BY En Liang Khong in Profiles | 19 OCT 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Stop the Clocks

Two years on, Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy demonstrations continue to reverberate

BY En Liang Khong in Profiles | 19 OCT 16

Read the Chinese translation here: documents-khong-frieze183-cn.pdf

In May this year, the amazing lightscape of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour – emanating from its endless traffic, luxury shopping malls and skyscrapers – received a strange addition. A series of projected numeric sequences and Chinese and English phrases began to run on a nine-minute loop across the facade of the city-state’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre. The light installation, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now, created by artists Jason Lam and Sampson Wong, had been commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Its name is a tribute to a poetic pick-up line from a 1990 Wong Kar-wai film, Days of Being Wild, set in 1960s Hong Kong.

As the installation made its debut, the creators publicly revealed that Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now actually concealed a second artwork, in a blinking, minute-long set of numbers that appeared right at the end of the display. Called Countdown Machine, this shifting sequence of nine-digit numbers was a second-by-second countdown to 1 July 2047, when Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ political arrangement with China expires. The piece, which coincided with a visit by Zhang Dejiang, a high-ranking member of China’s politburo standing committee, was swiftly pulled. 

After their decision to reveal Countdown Machine, Lam and Wong faced a backlash from the Hong Kong art world, including Caroline Ha Thuc, the curator who had commissioned the piece. Over my next few days in the city, I was surprised whenever I heard gallerists muttering disapproval of the artists’ politicization or ‘co-option’ of their original artwork, even as Hong Kong enters an era of unprecedented self-censorship in its academy system and cultural institutions.

At the heart of Wong’s protests is a crisis of identity politics that has been accelerated by the legacy of the 2014 protest movement.

Just as Hong Kong’s cultural production during the 1990s (as the 1997 handover to China loomed) was filled with a sense of nostalgia, the legacy of the city’s 2014 pro-democracy protests has been to ignite a similar re-orientation of space and time, drenched in a profound anxiety for the future. One companion to Countdown Machine is the dystopian 2015 Hong Kong film Ten Years, which consists of five individually directed stories: scenes of hunger strikes, self-immolation and child guards fill a bitter imagining of the city a decade hence, where citizens are persecuted for even speaking Cantonese.

The 2014 protests – which came to be called the umbrella movement, after the household objects used to shield activists from waves of tear gas – followed an unsteady logic that veered between the naive constitutionalist demands of the participants and a far more radical impulse. Yellow ribbons sprouted out from multi-lane highways like flowers and a rainbow canopy stitched out of 250 broken umbrellas offered shelter to the occupiers, right within the heart of the financial district. This contestation of city space is provocatively captured in South Ho Siu Nam’s 2014 ‘Open Door’ series, where the photographer looks out on the sea of tents surrounding the Hong Kong government headquarters. The building’s architecture incorporates a passage that evokes an open door, symbolic of transparent government and internationalism. But South cuts directly into the negative film to create a menacing black void within this space.

Kacey Wong, Attack of the Red Giant, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

The spirit of occupation has also pushed artists into public spaces. Earlier this year, at the time of the Chinese ghost festival in August, local artists staged an intervention at a crossroads in a Kowloon neighbourhood. In Burning Your Account Book, art duo C&G Artpartment lit a fire in a tin can and then lined up a series of paper sacrifices: a ‘spineless man’, life-sized models of babies and an accounting book with 689 pages (the number of votes that positioned CY Leung – the pantomime villain of the 2014 protests – in Hong Kong’s top Chief Executive position).

In part, works such as these can be seen as pushback against the perceived failure of cultural institutions and the art market to respond to a time of political conflict. Artist Kacey Wong’s disillusionment with Hong Kong’s gallery system dates back to 2011, when the city’s cultural institutions fell noticeably silent over the disappearance of Ai Weiwei. Wong re-oriented his practice so that the street could become a platform for his freewheeling, playful creations. During the umbrella movement, he ran multiple projects – from launching a logo design competition to holding daily psychotherapy sessions for activists.

For several years, Wong has also been staging a series of street interventions warning of the ‘reddening’ of Hong Kong. In The Real Cultural Bureau (2012) the artist drove through the streets of the city in a pink cardboard tank, while dressed ironically in a Chinese tunic suit and red sash. A year later, in Attack of the Red Giant, he wheeled out a huge, cartoonish red robot, adorned with yellow hammer and sickles. At the heart of Wong’s demonstrations against mainland Chinese intrusion into Hong Kong is a crisis of identity politics that has only been accelerated by the legacy of the 2014 protest movement.

In her 1993 book, Writing Diaspora, cultural critic Rey Chow described how Hong Kong’s ambivalent space between two dominant cultures – China and the West – ‘predisposes one to a kind of “border” or “parasite” practice – an identification with “Chinese culture” but a distantiation from the Chinese Communist regime’. But the conflicts inherent in this ambiguity are now reaching breaking point.

According to sociologist and leading Occupy activist Chan Kin-man, the umbrella movement has acted as a catalyst in heightening the contradictions within this hybrid identity, especially among a generation of Hong Kong youth that has been alienated from, rather than drawn closer to, Beijing. As disidentification with cultural ‘Chineseness’ continues apace, the city-state’s unstable identity politics falls on a spectrum between legitimate fears of mainland meddling and outright sinophobia among ‘nativist’ groups. The latest eruption came in September’s Legislative Council elections, when six ‘localists’ won seats, demanding self-determination. They included the umbrella movement student leader Nathan Law. As Hong Kong heads towards the 2017 re-election of the Chief Executive, the destabilizing injection of radicalism into the city’s opposition bloc, alongside escalating grievances with the mainland, are creating something explosive.

At Para Site, the city’s most established independent nonprofit, two 2015 exhibitions dealt with the slippery question of national identity. The first, ‘Imagine there’s no country. Above us only our cities’, asked artists to suspend their ideas of nationality and embrace the sensation of liminality within the context of Hong Kong’s history and future. The second, ‘A Hundred Years of Shame – Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations’, gathered artists from across the Greater China region to further complicate the logics of national belonging. The latter included pieces such as Guangdong-born, Hong Kong-based Trevor Yeung’s Live in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan (2015): six tanks containing different species of imported fish, which stood as a metaphor for his anxiety as a mainland Chinese man living in Hong Kong, and his increasingly marginalized position within society.

Cultural theorist Ackbar Abbas, writing in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997), wonderfully conveys how the prospect of the handover recalibrated time and speed in the city, as its ‘floating’, transitory status transformed into a search for a more defined identity, all caught up in what he calls a ‘culture of disappearance’. Just as in the 1990s, in 2016 a culture of disappearance encompasses not just anxiety over the ‘death of Hong Kong’, but the ways in which a newfound culture and politics emerges at the exact moment of that threat. Facing the imminence of its disintegration, these artists seem to ask: just how do you live in a disappearing city?

Main image: Jason Lam and Sampson Wong, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now/ Countdown Machine, 2016. Courtesy the artists; photograph: Jason Lam.

En Liang Khong is senior editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong