Absence of works by dissident artists raises fears of art censorship in Hong Kong
The censorship of art in Hong Kong is “very real,” an expert said after the city’s highly anticipated art gallery recently opened without showing some expected works from a Chinese dissident.
The largest art museum in the former British colony, M +, opened on November 12 with much fanfare, but also due to its inability to display two of the works of art by famous exiled artist Ai Wei Wei in a collection donated by the famous Swiss art collector Uli Sigg.
Among the collection of contemporary Chinese art from the 1970s to the 2000s, Ai’s Perspective Study: Tiananmen, a photo that shows Ai’s middle finger in front of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and China map, a wooden sculpture salvaged from a Qing Dynasty temple, has been under review by authorities since March this year, essentially preventing it from being on display.
This came two weeks after M + director Suhanya Raffel guaranteed the gallery would showcase Ai’s art and works on the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, according to The South China Morning Post.
In the same month, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said authorities would be on “high alert” to ensure museum exhibits did not undermine national security, after pro-Beijing lawmakers said. said M + ‘s artwork caused “great concern” to the public for “spreading hatred” against China, state broadcaster RTHK reported.
In a September editorial in local media News from the stand, Ai called the government’s decision to put his two coins aside “unbelievable.”
“The Perspective study the series I started in Tiananmen Square 26 years ago has once again become the testing ground for an important change in history and a compelling note for China’s political censorship of its culture and art ” , wrote Ai. Other images in the series featured the middle finger in front of the White House, the Swiss parliament, and the Mona Lisa.
Sigg donated more than 1,400 works of art and sold 47 pieces to the M + Gallery in 2012, before the city experienced political turmoil over the Occupy Central movement of 2014, the 2019 anti-government protests and the implementation of the controversial national security law last year.
Sigg originally wanted to make mainland China the home of his collection, but no art gallery there could guarantee that his works, including those of Ai Wei Wei, would be exhibited without restriction, according to Shane McCausland. , professor of art history at SOAS University in London.
“Hong Kong’s legal framework at the time promised that these works of art could be shown…[but] the stated policy will have changed dramatically after the National Security Act comes into effect, ”McCausland told VOA.
West Kowloon Cultural District Chief Henry Tang said ahead of the opening of the M + gallery that the council “will support and encourage freedom of artistic expression and creativity,” but added that the opening of M + ” does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. ” He also denied that the two works of art under investigation meant they were illegal.
However, such a seemingly normal bureaucratic act on the part of the government is the usual form of censorship in China, McCausland said.
“It is often not clear, even to insiders, where the border is, because it is moving all the time. Laws are written in vague language: they often seem to be applied in an arbitrary and haphazard manner. … The application depends on the [Chinese] leadership from above, where there is a degree of sensitivity to criticism and intolerance of criticism, ”he said.
The city’s artistic freedom of expression has been on the decline since the National Security Law came into effect last year, according to a local independent performance and dance artist who requested that she only be identified. by its initial, “V”.
“This [the ban] came as no surprise – some works by artists that might be considered sensitive are not allowed to be exhibited recently after the release of the National Security Act, let alone M + is a government venue, ”he said. V declared to VOA.
Self-censorship has become a norm in Hong Kong art circles, added V.
“The atmosphere was rather tense. Some film screenings had to be canceled. Now we always want to express our views, but we start to think about whether we need to speak very boldly or if politics is the only way for us to express ourselves, ”she said.
A new law on film censorship entered into force in November and aims to “prevent and punish acts or activities that may endanger national security”.
The supposedly self-governing region is now poised to mirror mainland Chinese propaganda and censorship, McCausland said.
“Essentially, Hong Kong is set to become very similar to the setting for the rest of China, with artists being vigilant and constantly monitoring the shifting sense of what is good and becoming tuned in when the likelihood is high that the system kicks in with legal ramifications, like house arrest or other judicial options open to authorities, which they are happy to use to ensure the public discourse of harmony, ”he said.
Growing art censorship is expected to intensify the talent drain in Hong Kong, which has seen an exodus to Western countries including Britain and Canada since the 2019 anti-government protests began, the expert said. in art.
“We know there was an astonishing majority in favor of democracy – the opinions of the people were very clear, but now you hear and see that the space for expression has been closed, and often in a brutal way,” said McCausland said.
The University of Hong Kong, one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious educational institutions, has ordered the removal of a sculpture commemorating students who have fallen victim to the Tiananmen crackdown since October. The university cited “the latest risk assessment and legal advice” as the reason for the request to remove the iconic statue which has been in place for 24 years.
“To be an ‘artivist’ [activist artist] is no longer easy – I started to think about what role I should play around this time. … I can’t say for sure that I will go, but some of my artist friends have left because funding has become more difficult, ”said V.