Another “ART TALKS” at Art Central , unintentionally continuing on thematically from the previous blog post regarding Kacey Wong’s solo exhibition ‘Art of Protest’. Titled ‘Under the Umbrella: Art, Creativity and HK’s evolving Identity’, the discussion brought together the Hong Kong creatives Douglas Young (Co-founder & Creative Director, GOD), Jenny Suen (Filmmaker, “Hong Kong Trilogy”) and Patricia Choi (Design Educator) with moderator Louise Wong (Editor and Co-founder of Creative City). Again, this talk feeds my research and critical insight into its development and documentation as shown on my blog and in published materials.
Focussing on the city’s changing sense of identity through artistic expression, Louise invited these select group of speakers as they were on site, in the thick of the Umbrella Movement, the Umbrella Revolution, or were touched by what was happening, which has in turn influenced their practice. For about 80 days, many of the roads in Central and Admiralty turned into a large display of civil disobedience. Crowds gathered on 28 September, then with the firing of tear gas. What we want to focus on here is what has been described that night as “an explosion of artistic expression”, which grew overnight from print media, to sculpture, to text, to photography and more. It was described in part as a war zone. Three different organisations have set themselves up to archive the period with a different function. Each of the speakers here have had their own experience, all very different experiences. The Umbrella Man is an iconic symbol of what was there, by a 22-year old musician called MILK. This has been preserved in a way, as it wasn’t built to last for 80 days.
Jenny spoke of her time in the protest. ‘I was there on 28 September when they fired the tear gas and I was asked by my mother to go home. Christopher Doyle and I started making the “Hong Kong Trilogy” film a year ago. It started as a short film interviewing children about their everyday lives, part documentary, part film. We spent the last year raising money as it was really difficult. It wasn’t until the Umbrella Movement happened until we focussed on the project again. When it happened we didn’t sit down and have a meeting…I think Chris and I gravitated towards it in an organic way. There was an element of media in our work such as in this image with the banner saying “I don’t need sex cuz govt fuck me everyday”.
This seemed to describe what we were looking at. How idealistic do you have to be to start farming on a highway in the middle of a concrete jungle? Kacey Wong is building a mobile farm cart for the film. A young girl carries an Umbrella bag delivering post. Another character is a feng shui master providing a poetic narrative.
“Just because we’re disappointed doesn’t mean we don’t have hope.”
Patricia spoke of the study school she created in the streets in response to her students not attending class to protest. She encouraged them to design and build desks along the curbs between the highways in order to work…building one desk day-by-day until there was a response from the government. Overnight they became popular, named the “Umbrella Study Room”. Any students could use the facility and it eventually got crowded…be the Pacific Coffee or the Starbucks of Admiralty. After the protest finished the government took it away.
Douglas spoke of the Lennon Wall…I always used Post-It notes and never thought it could look like this. It made a big impact. I was interviewed by CNN as someone in the creative industries. The thing that struck me most was this, the Lennon Wall. I felt strongly that the government should have kept this as it could have been part of Hong Kong’s future, Hong Kong’s tradition. It’s not just about politics, it’s not about hating mainlanders, it’s about the hopes for the future, it’s about love. The government has a certain degree of tolerance to let people interact and intervene in the city. This could have been a tradition of Hong Kong and if the government had the vision to see this it could have been an attraction for the city.
Louise: Why are we archiving something that was beautiful in itself as an ephemeral movement. To what extent do you think this represent Hong Kong’s identity?
Jenny: Of course the movement doesn’t represent all sectors of society and in the film we try to reflect that fact. When it started, Hong Kong people woke up…when we realise that our identity might not exist in the future, we had to stand up.
Louise: Para Site has an exhibition on looking at dissent…that there has been a culture of dissent throughout Chinese history. Is the protest a milestone? Or is this due to digital media it seems to be more revolutionary?
Patricia: A famous TV show once quoted “Hong Kong is dying” and this protest proved this that it is dying…are we trying to change this? Or are we trying to let go?
Louise: Do you think this birth of creativity gives hope? Why do you think they respond creatively?
Patricia: We feel strongly about our identity that was why we were all trying to do something. Artists tried to contribute how they could not just food and water. Even lawyers gave ree tuition in English in the study room.
Louise: It was an amazing galvanizing force.
Douglas: Artists are the provocateur who breaks taboos I want to create works that provoke and encourage thought. H has the notion that art is decorative. For myself, I am interested in this is to provoke thought, change society, piss people off. Creative something to remember. Artists as anarchists. The movement would galvanise the whole city…then fatigue sets in and people don’t talk about it.
Louise: Has this happened?
Patricia: I feel that it has. It reaches a climax then it dies and no one wants to talk about it. Some of us wanting to reminds others that it was our time.
Louise: It is about using soft power to change existing mindsets and institutions? How do we do that? How do we use this momentum?
Douglas: It’s a turning point of the movement hitting a hard point. This was a movement that met hard resistance. For me it was interesting as what maybe Hong Kong people wanted…they know and have explored their limits. It’s time to see how we can negotiate these hard points. China was the first meritocracy and that was due to Confucius. Democracy is somewhat beyond us.
Jenny: A lot of people complain that its hard to be an artist in Hong Kong. What was surprising was that people who had not met each other realised that they were not alone. They could discuss politics out in the open.
Louise: Did the movement help to empower that which the government couldn’t do?
Jenny: It’s a means of communication through culture. The government wasn’t listening to them so they needed another means to share ideas.
Louise: Other than a means of communication. Is it going to raise a level of creativity and artistry in Hong Kong?
Patricia: I don’t think it’s raising creativity, it raises identity as it says something unique about Hong Kong.
Douglas: I think it has raised the level of art and creativity, such as the desks the students made, they are iconic. Together as artists we have created something. It is rare for artists to come together. In this instance we came together. We need a School of Hong Kong like Venice or London…schools of styles and thoughts. Somehow in Hong Kong we are all over the place. Hong Kong style and identity. We should form a collective.
Louise: We’ve been talking about Hong Kong identity. We were all born here and have all spent time overseas. How are we Hong Kong people? Do we represent Hong Kong identity?
Douglas: Its the “Ich bin ein Berliner” thing. It’s where your heart is. We are entitled to chose that.
Jenny: We are making something new, that is why we are making something new…afraid of something new at the same time.
Patricia: From a political point of view that our freedom is dying. Kubrick Gallery in Hong Kong had a show of photographers of police from the protest. The gallery received threats and they had to take the show down. They thought it was shaming the police.
Louise: What is the right response to these kind of things? We need to have a conversation and find out why. This is a free city.
Douglas: I don’t think Hong Kong is dying, we are slowing down. Everywhere else is overtaking us. I think this is because our leadings don’t know how to maximise our potential. These fairs show how Hong Kong can be a cultural hub. In my opinion, Hong Kong is Asia’s most international city. We seem to be fighting with Shanghai and Beijing to be the financial centre. I think Hong Kong is qualified to go for being the cultural hub. Why are these events done at Art Basel at a private initiative? It should be as part of a government initiative. It’s important to bring Chinese traditions back up to date. Chinese traditions still have relevance today, and they need to bring them up to date and evolve. For Chinese people, I feel we don’t do that.
Patricia: The people of Hong Kong don’t know the value of what they have. That’s why I say Hong Kong is dying because of all this Westernisation and gentrification in the name of cleaning up and tidying the city…the urban renewal in the name of catching up with other cities. This is what’s happening. I’ve been teaching my students how to value what they find and culture.
Douglas: It is very difficult for people to understand the value of something as the majority of people here haven’t been abroad to understand the value. That’s a problem of the government too. They haven’t seen the wider world.
Jenny: Chris is asked why his films are made in a certain way. They aren’t, that’s Hong Kong. It looks a certain way because of the things that were found to be put in it. It is the essence of Hong Kong asking these questions…it is what is som integral to this cultural renaissance.
Louise: There is a tendency to romanticise and wax lyrical about Hong Kong facades. How do we move beyond this idea of nostalgia and ask what is modern Hong Kong?
Jenny: If you look at Hong Kong culture in the 1990s…the moment that HK realised they were to be handed back to China, it was this early onset of nostalgia characterising a lot of films at that time. A sense of mortality. What the Umbrella Movement ignited was how do we make something new instead of looking to the past. All these young people inspiring our society to ask these questions. They stopped to make the city think. I think that’s the stage we are at.
Douglas: I think the important thing about retro and nostalgia is that encourages you to look to a future. Admire the West for creating a fusion of the new and old…the really new with traces of the past. I think this is how we evolve culture.
Q: I would be interested to hear your understanding of democracy and the role of the media to understand the protest.
Douglas: I don’t think the people want a democracy. I think they want a future. For all sorts of reasons, they don’t see a bright future, but they want a cure. A vision for the future. I’m not a politician but I want a future. If Hong Kong is going to be the cultural hub then I know I would invest my time in making myself more inline with this vision. I would want to channel my life direction towards this goal, without knowing where it’s going to be…
Patricia: I agree with part of it. I think the reason the students protested is because they don’t only feel there is no future, its no freedom. If you see it in detail there were a lot of conflicts and cracks.
Louise: Is democracy a pre-requisite for producing art?
Jenny: I think it depends on how you define it. Democracy here means the freedom and space to be who you are.
Louise: I think it’s more than that. It’s the right to vote. Its artistic freedom. I don’t think anyone could debate that.
Q: Our government is taking an active step back in keeping our identity. As a general person, how as a community can we keep this going? All we are talking about is identity. It is our culture that our government is trying to crush. What are our channels? I think it will be very difficult for a movement of this scale to happen again.
Patricia: From my point of view, visit more local shops and restaurants…understand more about the local culture. If the majority of Hong Kong people prefer shopping malls then the government will favour that. So if there are more local support for local.
Louise: If you want to influence change, it’s not just the government its the corporates. It is the public and the private sector.
Douglas: As individual citizens we have the opportunity to present pride, express pride.
Louise: Don’t stop, keep going. We face a lot of hurdles institutionally. We need to continue to have these public discussions to keep it going.