Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong’s Wild Protest Art

It's spontaneous and participatory -- and the state can't control it.

Top: AFP/Getty Images
Top: AFP/Getty Images

As the world’s third-largest auction market — thanks to zero sales tax and Chinese buyers — Hong Kong regularly attracts spectacular artworks. One of the most resonant items on offer this season is the 1957 oil-on-canvas entitled “All Chinese Children Love You,” painted by prominent propaganda artist A Lao, and portraying a grandfatherly Mao Zedong surrounded by five red kerchief-wearing Young Pioneers, offering flowers to The Chairman. The auction house Bonhams, which handled the painting, expected it could fetch up to $770,000 in its Oct. 9 auction. The image was era-defining in the early days of the cult of Mao: Hundreds of millions of Chinese used it on greeting cards and saw it printed on the first page of elementary school textbooks.

Downtown Hong Kong is one of the densest areas in the world. Perhaps it’s not surprising that venues used by auction houses are only a few blocks from the roads around the government headquarters, which for the last 10 days have been occupied by students and other protestors calling for more democracy in Hong Kong. Among the many more obvious side effects of the protests — the traffic, the lost workdays — there has been an outpouring of communal creativity that counters the patriarchal message of “All Chinese Children Love You”: Mao’s grinning and menacing visage surrounded by fawning students.

Consider the umbrella. A simple and flimsy tool, its use by protestors to protect themselves against the Hong Kong police’s use of pepper spray and tear gas on Sept. 28 made it the symbol of the protests. Perhaps the most prominent artwork to have been created so far from Occupy Hong Kong is “Umbrella Man” — a 12-foot-high human figure made of wood blocks, gently brandishing a yellow umbrella. Some have likened the sculpture (pictured at top) to the 1989 Tiananmen protests’ Goddess of Democracy statue — a 33-foot-tall papier-mâché torch-bearing woman. It also resembles the work of Turner Prize-winning British artist Antony Gormley, whose massive wooden figures are poignant in their anonymity.

Totalitarian art like “All Chinese Children Love You” limits projection — viewers can only imagine themselves on the receiving end of wisdom and action. Umbrella Man allows more interactivity — protestors can see themselves in the anonymous statues’ courage.

Another intriguing work to come out of the protests is “Umbrella Patchwork,” produced by a group of roughly 50 students from the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University. They gathered more than 250 of the broken umbrellas used against the pepper spray and tear gas, and spent three days sewing the umbrellas together to make a 10-by-10-meter canopy. The work, suspended from the railings of footbridges near government offices, gives shelter to protesters camped underneath. “It symbolizes the unity and good wishes of Hong Kong people in this peaceful fight for democracy,” said their teacher, Ho Siu Kee. It’s striking in its size and as a work of anonymous collective effort, and reminds one of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who uses discarded materials like bottle caps, wood, fabric, and metal sheets to make abstract installations. They’re a reminder of something intangible, yet about bringing together objects with a history and meanings. “Umbrella Patchwork” celebrates the strength of the power of the people — a reminder to governments of the costs of repression.

In character with the student protests’ lack of visible individual leadership, there has been an awareness that the spotlight needs to stay on the work, rather than personalities. The recent art school graduates behind the “Stand By You: ‘Add Oil’ Machine” consciously decided to attribute the work to the artist collective, and focus on the “functionality,” in the words of Chris Cheung, one of the project’s initiators. (In Chinese, “add oil” is an expression of encouragement.) On Sept. 30, two days after the tear gas incident, the organizers called for people from all over the world to leave messages of support on their website; after hackers repeatedly attacked the site, they also collected messages via Facebook. By Oct. 6, more than 30,000 people had sent messages that are projected nightly on a wall of the government’s headquarters. The participatory art project on a shoestring budget — it uses borrowed computers and projectors — exudes the spirit of the influential German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, who advocated for the artist to be a force of change in contemporary society. Here’s one example:

Yet not all of the images were completely nameless and faceless. Among the clusters of posters, drawings, and handwritten texts that began to appear in late September on walls, buses, and metal barricades were angry and crude drawings of the mangled face of Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive who heads Hong Kong’s government. Some portrayed him as a zombie, or a vampire — and a few were even pasted to the roads, meant to be trampled on.

As the impromptu exhibits on the Hong Kong streets affirm, at the moment the territory is not a town sentimental for authoritarian rule. Certainly, the current mood is probably not the best time to be seen buying a Mao painting, despite its historical importance: Despite a high-profile marketing campaign and much public interest, “All Chinese Children Love You” did not sell, much to the surprise of art dealers. At an Oct. 5 auction session, however, an anonymous buyer paid $8.5 million for a 1996 oil-on-canvas by Liu Xiaodong, setting a new world record for the popular Beijing contemporary artist. The piece shows naked Chinese workers sitting on the back of a truck, grinning conspiratorially at the viewer. The painting connects the migrant workers’ “condition with the Chinese people’s general lack of self-determination,” according to the website of Sotheby’s, which conducted the auction. Hong Kong’s art world, well aware of the timing, also took note of the title of the painting: “Disobeying the Rules.”

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