Add Oil' Machine' for OCLP' at the Occupy protests 2014. Image courtesy Stand By You: 'Add Oil' Machine' for OCLP.

‘Stand By You: ‘Add Oil’ Machine’ for OCLP’ at the Occupy protests 2014. Image courtesy Stand By You: ‘Add Oil’ Machine’ for OCLP.

Entitled Stand By You: Add Oil Machine, the project allows supporters from around the world to submit short messages via a website. The messages are then displayed through a projector and giant LED billboard in protest zones. Wong told South China Morning Post that he observed:

lots of people […] stopping to look […] some stood there for half an hour to read the messages.

Expression through Facebook

Other community-engaging art events include a Facebook competition to create an official Umbrella Revolution logo, organised by Kacey Wong, Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Screenshot of 'People on the Streets' Facebook page. Image by Art Radar.

Screenshot of ‘People on the Streets’ Facebook page. Image by Art Radar.

Also on Facebook, a heartwarming photography project entitled “People on the Streets” collects personal stories of people participating in the protests, following in the footsteps of the well-known “Humans of New York” page.

Creative space and social art

On the streets, the level of sophistication of the protest movement has risen to a class of its own. Self-organised and self-initiating participants have made impressive use of public space, constructing study areas, shower stalls and tents for sleep and rest.

Student study area at Admiralty Occupy protest site in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

Student study area at Admiralty Occupy protest site in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

Teachers set up camps offering free tutoring, teenagers manage large-scale recycling centres, and shops and restaurants supply phone-charging outlets. The harmonious and collaborative atmosphere of protest sites is often described as ‘sweet’ and ‘heartwarming’, and Chantal Wong from the the Asia Art Archive told South China Morning Post that she had never seen such a creative Hong Kong:

It’s not just the dramatic signs but the different form of communication and creative use of space […] It is an awakening.

'Rest area' at Admiralty Occupy protest site in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

‘Rest area’ at Admiralty Occupy protest site in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

The degree of social consciousness and civic-minded participation arguably qualifies the movement as a project that opens up alternate modes of life. Such projects, which do not have to be artistically visioned at the outset, have been termed – albeit problematically and controversially – ‘social practice’, ‘relational aesthetics’, ‘public art’, ‘social art’ and ‘socially engaged art’.

In Nato Thompson’s curatorial statement for his ongoing project “Living as Form”, he defines socially engaged art as cultural practices that:

indicate new ways of life that emphasise participation, challenge power, and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theatre and the visual arts.

 Michele Chan

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Related Topics: street artpublic artart and the community, art and democracy, found objects, new media, digital artHong Kong artists, events in Hong Kong

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