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FEATURE: Hong Kong's artistic balancing act

Jun 20, 2016, 4:05 AM EDT
Attendees at 2014 Art Basel Hong Kong.
(Source: Aleksandr Zykov/flickr)

“Hot.” “Booming.” “Vibrant.” “Energetic.”

Today’s Hong Kong art scene has been described as all of the above, but it is a fifth adjective that may best capture the picture – “cash-rich.” Simply put, art is thriving there, notably thanks to the arrival of major exhibitions like Art Basel in 2013 and its return every year since.

But the picture would be incomplete without noting that the tangential demand for studio space has sent rents through the roof, much to the chagrin of artists who spent years struggling to make their mark and now find themselves having to make room for the megarich from mainland China.

And then there’s this: While it was likely inevitable that Beijing’s tentacles of repression and censorship would try to strangle artistic license in Hong Kong, the recent removal of a politically sensitive art installation suggests that artists on the mainland are not the only ones aware of the potential penalties for mocking, criticizing or lampooning the government.

Artists in Hong Kong now find themselves facing another obstacle in Chinese censorship and repression, which dates back to the “one country, two systems” doctrine founded in the 1980s by then-leader Deng Xiaoping. The principle allowed such regions as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau to retain their own governmental, economic and financial systems while acknowledging the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sovereign state. 

Yet, in 1997, the year sovereignty of Hong Kong was officially transferred from the United Kingdom to China, Beijing vowed that the dictum would stay in place for 50 years. What this will mean for Hong Kong in 2047 is anybody’s guess, but what it meant for two Hong Kong artists earlier this year has heated up the debate about whether the peninsula can maintain its growing status as an art hub.

In May, Jason Lam and Sampson Wong debuted a light installation as part of a larger interactive exhibition presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC).  Their work, clocked under just 10 minutes, was to be projected on the side of the ICC Tower, Hong Kong’s tallest building.

Lam and Wong initially claimed to be paying tribute to a film by Hong Kong’s premier filmmaker, Wong Kar-wai. Not until the exhibition’s May 18th opening did they whisper that there might be another motive: Visible for about one minute was a sort of “Countdown Machine” ticking off the seconds, minutes, hours and days until July 1, 2047, the official end of “one country, two systems.” The installation was viewed as a commentary on the fear and uncertainty palpable in much of Hong Kong as the deadline approaches.

As it turned out, the installation went on full display during a visit by Zhang Dejiang, one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top lieutenants. Four days later, the piece had been pulled from the lineup and Lam and Wong stood accused by HKADC officials of misleading them about the true nature of their work. Not that the HKADC would admit to feeling pressure from the mainland. The official story is that Lam and Wong broke the rules and were disciplined accordingly.

Meanwhile, the exhibition’s sudden disappearance has art lovers animatedly discussing exactly how much of a blow has been struck to Hong Kong’s status as an up-and-comer in the ever-evolving art world. Lam and Wong have since suggested that had they come clean beforehand, the piece would have been barred unseen by the public.

As is, despite the influx of artists, curators, buyers and admirers from across the globe, homegrown Hong Kong artists now know just how far to tread before they, too, are stomped. And many in the art world may find themselves considering passing on “Asia’s world city” in favor of a less restrictive emerging market.