In a race against time, an artist-led collective works tirelessly to document and preserve protest art from Occupy Central Hong Kong.

Art Radar spoke to Wen Yau, leading member of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective, to learn more about their preservation and archiving efforts.

Logo of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective.

Logo of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective.

In a previous article, Art Radar reported on the plethora of artworks adorning Occupy protest sites in Hong Kong. Fearing the damage and destruction of such artefacts during police clearing operations, artists and academics teamed up to form an organised collective that aims to preserve, document and archive the now world-famous protest art.

The Umbrella Archives

The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective, also known as the Umbrella Archives, was initiated by a group of local artists, academics and art administrators. Their mission statement contains two objectives:

  • To systematically document and research into the creative spatial practices realised by protestors;
  • To protect the artefacts and items that are deemed relevant and important to the movement from being damaged and confiscated during police clearing operations.

Two key persons leading the project are Wen Yau, a multimedia artist, researcher, curator and writer, and Sampson Wong, an artist and creator of the heartwarming Stand By You: Add Oil Machine digital art project.

As of the date of publication, the Umbrella Archives has around twelve teams of researchers performing systematic photo documentation of the Admiralty and Mongkok protest sites. They hope to cover the Causeway Bay site as well and will develop an inventory mapping protest objects across various sites.

Fear of police crackdown 

It is a race against time: experience has taught protestors that a police crackdown could be followed by devastating damage and confiscation of protest art. Wen tells Art Radar that, apart from the mere photographic documentation of items, a ‘rescue plan’ has been devised to minimise the loss of important artefacts:

We will identify and contact the owners/producers of these works […] and design [a] rescue plan in case of brutal crackdown. […] We have been offered a space for temporary storage already.

A meeting between leaders and participants of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective on 21 October 2014. Image courtesy Wen Yau and the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective.

A meeting between leaders and participants of the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective on 21 October 2014. Image courtesy Wen Yau and the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective.

Foreign support

Wen tells Art Radar that the Umbrella Archives has established connections with academics and collectives of civil resistance in Spain and the United States. The relationships will enrich local efforts and provide invaluable guidance.

Meanwhile, Occupy artworks are being displayed in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s “Disobedient Objects” (2014) exhibition, as The South China Morning Post reports. Co-curator Gavin Grindon said that the exhibition will travel to Chile and Sydney, and hopefully to Asia as well. Grindon was quoted as saying that:

What has stood out in the Hong Kong protests is the speed and diversity of the creative approaches to the culture of protest.

An independent, professional effort

In spite of high-profile foreign support, the Umbrella Archives wishes to protect its independent and professional status. Wen clarifies that although they have been in touch with the curator of “Disobedient Objects” for advice, there is no present plan for collaboration or exhibition.

In addition, Wen states that the Collective has not approached any local public museums and hopes to keep the initiative independent at this stage.

They plan to establish an independent professional advisory board comprising archivists, curators and specialists in the field of art activism, cultural studies and urban studies, Wen tells Art Radar. The Collective focuses solely on preservation and research, remaining completely independent from political parties and movements. Its mission statement declares that:

While we communicate closely with [the Hong Kong Federation of Students], Scholarism and [Occupy Central with Love and Peace], we take up an independent and professional role of preserving and researching into the visual culture in social movement.

Public sculpture 'Umbrella Man' by artist Milk during Occupy protests in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.q

Public sculpture ‘Umbrella Man’ by artist Milk during Occupy protests in Hong Kong 2014. Image by Ben Hon Chung Hei.

The street art debate 

When asked whether the preservation of street art, which is by nature ephemeral, goes against its very essence, Wen responds to Art Radar:

The life of the protest object is indeed destined to be destroyed somehow, and our task is to document it as it is, and save it as much as we can […] we try our best to identify the producers and communicate with them about their intentions of saving [their works]. Generally, I don’t even consider these objects as ‘art’ per se, but representations of the people’s voices and their creativity and imagination of the use of public space.

The Collective is also aware of the risk of de-contextualising protest objects from their original sites. According to their mission statement, they strive to establish a “civil-led, bottom-up archives and research collective in accordance with ethics and guidelines of […] counterparts in other countries.” In doing so, they avoid reducing the rich material culture of the movement into mere collectable artefacts.

Instead, important artworks are preserved for the purposes of research, documentation and historical legacy. Wen told The South China Morning Post:

This is the largest social movement Hong Kong has seen and now the most urgent [matter] is to rescue these objects for future research.

According to The South China Morning Post, artist and academic Kacey Wong said that, although private collectors and galleries had offered storage space, museum officials rejected the works because they were created out of illegal assembly. M+ and the government declare that they had received no formal request to collect protest art.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: archives, researchstreet art, public art, art and the community, art and democracy, Hong Kong artists, events in Hong Kong

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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