The potential and limitations of art as protest, activism and intervention.

“Rebel City—Hong Kong as Site and Situation” was an evening salon that took place on March 16 2015 during Art Basel Hong Kong. The discussion revolved around the intersections between art and social activism in Hong Kong, especially surrounding the Umbrella Movement which lasted for 79 days in late 2014.

(L-R) John Batten, Leung Po-Shan, Stephanie Sin, Kurt Chan, Clara Cheung. Image courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong 2015.

(L-R) John Batten, Leung Po-Shan, Stephanie Sin, Kurt Chan, Clara Cheung. Image courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong 2015.

The speakers also discussed their individual experiences in using art as intervention in response to different social and political situations in Hong Kong. The panel consisted of:

  • Kurt Chan Yuk Keung: professor in the Department of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Leung Po-shan Anthony: artist and one of the founding members of the contemporary art space Para Site
  • Stephanie Sin: artist
  • Clara Cheung: artist and co-founder of C & G Apartment, a contemporary art space

The discussion was moderated by John Batten, a writer, art critic, curator, organiser and urban planning activist.

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.

Occupy Central

Art and social activism

John Batten led the speakers directly into a conversation on the role of art in Hong Kong’s present political and social situation by referring to the ubiquitous signs exclaiming “We Will Be Back” during the last days of the Occupy Central Movement last year. Batten explained that the Occupy Central Movement, or the Umbrella Movement, was a social movement in Hong Kong that took place over a period of 79 days, starting from September 2014. Sites in Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay – major commercial districts in Hong Kong – were occupied by protestors who demanded true universal suffrage as well as more fairness within the city’s system of governance and legislature. Many artists and members of the public created artworks at the protest sites, many of which have been documented, collected and even archived.

Artist Stephanie Sin said that the most important question for her was not whether but how “we”—artists, citizens, young people, all the protestors—will be back with their demands, which have been completely unanswered by the government. During the Umbrella Movement, artists and non-artists alike showed a lot of creativity. People made art at the protest sites, but Sin questioned whether that body of creative work could really be called art. As an active participant in the protest, Sin reflected that, instead of trying hard to make art every day, she simply participated in the movement by sleeping in the tents day after day. She saw the act of being there and taking part as more important than making art for art’s sake.

Professor Kurt Chan said that he witnessed a range of responses among his art students, who questioned how they could contribute to the movement as artists. Some students were particularly active and created student groups that explored the phenomenon of the movement in depth, even involving other faculties in the university such as the Sociology Department in finding answers to pressing questions of how art can respond to politics.

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.

Students as stakeholders

Art students responded in completely organic and bottom-up ways and never sought the “permission” of authority figures from their institutions. Through the movement, Chan observed that students started to explore their roles as not only artists but also stakeholders in civil society. A guiding question for these socially and politically active students was, of course, what types of action would have the most significant impact, and it was Chan’s role as an educator to help students find answers.

Chan also noted how some artist alumni of the university, such as those who run the Woofer Ten community art space in Hong Kong, initiated activities in response to the social movement, like starting a competition to pick the most useful and beautiful tent at the protest sites. Chan was invited to be a judge for this contest and to go to the sites and critique the art works that were produced there. At one point, he was even given a loud speaker to speak on art and politics. For Chan, this was an opportunity to see what types of student artistic responses were possible and how awareness about responsible citizenship could be raised.

As such, he added social engagement art to his teaching plan and regularly engaged with the protestors at the front line during the movement. Although he conceded that some younger students had no clear understanding of politics and did not fully know how to position themselves as artists in society, he still felt that the discussions engendered by the movement were invaluable lessons for student artists. He was grateful for the opportunity to use the monumental social happening in Hong Kong as a teaching resource.

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.

Art belongs to everyone

Artist Leung Po-shan added to this discussion by articulating some of her observations on the Hong Kong artist experience during the movement. She brought up how the Umbrella Movement was the culmination of waves and waves of social movements in Hong Kong in the past few years, such as the anti-high speed railway protests.

One major observation Leung had during Occupy Central was that artists who were previously optimistic about their art activism and believed their art could change society were collectively humbled in the face of the explosive creativity from the public during the movement. Specifically, Leung pointed out that the large-scale yellow banner hung on the side of Lion Rock in Hong Kong with the words “We Want Universal Suffrage” printed vertically was the single most powerful piece of art to emerge from the movement—and this work was not made by an artist. In a way, Leung was happy to see that many local artists’ belief that creativity should belong to everybody and not just artists was finally realised as a result of the movement. At the same time, however, she felt there was a level of backlash among artists who felt a sort of frustration at the fact that the most impressive icon of the movement was created by a non-artist. Artists had to grapple with the question of what their role would be after that.

Facing fear

Artist Clara Cheung added to the discussion on art and civic responsibility by saying that it is very difficult to speak about the Umbrella Movement in general terms because of its scale and scope. The Movement meant different things to different participants because each protestor had their specific place and duty. Cheung initiated some community art projects at the protest sites when nothing much was happening during mornings and afternoons, but at other times, she was engaged in other activities as a front line protestor. She further reflected that an element of fear was at the core of many of the creative endeavours undertaken by artists and protestors during the Movement. She recalled that some participants in Occupy Wall Street came to Hong Kong to attend an exhibition initiated by an independent art group in Hong Kong, and one of the things that they asked local protestors was “how much fear they had”. Cheung felt that the protest trained more people to face fear and react to it.

Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong. Image by Art Radar.

Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong. Image by Art Radar in 2012. 

Art as intervention

Gentrification

Batten then led speakers to explore their past experiences with artistic interventions that led to social change. He started by reflecting on how Hong Kong used to have a much smaller art scene in the 1990s. Para Site was one of the first artist-run contemporary art spaces in the city, founded by speaker Leung Po-shan along with her co-founders, with Professor Chan an important teacher to the founding group from the start. Batten commented on how Para Site, started in a little shop in Kennedy Town, changed the art landscape in Hong Kong by allowing artists to fabricate works on site. Each group of exhibiting artists would take over the shop and repaint the walls for their own purposes, and this was groundbreaking at a time when Hong Kong had no such art spaces.

Leung’s response to Batten’s example was that she did not believe in art as a tool for intervention. She saw the Para Site project as a failure because they introduced gentrification into a local area with grassroots culture by bringing in an international audience and driving out small shops and citizens in the neighbourhood. To Leung, art in Hong Kong is always going to be a tool for gentrification. Para Site recently had to move to a new space in North Point because they could not accommodate the rent of the old space which had increased a great deal because of rapid gentrification.

In contrast, Cheung felt that art could be a useful tool for small-scale interventions. At her art space C & G Apartment, for example, she initiates an event called the International Sick Leave Day on May 13 every year. Participants take a sick leave from work and join Cheung and other artists in a day of painting, fishing and other activities. In broader terms, Cheung felt that art is an important tool in battling different ideologies.

Differing value systems

Taking parallel traders (mainland Chinese from Shenzhen who come to Hong Kong regularly on unlimited tourist visas to buy goods such as milk formula to sell for a profit in China) as an example, Cheung expressed that she recognised that these traders had their own set of values in a parallel system which were bound to cause conflict with Hong Kong citizens living in parts of the New Territories. Another example Cheung used was the farming intervention undertaken by some activists in Choi Yuen Village in rural Kam Tin to protest against the “white elephant” construction project of a high-speed rail that would link Hong Kong to Guangzhou twelve minutes more quickly than the existing rail link.

Leung added that time is also an important but often neglected dimension in using art to create change. Initiating an International Sick Leave Day would disrupt the normal temporal workings of capitalism, just as farming in a village in Kam Tin is not just about occupying the soil but about investing time in a place. In other words, Leung felt that using art as a quick and effective way of attracting attention is not viable. Rather, art has to be used as a means to engage with a place or an issue, allowing actions to take root over time.

South Ho, 'Those Shores 6', 2012, Backlit Transparency Print, aluminium light box 110 x 81 x 15 cm. Image courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

South Ho, ‘Those Shores 6’, 2012, Backlit Transparency Print, aluminium light box 110 x 81 x 15 cm. Image courtesy Rossi & Rossi. 

For Professor Chan, art as intervention is becoming more important at a time when the younger generation is actively seeking out new ways to improve their lives and find happiness. He reflected that many young people are disconcerted with the way in which the city’s capitalistic system is making it impossible for them to have a different value system and lifestyle from the mainstream. The sky high property prices in Hong Kong are one obvious grievance that have prompted young people to join in social movements in addition to their demands for universal suffrage.

From the perspective of an educator, Chan also reflected on how the city’s mainstream education system continues to fail to create a diverse society in which different values are abilities are rewarded—for instance, vocational training for different trade skills is not seen as prestigious, and everyone is driven to vie for a university place, which there is not enough of to start with in Hong Kong’s unfair system. Chan felt that this society makes an opportunist out of everyone and severely limits the potential of many people. Young people who are now more well-off than previous generations should have more opportunities to explore different paths in life, but they are restricted in this by an unfair society. It is therefore important to use art as a means to restore a more accommodating and tolerant atmosphere in society.

The role of art fairs

The salon ended with a few questions from the floor, including one regarding the role of an international art fair like Art Basel in bringing communities together through public art and education. The speakers reflected on how a large-scale art event could create diversity in art but at the same time also restrict its free development in a city.

Batten, for example, pointed out that since the designation of the so-called “Hong Kong Art Week”, different art organisations, including the open studios event initiated by local artists in Fotan, have been jumping on the bandwagon in moving their shows and events to the same weekend in March, which to him signals an immature art landscape.

Charlotte Chang

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, art fairs, lectures and talks, activist art, community art, art and the community, events in Hong Kong

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Brittney

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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