Is art pointing the way in polarized Hong Kong? – The Brooklyn Rail
The exclusive soirée of the new M+ Museum in December was all the more special due to the Hong Kong government’s “Zero-COVID” strategy. With frequent flight bans and draconian quarantine rules, big-name international artists simply wouldn’t come here unless they had a compelling reason to.
As the city rolled into its third year of isolation, visitors to the new Visual Culture Museum were overjoyed when Zhang Xiaogang arrived from Beijing to give a lecture in the members’ lounge, and they had plenty to ask the 63-year-old. well-known for his paintings of family portraits from the Cultural Revolution era.
For some, the dark past these works allude to is another land. “Is our generation of artists still capable of making great art when life has gotten so good?” asked a young woman whose Mandarin suggested she grew up in mainland China.
But one elderly woman, whose Cantonese suggested she was a Hong Kong native, saw uncomfortable echoes in her hometown of Mao Zedong’s brutal purge of opposition votes about half a century ago. “As we face our very own Cultural Revolution today, what advice do you have for the people of Hong Kong?” she asked Zhang.
These two questions give a taste of how polarized the former British colony has become as it enters a new phase in its relationship with the rest of the country. (Zhang’s responses were diplomatic rather than informative.)
The difficult marriage between one of the most open and capitalist societies with a communist authoritarian state was never going to be easy. Nearly a quarter-century after Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China, ideological disputes and cultural differences have come to a head, and after the mass protests of 2019, China is reining in the only boisterous democracy under its control.
The past two years have seen thousands of political arrests, Beijing-mandated electoral reforms, media closures, and local family exodus to Western countries.
The old aphorism “hard times make good art” is of little consolation to artists when the scale of the changes being carried out with revolutionary zeal is robbing Hong Kong of its long-cherished freedom from ideological interference in the arts.
Today, anything deemed critical of China and the government can be censored in the name of protecting “national security.”
When M+ opened last November, there was a lot of excitement. Right-wing politicians and bloggers called for censorship not only of works deemed disrespectful of China, such as anything by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese Communist Party’s nemesis, but also of “unethical” works containing nudity and references to homosexuality to appeal to the social conservatism of their supporters.
The pressure is so great that the publicly funded museum, with a government-appointed board, agreed to remove many images from its website, including works like that of Chen Lingyang Twelve Flower Months (1999–2000), a photo series on menstruation.
Across Hong Kong, public funding for the arts is coming under much closer scrutiny – it used to be managed via a laissez-faire approach, which has been blamed for the vibrancy and diversity of the cultural sector in this city of 7.5 million people. Now every film and video is subject to censorship by the Film Board, including those shown in commercial art galleries.
Many artists have left the city and taken their talents to more liberal environments now that the creative freedoms they once enjoyed are no longer there. And there are proposals for a new government office to handle cultural affairs, raising fears of further scrutiny and the diversion of funds where Beijing wants them: projects that ban nationalism and Hong Kong’s integration into a new “Greater Bay Area”. promote that its immediate environment includes neighbors on the mainland.
The name smacks of childish hubris as the Sino-US rivalry gathers steam, but you can think of GBA – or the idea of increased interaction between Hong Kong and the provinces of Shenzhen and Guangdong – as a way out of the zero-sum thinking that condemns the future of Hong Kong’s art scene into the hell of socialist realism.
Now Hong Kong is seeking real investment in an ambitious project to transform it into a nationally designated place for arts and culture exchange between China and the rest of the world. A view from the window of the M+ Lounge, where Zhang delivered his lecture, reveals the many development projects shaping the West Kowloon Cultural District, a 40-hectare waterfront property featuring M+, the Xiqu Chinese Opera House, soon to open at the Hong Kong Palace Museum and the future Lyric Theater and Concert Hall.
It is hoped that all of these venues will one day be filled with visitors from the mainland and abroad once the pandemic is over.
Regardless of how much of the official plan is viable given the simultaneous curbing of freedoms, it is at least an admission that Hong Kong can be fertile ground for the arts after the city has been condemned as a “cultural desert” for too many decades, especially if it was under British rule.
That moniker never fitted anyway, not even during the colonial era, and over the past decade Hong Kong, with its combination of a vibrant art market, high levels of personal freedom, proximity to China and high quality of life, had increasingly become a haven for artists and curators from all over the world.
That’s certainly changing, but if you stick around – and most don’t have a choice – there’s some consolation that the scales haven’t quite tipped the other way just yet.
M+’s inaugural exhibitions show no sign of self-censorship, at Weiwei whitewash (1995-2000) and is one of the centerpieces in the Chinese contemporary art galleries and those of Wang Xingwei New Beijing (2001), a work relating to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, also on display.
So far, artists who have protested, posted anti-government messages on social media, and shown themselves resolutely on the “yellow” end of the political spectrum — as opposed to the conservative, pro-government “blues” — have continued to win new commissions for government projects . (Although one of the more outspoken artists like Kacey Wong, who has self-exiled to Taiwan, is on an official blacklist is uncertain.)
And most importantly, there is an abundance of passionate artistic expression to be seen and appreciated. Aside from M+, which had long queues before the last COVID-19 shutdown, more galleries are putting local artists in the spotlight as borders are tightly controlled and they’re busier than ever.
The new national security law has eliminated the ability to show anything openly related to the protest movement, but we see a lot of work that deals with local history and identity. For example, artist Sara Tse has been working on a project based on her abandoned former elementary school, which is due to be demolished for refurbishment. Using ceramics, she captures the demure nature of a city that journalist Richard Hughes famously described as “a borrowed place at borrowed time”, while allowing for the transmission and dissemination of ideals.
The desire to immortalize a house in transition has led to a leap in interest in landscape painting among young artists such as Stephen Wong and Kwong Wing-kwan, although Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules and flight bans are also a major reason artists are spending more time to contemplate the green hiker’s paradise in which they live.
And like any truly vibrant cultural hub, what Hong Kong values most about itself is revealed in the sheer diversity of its arts scene. This ranges from artists like Zheng Bo, Angela Su and Lau Wai, whose multimedia works reflect on climate change and our relationship to technology, to young Chinese ink artists experimenting with a traditional art form, to artists working with NFTs – the global – experiment Phenomenon that has made a big splash in Hong Kong. FOMO (fear of missing out) and financial speculation underlie most decisions to buy NFTs, but some artists are also interested in how the immutability of the blockchain contract behind an NFT can help preserve Hong Kong’s art and protect it from censorship Offer.
One doesn’t have to defend official politics to be hopeful for the future of Hong Kong’s art scene. The arrival of M+ is undoubtedly a major boost, while the three-year-old Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Art and the two-year-old Center for Heritage, Arts and Textile continue to bring international exhibitions and world-class artists to the city. (For example, Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist just endured three weeks of uncomfortable hotel quarantine to create new work and plan a summer exhibition at the Tai Kwun.) And both Christie’s and Phillips, the auction houses, just announced new headquarters in the city and plans year-round sales as they remain committed to Hong Kong as Asia headquarters.
There are even those who believe that the Greater Bay Area interconnectedness of artists and curators can potentially disrupt and complicate a top-down hegemonic narrative of Chinese identity and culture.
As art historian and educator Frank Vigneron explained in his 2018 book Hong Kong soft powerthe strength of the city lies in being a scene of clashes between different ideologies and cultures.
Now his isolation is being felt strongly because of the pandemic. But one day we may see this again as a place where East and West can resume meaningful dialogue.
Zhang, one of China’s best-known artists, seems to think so.
After returning from Hong Kong, he accepted a hotel quarantine in Beijing, not just to meet visitors to the M+ Museum. He had another reason for coming here in December: to see his new studio. When travel restrictions are lifted, he makes a second home in Hong Kong.