A department store in Hong Kong took down a digital artwork containing hidden references to defenders of free speech during the city’s Art Week activities. The artist behind the work said the incident is evidence of the erosion of free speech in the city by the Chinese government.
No Rioters by Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Amadon was displayed on a large digital billboard, measuring 230 by 65 feet, on the side of the Sogo department store in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district. The red and black glitchy video included names, ages, and jail terms of convicted protestors displayed in flashes of Matrix-style text. Amadon told the Guardian these details were shown too quickly to be noticed by the naked eye, and could be seen by viewers through photographs.
“It felt like there was going to be a weak link in the censorship process, so I thought I might be able to sneak something up there,” Amadon told ARTnews. “There’s a ‘Free Hong Kong’ graffiti tag and I snuck in ‘No Rioters Under Tyranny’ in the bottom left corner.”
“I just wanted it to go up before it obviously got caught,” he said.
For Amadon, the removal of No Rioters “irrefutably” demonstrated how much things had changed in Hong Kong compared to a few years ago, in contrast to the positive news coverage the city’s reopening. “I think the piece being pulled down completed the piece,” he said. “A lot of people in the art world saying ‘Hong Kong is back’ was completely glossing over the erosion of freedoms.”
No Rioters had been on display on the department store’s exterior for several days before it was removed, featured a panning surveillance camera. Amadon believed the momentary flashes of pro-protest graffiti and the details about the democracy protesters in No Rioters would go unnoticed after he was invited to submit the work, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Amadon said his video was an expression of solidarity with Hong Kongers after he had followed news of the 2019 demonstrations and the effect of China’s “national security law” which resulted in the trial, jailing and silencing of activists.
No Rioters was part of an installation of several video works presented by the Art Innovation Gallery titled “The Sound of Pixels”. The video display took place during a major tourism push in the city timed to the return of Art Basel Hong Kong after three years of restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Guardian reported that “it was unclear whether the government played a role in the decision to remove the artwork” but the department store’s legal team asked the Art Innovation Gallery whether it was aware of the content and message of Amadon’s video.
“Our intermediary told us that the owners of Sogo were concerned about the sensitive political content hidden behind Patrick’s work, so they decided to remove the work from the exhibition immediately,” Art Innovation Gallery CEO Francesca Boffetti told the British news outlet, noting there was no mention of any law or threat of fines.
Amadon said he likely won’t be able to travel to Hong Kong as a result of what happened to No Rioters. “I’ve clearly violated the law, which is why it came down, and everyone was tricked,” he said. “I think things that hit people’s pride are often not forgotten very quickly.”
“Maybe in a few years if there’s improbable political changes. It was art I felt I had to put up and I’m happy to deal with the consequences.”
The Hong Kong Police Department, Sogo, and the Art Innovation Gallery did not immediately respond to emails from ARTnews.