An artistic intervention at Beijing Design Week 2014 looks towards Hong Kong’s future and its relationship with China.
Wishing Knots: Great vision begins with wishes (2014), by Hong Kong artist and filmmaker Ye Yun and Japanese architect Nozomi Kanemitsu, was a site-specific intervention in the Iowa Compound of Caochangdi Village in Beijing as part of Beijing Design Week (BJDW) 2014. BJDW was held from 26 September to 3 October 2014. Art Radar finds out more.
Constructed on an eighteen by three metre metal half-dome frame, the colourful fabric installation invited audiences to walk through the space, gather a moment of silence, and then start a personal journey by making a wish regarding Hong Kong’s future and its relationship with China. The thoughtful wishes are encapsulated in the form of knots, tied directly onto the metal frame. It is seen as “a public space where a collective consciousness can take place.”
Wishing Knots unexpectedly yet serendipitously coincided with the uprising of the Occupy Central protest in Hong Kong. In this interview, Art Radar talks to Ye Yun and Nozomi Kanemitsu about the project and its partial censorship in Beijing.
How did the project Wishing Knots happen? Did you put it forward as a proposal or were you invited?
Ye Yun (YY): I came up with the idea two months ago. Back in June 2014, I was developing a series of artworks regarding Hong Kong’s future and the China-Hong Kong relationship. I was thinking about what the first project should be, and it so happened that Beijing Design Week (BJDW) was calling for projects. I knew of these existing metal structures in the Iowa Compound of Caochangdi Village in Beijing and thought it would be good to do something there.
Is the whole series of works called “Wishing Knots” or is this the first project? Are they ongoing?
YY: This is the first project. There are a few others in planning – some I might do in Hong Kong as they are particularly sensitive. This project was actually partially censored by BJDW. At first, they really welcomed the idea because it is visually interesting. However, when they got to know that it was about Hong Kong… the main sponsor of BJDW is a state-owned company, so they thought that it might be too touchy. So they asked me to dilute the project, removing the part about Hong Kong, but I refused, because this is why I wanted to do the piece. Ultimately, they basically re-wrote the description of the artwork in the catalogue and the BJDW map. They didn’t mention anything about Hong Kong. It became a piece about nice gestures, the making of knots and making wishes. It became mediated.
Have you spoken to visitors who engaged with the artwork? Did you tell them that it was about Hong Kong?
YY: Fortunately, we have the freedom to speak freely about this piece and we did. It so happened that the piece was exhibited during the time that the Hong Kong situation escalated, which was part of my expectation, but I didn’t think it would escalate so fast. As I was developing the series, I was already seeing that there was a lot of tension building up. It was very tense yet convoluted. I was hearing opinions from all sides. There were a lot of sentiments and frustrations, and that prompted me to develop a series of works, but I didn’t expect that it would escalate so fast and especially during the exhibition.
I’ve been researching the idea of “agitprop” – agitation and propaganda, from a Soviet Union context – a positive dissemination of ideas through propaganda for and from the people, not coming directly from violent conflict. Do you see Wishing Knots as “agitprop” or more as a comment?
YY: I wouldn’t consider it a form of propaganda. As it developed, it became more of a collective consciousness experiment. The next pieces in the series will be much stronger in terms of opinions and statement, but for this one – and it being the first one exhibited in Beijing – I purposely designed it so that it is as mild as possible, testing the water.
Also, I’ve been talking to a lot of Mainland Chinese people and people from other fields, and they all ask me about the situation in Hong Kong and they really care about it. But the situation in China means that there really aren’t that many channels to express this.
Have you witnessed or experienced any unrest in China?
YY: I think during this time [BJDW], the police came to one art show and interfered, and there was also an artist gathering in Songzhuang Artist Village in Beijing where they arrested about ten artists. Some of the work was highly sensitive.
How does the partnership work between you, Ye Yun, as an artist and you, Nozomi, as an architect? How did you work together?
Nozomi Kanemitsu (NK): I came into the project at the stage when Ye Yun was thinking about the basic concept of the wishing knots and the site was already decided. We wanted to make it as visually appealing as possible and capture the wish in a conceptual way for the site.
YY: The designing process was a lot more interesting for me when I had an architect to work with, and something that I tried to push through was to maximise the use of the structure to really show the potential and the characteristics of the structure itself. We agreed on the colour, very simple. We wanted something colourful and happy when we are dealing with such a serious issue that doesn’t seem like there is any positive solution or outcome just yet. That was primarily my idea. It is the process that I like to bring to the visitors. For them, to tie a knot lets them have a moment to themselves instead of coming in and maybe writing down something or to simply walk through the space. They actually have a moment to themselves to think about the time, now.
What other responses have you had from the audiences?
YY: Some people said it was great to have an outlet for them to pay attention to what is happening in Hong Kong and to express their wishes. It was very touching for me to see people taking their time and make wishes.
You are from Hong Kong originally, so this is close to your heart.
YY: Definitely, as an artist I would like to engage in the political debate using my own perspective.
Do you see it as political art then?
YY: Yes, definitely.
Nozomi, could I ask you your opinion on the Hong Kong situation as you are from Japan and will have a different perspective on it?
NK: I have lived in China for two and a half years now, in Tianjin, but still back and forth between Japan and China. I wasn’t very much aware of what was happening. Initially, there was a moment that the countries around China, they all have their own political problem so there are moments where I understood it personally, but during BJDW the strike happened and it became more sensitive.
What is the Japanese perspective to the Hong Kong protest? I feel as though Taiwan has had a say and there have even been comments from Korea, but there hasn’t been anything from Japan. I want to know how engaged other places are in Asia with the situation.
NK: The media is not too loud in Japan. It’s one of the many stories on the news, not made into a big deal in any way.
YY: During BJDW I met a group of international press. They were more from a design background, so they weren’t very interested in us as a piece of work with a political statement. I think Nozomi and I got a bit nervous during that week. At one point, I felt like BJDW didn’t want to promote our piece and made an effort to subdue it.
Here in Beijing, there was the art show and art gathering that I mentioned. They initiated something, but the police came very quickly. A lot of my artist friends on WeChat (Weixin) posted about Hong Kong and they were taken down almost immediately. Instagram is shut down for now. I can post with a VPN to Facebook. They are definitely censoring. Some people are blacklisted. This is what I’ve heard.
It’s a pity, as people in China care and they want to learn more about what is going on in Hong Kong, but they don’t have a way to show it or they get scared. Even during the closing ceremony for Wishing Knots, some artist friends came to warn me and told me to remind everyone not to post anything online until the event was over, to protect ourselves.
Is that the only tension you’ve felt throughout the project? It seems they wanted to hush and quieten it.
YY: I thought it was possible for them to take it down, to question us, I thought it was very likely. As an artist who is very politically aware or who wants to produce work about the social and political environment, I feel like I am learning to work my way in China so I can continue to make my work. I feel like I know the amount of risk I need to take. I want to make it long lasting. Last month, I interviewed Ai Weiwei to see how he is living his life and talking about and making his work. All of his political good work that no one can see in China.
I saw that his statement regarding Hong Kong was a few tweets and posts on Instagram of an umbrella with no caption. It’s interesting, as he’s said nothing when he has so many relationships within the Western media. From a UK perspective, they have somewhat glamourised the protests. The focus has been on how supportive a protest it has been, people looking after each other, the sharing, learning and growing mentality; whereas from my Hong Kong friends, I’ve heard it’s different with tensions running high and a sense of unpredictability. The media appears two-faced.
YY: It is definitely highly polarised in Hong Kong. It is part of my research to see how I can bridge this communication gap. I believe that if people really come together and unite, it will make us stronger. By being highly polarised, it actually makes us weaker. What is happening right now for contemporary China is complex. That’s why it is so fascinating to live and work in China, because everyone has an interesting story.
So true. Could I ask what the future works are about? Are there any contexts you will be specifically looking at within the China-Hong Kong relationship?
YY: I am primarily a filmmaker and video artist, but I am exploring other media and, because of Wishing Knots and working with Nozomi, I got to work in a completely different medium. The second project I have in mind is more of a performance art piece, which will take place in Hong Kong. It is about distributing labels.
From my research so far, because Hong Kong now is so highly politicised, everyone has to have a political label, everyone has to have a stand, whether they are pro-China, pro-democracy, pro-universal suffrage: everyone has to have a label, but we forget that a lot of times we are in the middle, we carry many different labels, we are in the grey area trying to define ourselves.
I have this idea of making people understand where they are at. If people understand more about their identity and where they came from in terms of a democratic movement, in terms of our political history, they will have a better idea of what they are fighting for. This idea is about people choosing their own label and, I think, people will have a difficult time choosing.
I think for so many it is a life lived between cultures, trying to understand and negotiate those cultures, which is difficult in itself, let alone to make a decision as to where you stand politically or socially.
YY: That’s what so many people are facing right now, that immediate pressure to take sides. It is very frustrating. It would be amazing one day for Nozomi or myself to be able to make work in China, the work that we want to create.
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