Amid censorship fears, Hong Kong’s artists contemplate an uncertain future

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    At the annual Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, visitors browsed busy booths filled with works by some of contemporary art’s biggest names, from Damien Hirst to Isamu Noguchi.

    Those prevented from joining in person due to travel restrictions — whether collectors from mainland China or European gallerists — were instead beamed in to inspect artworks via iPads or address attendees using “live hologram” technology.

    With last year’s fair canceled due to the pandemic, and 2019’s event held amid Hong Kong’s uproarious pro-democracy protests, the buzz signaled something of a return to business as usual for many in the international art world. While the exhibitor list was less than half its usual size, many of the 104 participating galleries reported strong sales across the five-day event.

    But for Hong Kong’s local artists, few of whom get the chance to exhibit at international fairs, the picture is not quite as promising.

    Almost a year after Beijing imposed a controversial national security law on the territory, the creative community has been left unsure about what is, or is not, legally permissible. And although the legislation, which outlaws sedition, secession and subversion, has largely been used against opposition activists, it has also cast a shadow of uncertainty over local artists, curators and gallery owners.

    Visitors at Art Basel Hong Kong, which returned this year following 2020's cancelation.

    Visitors at Art Basel Hong Kong, which returned this year following 2020’s cancelation. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

    “Hong Kong, right now, is the most dangerous place — more dangerous than Beijing,” said artist Kacey Wong, whose performances and installations were once a regular sight at the demonstrations that rocked the city from June 2019 until last summer.

    “In Beijing, everybody knows what they can talk about, and what cannot be mentioned. But in Hong Kong, nobody knows what the dangerous topics really are,” he said, adding: “(The law) changed everything — from creating artwork (to) freedom of expression. Anything deemed sensitive becomes dangerous, not only to the artist but also the viewer.”

    Wong is known for merging political activism with sculpture and performance art. In 2018, when Hong Kong moved to criminalize “insults” to the Chinese national anthem, he sat in a red cage outside the city’s main government complex playing its melody on an accordion.

    Three years later, with Art Basel in full swing, Wong has chosen to exhibit a series of Covid-19-inspired sculptures, instead of artwork about the protests. But rather than collaborating with a traditional gallery, which is increasingly difficult for political artists, he is showing the work at a children’s clothing store, owned by a vocal pro-democracy activist, that is known for exhibiting protest art.

    Kacey Wong poses with a replica of the symbolic Lady Liberty statue as he unveiled his latest work.

    Kacey Wong poses with a replica of the symbolic Lady Liberty statue as he unveiled his latest work. Credit: Tom Booth/CNN

    “What’s happening is what happened in China during the ’90s, or even in the Soviet Union — artists have to show their work at home or go underground,” Wong said, unveiling his latest creations at the store, Chickeeduck, on Wednesday, just weeks after the property was searched by police.

    Chickeeduck’s owner has also installed a replica of a famous statue of depicting a masked demonstrator, known as “Lady Liberty,” that became a symbol of the protests.

    “I mean, now we are talking about national security (at) a baby clothing shop,” Wong said. “How absurd is that?”

    Growing pressure

    While outspoken figures like Wong are willing to voice their concerns, others are treading more cautiously. Many in the city’s art scene are dependent — directly or indirectly — on government grants or the support of publicly funded institutions and risk-averse corporate sponsors, meaning that speaking out carries professional risk.

    A local university arts lecturer, who asked not to be named, said he knows at least one artist who was pressured by a venue to modify work thought to allude to the pro-democracy movement. He also knows of a gallery organizer who, ahead of an exhibition opening, was privately warned by a pro-China newspaper that the show risked breaching the national security law. The individuals in question declined to speak with CNN to corroborate his accounts.

    Even before the controversial legislation was passed, academic institutions were censoring art considered to be politically sensitive, the lecturer said. At a university graduation show in June 2020, around 10% to 15% of the students’ artworks were pulled due to their sensitive content, the lecturer estimated — including “anything involving imagery of fire.”

    “A lot of the students were very closely involved (in the protests), so a lot of them did paintings related to urban landscapes on fire, smoke or tear gas imagery. That explicit stuff all got pulled,” he said, adding that decisions appeared to emanate from “the higher-up administration” rather than art departments themselves.

    The national security legislation, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, has also changed the way art education is delivered, the lecturer said. “On the first day of class I tell (my students), ‘I’m all for artistic freedom, but because we’re on Zoom and everything’s recorded, there are certain things I can’t say because of national security law. I know that, and you know that. We’re not going to discuss anything in class that anyone could prosecute us for.'”

    Hong Kong’s government has consistently said it will protect the freedom of expression enshrined in the Basic Law, the territory’s de facto constitution. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said in a statement last year that the national security law would ensure “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” adding that it would “only target an extremely small minority of people.”

    Kacey Wong at his studio in Hong Kong.

    Kacey Wong at his studio in Hong Kong. Credit: Tom Booth/CNN

    But for many critics, the legislation’s vague wording leaves it open to abuse by authorities — both in Hong Kong and mainland China, where, in some cases, perpetrators can now be sent for trial. Wong compared the law to the very thing he believes it threatens: art.

    “In art, everybody can have their own interpretation,” he said. “But law should be written very precisely, saying, ‘This is a yes, this is a no, this is a violation of the law.’ Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, the law has become art, (in that it is) open to interpretation by the authorities.”

    Red lines

    In March, the screening of a documentary about the protests, “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” was reportedly pulled from a local movie theater shortly before the planned event. The decision came just after a pro-Beijing newspaper ran a front-page editorial criticizing the use of public arts funding for organizations it deemed a threat to national security.

    Though the Hong Kong government has rarely discussed artistic freedoms explicitly, Carrie Lam prompted fresh censorship fears days later, when she told officials to be “extra cautious” that a major new art museum does not cross an unspecified “red line.”

    She added that her government respects the “freedom of artistic and cultural expression,” but said that, since the enactment of the national security legislation, “all Hong Kong compatriots are required to safeguard national security.”

    The long-awaited museum, M+, is in possession of a variety of images that would be considered off-limits for mainland galleries. Among its 8,000-item collection are satirical depictions of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and a 1997 photograph showing dissident artist Ai Weiwei holding up a middle finger to Tiananmen Square.

    Set to open later this year, M+ art museum has been at the center of a debate of curatorial freedom in Hong Kong.

    Set to open later this year, M+ art museum has been at the center of a debate of curatorial freedom in Hong Kong. Credit: Shutterstock

    “I’m sure staff are able to tell what freedom of artistic expression (is) and whether certain pieces are really meant to incite hatred or to destroy relations between two places and undermine national security,” Lam told Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, after a pro-Beijing lawmaker asked whether the museum risked stoking anti-China sentiment.

    Museum representatives declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement earlier this year, M+ told CNN that it would “comply with the laws of Hong Kong,” while “maintaining the highest level of professional integrity.”

    For photographer and artist Siu Wai Hang, the best way to address the law’s ramifications has been to think about them as little as possible.

    “If I try to guess where the red line is, there will be too many boundaries or limits to my creations,” he said in a phone interview. “Just doing what you want to do is the best way to respond to the national security law … the best response is to not respond.”

    Photographer and artist Siu Wai Hang explored the "emotion and conditions" of the pro-democracy protests in his recent exhibition "Unreasonable Behaviour."

    Photographer and artist Siu Wai Hang explored the “emotion and conditions” of the pro-democracy protests in his recent exhibition “Unreasonable Behaviour.” Credit: Siu Wai Hang

    At Hong Kong’s Goethe-Institut earlier this year, Siu exhibited a range of striking images taken during the pro-democracy protests. While he stressed that the pictures were not a rallying call, but rather are “about the emotion and the conditions at the time,” they nonetheless depict scenes that were a direct affront to the territory’s government. The artist obscured demonstrators’ faces to protect their identities, and the exhibition went ahead without any complaints from either the venue or authorities, he said.

    Siu nonetheless said he decided to remove the captions and descriptions from his photographs. He stressed that it was an artistic “reaction” to the national security law, not because he feared being persecuted by it. But the photographer said that his independent funding streams offer him freedoms not afforded to many of his contemporaries.

    “There are different levels of self-censorship in the art scene,” he said. “First is the artist himself or herself, but mostly, in my observations, they are still willing to do what they want. Then you have the institutions or (galleries) who have their concerns. The third level is about funding — who pays for the work or the show? It’s not only about the artists — it’s about the whole system.”

    New tactics

    While Siu said that some of his fellow artists are now self-censoring, he believes the bulk of artists will go unaffected by the law.

    “Most artists are doing work that’s about daily life, subtle things … it’s not really political,” he said. “Even in the commercial art scene, those galleries are mostly selling non-political work.”

    Photographer an artist Siu Wai Hang pictured in 2018.

    Photographer an artist Siu Wai Hang pictured in 2018. Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

    Indeed, in the absence of international guests at this year’s Art Basel, up-and-coming Hong Kong artists benefited from a larger slice of the limelight. Among them was Mak Ying Tung, who presented a series of eye-catching triptychs inspired by video game “The Sims,” and Leelee Chan, whose sculptures offer an intriguing critique of consumerism.

    Elsewhere, non-profit activist group Lady Liberty Hong Kong secretly installed four miniature statues of protesters around the fair, accompanied by a label reading, “There’s No Art Without Freedom. But while there were few other signs of political dissent, several gallerists told CNN that subversive works were on display — just in ways that were subtle enough to deflect unwelcome attention.

    An activist group installed miniatures of the Lady Liberty statue at four spots around the Art Basel Hong Kong fair.

    An activist group installed miniatures of the Lady Liberty statue at four spots around the Art Basel Hong Kong fair. Credit: Courtesy Lady Liberty HK

    “If you talk to the artist and they trust you, they’ll probably tell you it has something to do (with politics),” said the university arts lecturer. “Pretty much everything produced in the last two years has a bit of a relationship to … the changes in the way we live that were forced upon us.”

    Coded messages and subtle allusions are already a given for artists in mainland China, where censorship is, by comparison, far stricter. Kacey Wong believes that similar tactics will take hold in Hong Kong, too.

    “I think Hong Kong artists are very witty and … I don’t think they will charge into the ‘red line’ head on,” he said. “I think the strategy for future arts of Hong Kong will be abstraction — and also more and more coded words … so that it’s not as politically obvious.”

    CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout, Jadyn Sham and Tom Booth contributed to this story.

    At the annual Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, visitors browsed busy booths filled with works by some of contemporary art’s biggest names, from Damien Hirst to Isamu Noguchi.

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