How Hong Kong artists reflect on the city’s difficult relationship with China

Hong Kong (CNN)In an industrial complex on Hong Kong’s island of Ap Lei Chau, Kacey Wong’s art installations and performance props set an idyllic scene. Below the studio’s wide balcony, freighters and pleasure craft set out into the South China Sea.

“I don’t feel safe,” Wong tells CNN, in the run up to this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. “Anything can happen.”

Using art as resistance

    Wong, who was born in 1970, has made a career of “resistance work” — using art as a bulwark to what he sees as the “eradication” of Hong Kong culture during its first twenty years as a Chinese city.
    “When I was living under British rule, I didn’t feel like there was a colony going on as much as (I do) now,” he says. “Now I really feel it. I feel like this is the colony of the Chinese Communist Party.”
    For a 2017 performance piece, “Everything is Fine,” Wong displayed the artwork’s title on a placard while bound to a lamp post, duct tape covering his mouth. The work was a response to the disappearance of five booksellers in 2015. The televised confessions and return of some of the detained men from mainland China reflects what Wong describes as the “absurdity” of Hong Kong’s political situation.
    Protest is the cornerstone of Wong’s artistic resistance. Between 2011 and 2014 he appeared at Hong Kong’s annual vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre dressed as the ghost of a slain student demonstrator — on a bicycle. The work, titled “Don’t want to remember, dare not forget,” was a high-profile contribution to an act of remembrance that goes to the core of Hong Kong identity.
    “I remember, back in 1997, when the Chinese Government sent all the tanks in through the border, and I was so scared,” Wong recalls. “I was so surprised that when these armored (vehicles) from the People’s Liberation Army drove across the border, there was a bunch of people holding little flags to welcome them.”
    As Wong recalls the incident, he dabs correction fluid on a wooden panel — a work of art he began in 2007, ten years after Hong Kong was passed from Britain to China. “WhiteOut” presents Wong’s unsubtle view of the broken — or ignored — promise of “One Country Two Systems,” the principle behind Hong Kong’s access to rights and freedoms not afforded to mainland China. Every year, Wong blots out one of the work’s fifty panels, marking another step toward 2047, when the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to the pledge will expire.
    “I should have used red paint,” Wong laughs ruefully.

    ‘Searching for direction’

    High above Admiralty — the area where Hong Kong’s legislative chambers meet its skyscrapers — artist Chloe Cheuk has suspended three crystal balls atop a steel post. The 28-year-old created the artwork to reflect the city’s new cultural dynamic.
    The interactive piece, titled “…Until I Am Found” is made from glass, concrete and steel. It invites passersby to peer into each crystal ball and orient themselves in relation to their ever-changing city. As they do so, the skyline appears to meld and distort, frustrating hopes of seeing into Hong Kong’s future.
    “We are still trying to figure out our position in the world,” Cheuk says. “Hong Kong is losing its strengths slowly. Shanghai and other Chinese cities are taking over as ‘global’ cities. China has (put) Hong Kong is an awkward position, we are constantly searching for direction.”
    Cheuk’s work was commissioned for an exhibition called “Breathing Space,” in which the Hong Kong chapter of the Asia Society asked 11 artists to engage with the politics, history and urban landscape of the city. The exhibition allows visitors to question whether Hong Kong’s increasingly cramped living conditions mirror people’s growing inability to express themselves politically.
    “We’re constantly getting hints from the government,” Cheuk says. “I am quite aware of the restrictions on me but that doesn’t mean that I won’t make political art. We have to accept the facts of reality, we have to find a way to deal with the problem and survive. We need to deal with issues creatively.”

    Shrinking freedoms

    Members of Hong Kong’s coterie of political artists say that they feel the pressure of shrinking freedom of expression. While Beijing keeps most of its political coercion for artists working in mainland China, the heavy-handed treatment of figures like Ai Wei Wei has struck a nerve in Hong Kong. Many of the artists CNN spoke to question how far they can push a political message.
    Nonetheless, the organizers of “Breathing Space” claim not to have felt pressure from Beijing to self-censor. Instead, executive Director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Alice Mong, says that contemporary art in Hong Kong explores a “duality” that exists in a city at the crossroads of East and West. “There has been no political pressure from China,” she emphasized to CNN.
    Contemporary artists in Hong Kong have become active participants in society, according to 31-year-old artist Sampson Wong. Wong sees his art as an opportunity to address an “intense political contradiction (between) the People’s Republic of China and (Hong Kong) people’s anxiety”.
    His 2016 work “Countdown Machine” emblazoned a digital clock face on the city’s tallest building, literally counting down the seconds until 2047 — a year now imprinted in the public consciousness.
    When Ai Wei Wei was jailed in 2011, Kacey Wong (no relation to Sampson Wong) called on Hong Kong artists to use their freedom to speak out for their mainland colleagues. Now, he says it is time for Hong Kong artists to look at the tactics of political expression used in China.
    “We’ll go to the internet — maybe (we’ll) use code,” Wong says. “That’s what’s going on in mainland China. They are not saying it directly; they are saying it sideways. Instead of saying June 4 (the date of the Tiananmen massacre), they say May 35.”
    “The whole of China is resisting, but because of this massive suppression (people’s voices are becoming) more and more obscure. In Hong Kong we don’t have to do that. But that freedom is diminishing very fast.”

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