Below is a selection from the January 2015 issue of ARTnews, which went to press as the protests in Hong Kong were still active. They ended on December 14, 2014. The issue is on newsstands now.
On September 28 tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets of the city to protest the Chinese central government’s growing intrusion on policies affecting the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.
While Hong Kong has been the site of ever-more-frequent protests, including annual vigils held on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, never before had a movement led mostly by students commanded so much real estate or lasted as long. Called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” based on the initial protest site in Hong Kong’s Central district, where government offices are located, the streets became packed with people and festooned with banners, installations, sculptures, stickers, logos, as well as paintings affixed to walls, barricades, and tents.
No one yet knows when the demonstrations will end or how the conflict will be resolved. After initially sending in police officers with tear gas (which only generated support for the protestors), the local government, backed by Beijing, has taken a wait-and-see approach, hoping that people will simply get tired and return home. But, in the interim, many artists and university professors have been visiting the protest sites to document the outpouring of artistic expression—before it is destroyed or dispersed.
“What’s happening here is totally amazing,” says Oscar Ho Hing-kay, who was formerly exhibition director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and a founding director of Asia Art Archive, a nonprofit research institute in Hong Kong. “The entire city is a work of art, and everyone is an artist. What impresses me is the totality of it.” Ho points to what has come to be known as the “Lennon Wall,” inspired by an original wall in Prague named for musician John Lennon. Located adjacent to the central government building, it is covered with thousands upon thousands of Post-it notes bearing drawings, slogans, and pleas. “It reflects a collective spirit, and it is organic, so it keeps growing,” says Ho. “In comparison, I find the contributions of trained artists are more conservative.”
Another focal point here is Umbrella Man, a 12-foot-high statue of a figure made of wood slats holding a bright yellow umbrella in its outstretched right hand. It has become a symbol of what is now known as the Umbrella Movement, referring to the canopies protestors used to protect themselves as police attacked them with pepper spray. The statue was made by a young art-school graduate who calls himself “Milk” to protect his identity. With the assistance of friends, he hauled the statue into Central by van and then set it up across from government offices. Since then, the motif has been turning up all over the streets—ranging from barricades and tents made by sewing multiple umbrellas together, to a folding-paper project that produced thousands of origami yellow umbrellas.
In a city as crowded as Hong Kong, where policy is often controlled by real-estate developers, the public has never had such unbridled access to roadways and avenues. The proliferation of artworks is in many ways a response to this experience of freedom and expansiveness. “It changed the idea of public art in Hong Kong,” says Isaac Leung, an artist, curator, and doctoral candidate at the School of Creative Media, the City University of Hong Kong. He explains that Hong Kong has a citywide public-art program, and sculptures and paintings are often installed in the plaza or inside the central government buildings.
“But now,” he adds, “it is really touching on the idea of public-ness, where art is being utilized as a tool to express certain things in the public arena.” However, just as quickly as these artworks go up, they risk being torn down, either by the police or by supporters of Beijing and those opposing the protests.
In response, the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective was founded by two artists—Wen Yau and Sampson Wong—whose primary goal is to document and research the protest art and to try to protect assorted artifacts from police operations. With a team of volunteers, they are systematically photographing the works, but because there is no institution in Hong Kong capable of holding on to large artifacts or willing to handle material likely to arouse government hostility, they have made alliances with museums in Europe and the U.K. In fact, according to a recent report, objects from the protests were added to the exhibition “Disobedient Objects,” on view until February at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“This is a kind of bottom-up art explosion, entirely not curated, but still all working on a common theme, as if someone had curated it,” says artist Kacey Wong, who is a participant in an organization called UMAP (Umbrella Movement Art Preservation) and who’d created works for previous protests, including an annual performance piece commemorating Ai Weiwei’s arrest. To Wong, much of the art for the Umbrella Movement embodies the spirit of the protests, and that is reason enough to preserve it for posterity.
“If you look at a lot of these artworks, they are no different than contemporary art practice: they convey a message, often through metaphors, rather than being too direct,” Wong explains. He compares the streets, filled with art, workshops, people, and tents, to a scene from a movie depicting the Roman Forum. “I learned from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre that if you don’t collect this, history is written by the victors,” he says. “So if you don’t systematically collect these artifacts you will never be able to recall this moment.”
As Claire Hsu, director and cofounder of Asia Art Archive, points out, “What’s interesting is basically that Occupy Central has not happened independent of things that came before it—a collection of actions that have happened over the last ten-plus years.” She recalls that 500,000 people took to the streets to protest the 2003 sedition law proposed by the central government at the behest of Beijing. (It turns out that it was never passed.) “Occupy is linked to democracy and what will happen in 2017, but underlying it is a growing discontent and a sense that the government has completely failed to take care of the people.” Hsu noted the growing participation of artists in political movements, addressing everything from the demolition of the historical Star Ferry Terminal to the state of real-estate development as well as Beijing’s proposal of a national curriculum emphasizing loyalty to China. (That was rebuffed also.) “This blurring between the arts, protests, and social movement is something that has happened repeatedly over the past ten years,” she adds.
For many, however, the Hong Kong art scene has been on the art world’s radar not for its political art, but for the city’s growing strength as an international art capital. Hong Kong has always had prestigious galleries, including Hanart TZ run by pioneering curator Johnson Chang, Osage Gallery, and 10 Chancery Lane. Within the past five years, however, it has become the Asian outpost for blue-chip Western galleries, including Gagosian, White Cube, Galerie Perrotin, Lehmann Maupin, and Pace, as well as a second home for several top-ranked mainland galleries such as Pékin Fine Arts, Platform China, and Pearl Lam Gallery.
The galleries joined Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which have been doing business in Hong Kong since 1973 and 1986 and whose sales reached totals of $438 million and $389 million, respectively, in Spring 2014. Three years ago, MCH Group, the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, bought Asia Art Fairs, the owner of the more localized ArtHK fair. It will hold the 2015 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong in March. Hong Kong had a network of exhibition halls, including the government-run Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, and several alternative spaces, including Para Site. But now, as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, the city is building a new museum, M+, scheduled to open in 2017. For most of these enterprises, the protests have produced only minor inconveniences and had no appreciable impact on business.
“I am looking out my window, and I can see all these hundreds of tents outside,” says Kevin Ching, chief executive officer of Sotheby’s Asia, who spoke from his office in Admiralty of his successful mid-season sales in October. “I must say, this is a very localized event with very little impact on the world art market,” Ching remarks, noting that sales of jewelry, watches, and fine wines are very international categories. “It may have affected the mood of local people, but that’s not what we count on for our support.”
Christie’s, gearing up for its main fall sale in November, also boasted of having strong mid-season sales in October, with 2014 representing additional growth in a market that has increased almost every year since 2009. “The growth has been pretty spectacular,” says Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian art at Christie’s. A factor contributing to this growth is the increasing wealth in Asia, bringing in new buyers, primarily from China, but also Taiwan and Indonesia, coupled with the fact that Asian contemporary art generates global interest, and traditional categories, such as Chinese ceramics, are heavily sought after. “Its been a win-win situation for everybody involved,” says Stone.
“We basically aim to bring the best of what the gallery shows in New York, London, or L.A. to Asia,” says Gagosian Hong Kong director Nick Simunovic, who has spent his time cultivating Asian collectors for the work of such artists as Picasso, Damien Hirst, and even Sterling Ruby. In the midst of the protests, he opened a Jeff Koons exhibition, the artist’s first in Asia, attracting crowds of over 600. “The growth has been explosive,” he says. “I try to measure the health and success of the business along a number of metrics—such as total revenues, numbers of clients served, invoices issued—and across those different metrics the business has been scaling and growing very quickly.”
In many ways, Hong Kong was the perfect spot to set up an art business, given its central location in Asia and the fact that it is a tax-free economic zone. Also, unlike many places in Asia, Hong Kong has a British legal system and a tradition of freedom of speech, something that many of the protestors fear will weaken if Beijing takes control. “You know very well the constraints fair directors work with in Asia, and we don’t have those at all,” says Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel. “It is one of the reasons we chose to be in Hong Kong and not some of the other major cities.” He cited occasions when works were removed from fairs in Shanghai and Beijing. “If you are a new fair without a track record, you may be able to operate in one of those environments,” he says, adding, “but if you are a veteran Basel gallerist, to have to work with a different set of constraints would be strange, as if this were not an Art Basel show.”
“Hong Kong is still an outward looking society with an international spirit,” says Lars Nittve, the director of M+, which is already actively programming events in Hong Kong even though their building is not completed. M+ will surely be the most professionally run museum in the region and has already attracted support from many quarters, including that of former Swiss ambassador to China Uli Sigg, who partially sold, partially gifted his 1,500-piece collection of Chinese contemporary art. M+ is collecting Chinese art and Hong Kong art, as well as work from across Asia, the United States, and Europe. “We are going to tell the story of the last 70 years, not only of art, but architecture, design, and moving image history, globally but seen from another perspective.” For Nittve, “The success of an institution has to do with public trust, and the public never trusts institutions that are subject to censorship and other restrictions.”
“When Asia Art Archive first came together in 2000, Hong Kong was not a necessary stopping point for people in the art world, and obviously that perception has changed,” says Claire Hsu. “But local artists and local identity have developed very separately from the market.” The massive growth of the market for mainland Chinese art has, in some ways, overshadowed Hong Kong artists who have developed very different, more personal works. Reacting to trends in China, as much as expressing their anger over encroachment by the central government, Hong Kong artists are getting more political, according to Hsu. “With many international galleries coming to Hong Kong, many artists see this as a kind of capitalist encroachment,” she points out, but she cautions that Hong Kong artists often take a subtle approach to politics, and cites, as an example, one group that turned farming into participatory art, using their return to the land as a form of taking back much-contested real estate.
“What’s happening now with this Umbrella Movement is that you start to see among the younger people a collective obsession with Hong Kong, a Hong Kong identity, which is very unusual for Hong Kong,” says Oscar Ho Hing-kay. “In the past, when they see something troubling, their first reaction would be emigration. But this is something new. We say, ‘We stay here, we fight.’ This is total freedom to voice our discontent.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Amazing Hong Kong.”