Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei? Certainly not Hong Kong artists
As mainland Chinese artist Ai Weiwei remains "missing" after 12 days, frustration is building in Hong Kong’s artist community.
Ai was detained at Beijing airport on April 3 when he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong. Chinese authorities say the 53-year-old artist is currently under investigation for suspected economic crimes. Many Hong Kong artists view Ai’s detention as part of China’s increasing clampdown on political dissidents.
Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong feels that as an artist, it is his responsibility to speak out about Ai's detention.
“We are really concerned about this arrest and the suppression of freedom of expression,” said Wong. “Right now we’re coming up with strategies to bring forward this issue and make people concerned.”
Much of the battle is simply to familiarize Hong Kong people with Ai Weiwei.
Best known for co-designing Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium and the "Sunflower Seeds" installation that is currently exhibiting at the Tate Modern in London, Ai has also collaborated with Hong Kong gallery Para/Site and the Asia Art Archive.
Although Ai is considered China's most famous contemporary artist, Wong said most people in Hong Kong don’t even recognize the artist’s name.
This was evidenced by the relatively modest turnout for a rally last Sunday, when a group of protestors marched to the China Liaison Office. Art critic John Batten says official attendance was 150.
Batten feels that a unified outcry from Hong Kong’s art community has yet to make itself heard.
“There’s never been an alliance of Hong Kong artists, except maybe for June 4 -- Ai Weiwei is a pivotal point, but it may take a few months [to get organized]," said Batten.
Art Citizens, an alliance of about 30 Hong Kong artists and art lovers, including Kacey Wong, is planning various art lectures, workshops and protests to increase community awareness in Hong Kong of Ai's detention.
One country, many voices
But some members of the art community have hesitated to embrace the cause. Yesterday, Wong began asking local galleries to display photos of Ai resembling missing-persons posters. Some were not receptive to the idea.
Government institutions and some private galleries might decline to support Ai’s release because it is "politically incorrect".
"I understand their positions," said Wong.
"I asked the art organizations who invited Ai Weiwei to come to Hong Kong, and the reply I got was, ‘This is a board matter and we need to discuss within our board.’ I understand, because Ai Weiwei is not a simple matter.”
Ai Weiwei is a sensitive topic for many Hong Kong art institutions even though the region enjoys free speech under the policy of One Country, Two Systems.
Director of the Asia Art Archive, Claire Hsu said she is worried about Ai’s personal safety. Yet, the Hong Kong-based organization has not taken an official position on his detention.
In contrast, foreign arts institutions were quick to call for Ai’s release. The Guggenheim Foundation began a petition and Tate Modern posted the message “Release Ai Weiwei” on the building’s roof. Meanwhile, more international gallerists and artists continue to issue statements condemning Beijing’s action.
“It’s a very different relationship for institutions in New York or London,” Hsu said. “Western institutions are approaching the situation from a different point of view. Even in Hong Kong, there are different responses. Different organizations and individuals respond in different ways.”
Hsu will dedicate an upcoming Asia Art Archive newsletter to Ai’s detention. The archive also began displaying a special glass case that contains news clipping about Ai.
“We think we can best address the issue by doing what we do best -- which we hope will affect social change in the long run -- by making information accessible and open and creating a platform for debate and discussion,” says Hsu.
Art for Ai
Many independent artists have taken matters into their own. Last weekend, Ai-inspired graffiti stencils began appearing around Hong Kong.
The stencils display Ai’s face and the words “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” in Chinese and English. Artist "Tangerine" sprayed the image on pavements, overpasses and walls over the course of five nights.
“I’m not really vandalizing, like destroying for destroying’s sake,” said Tangerine. “I did this because I want more people to be aware of what’s going on.”
She narrowly avoided police on a few occasions and was surprised by the efficiency of Hong Kong cleaning crews. A few hours after spray-painting stencils at the Avenue of the Stars last Sunday, she returned to take photographs. Workers were already scrubbing away her art.
New sightings of Tangerine's graffiti continued until Wednesday, when Hong Kong police received complaints and began a criminal investigation. Local media reported the investigation, prompting Tangerine to postpone her work.
Days after Ai was detained, the Hong Kong Arts Discovery Channel called for photos of people paying homage to Ai's "Dropping a Ming Vase."
Organizer Kwan Sheung-chi wanted to encourage public engagement with an easy project. Participants sent images of themselves dropping objects in a gesture that Kwan said symbolised “release.”
Another Ai-activist, Hong Kong art student Hung Hiu-han, put up posters of Ai outside luxury stores Louis Vuitton and Chanel, which wealthy visitors from the mainland are known to frequent.
Hung distributed the posters last weekend and was asked by some mainland shoppers: “Who is Ai Weiwei?”
Some wanted to take posters across the Shenzhen border to see if customs agents would confiscate them.
Upcoming events for Ai Weiwei:
Art Citizens will gather on the Mongkok pedestrian walkway this Saturday, April 16 to generate public awareness.
On the weekend of April 22-23, the group plans a Saturday workshop on the same bridge, where they will help citizens to create protest art for a Sunday parade. They will march from Mongkok to the Hong Kong Cultural center in Tsim Sha Tsui.
A Facebook group, “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei”, has called for protests this coming Sunday April 17 outside Chinese embassies around the world. Hong Kong artists and writers will take part in Hong Kong outside the China Liaison Office at 1 p.m. The event is free to attend, and participants are encouraged to bring a chair and a friend.