New movements have grown in the time that Disobedient Objects has been open and new objects have been made. A key example is the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong where Occupy Central with Love and Peace has mobilised people in large scale protests demanding that Beijing grant Hong Kong true universal suffrage. In this blog post journalist Becky Sun looks at the creative forms of resistance and expression that have developed on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks – including the umbrellas that give the movement its name.
Next to the giant banners of illustrations and slogans articulated with duct tape and paint, strings of yellow origami umbrellas are flowing down the sides of the Tim Mei Avenue footbridge straddling Connaught Road, wavering in the wind. Sheets of computer designed posters, hand sketches and doodling are plastered on the walls, balustrades and any surfaces within reach around the Hong Kong Central Government Offices in Admiralty. Opposite the projection from “Add Oil Machine for HK Occupiers” and the “Lennon Wall”, which is an external staircase of the premises covered in supporters’ and demonstrators’ multi-coloured post-it messages, stands the “Umbrella Man” sculpture, whose outstretched arm with an open umbrella is mimicked by a performance artist next to it in full tear-gas proof protective gear.
The scale of this public outdoor art display in Hong Kong is enormous – it covers up a large part of Admiralty, and takes up spaces in Mong Kok’s Nathan Road too. It would be naive of anyone to regard it as a pre-conceived project, as instead it is an organically strengthening expression of Hong Kong people’s determination in the collective fight for true universal suffrage in the territory’s Chief Executive Election in 2017. Since the major clash between the pro-democracy protesters and the police on 28 September, umbrellas – a civilian shield against pepper sprays and tear gas attacks from the police that day – have become a symbol of resistance which has inspired artists and ordinary people alike to be creative themselves in the hope to instigate change. Into the third week, protest art continues to bloom as what is now called the “Umbrella Movement” comes to a deadlock when the government called off talks with the student leaders on 8 October and demonstrators’ sit-ins continues.
“When voices of protest have been absorbed by the government, art, with its unexpectedness and multiple means of expression, catches attention and serves a refreshing function,” said Prof Kurt Chan Yuk-keung on the continually emerging protest art. Chan, a professor at the fine arts department at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, is also a long time researcher in public art and Hong Kong art. In contrast to direct expressions of demands in writing, according to Chan, “art can convey through metaphors”. It is “a seasoning that enriches discussions and expands minds to consider alternatives.”
In what perceived as a grassroots response to the Golden Bauhinia statue next to which the 1 October National Day flag ceremony was held to the witness of the territory’s Chief Executive CY Leung and some of the society’s most notables, City University students erected in the same morning on a roundabout outside the Civic Square a sculpture in a bulbed form – just like the Golden Bauhinia, using found umbrellas sitting on a metal barrier base salvaged from the stand-offs with the police. “While the umbrellas represent the people, the barriers represent the police,” said Charlotte Lee, a Year 3 creative media student who conceived the piece dubbed “Umbrella Tree” with her classmates. “By stacking the two elements together, we want to remind people that our common enemy is CY Leung instead of the law enforcers and our ultimate goal is true universal suffrage.”
Not all art takes the form of a stationary object. Fine arts students and recent graduates from the Chinese University started on the day after tear gas was fired an ongoing community engaging art project of doing calligraphy with messages of protest or support for the demonstrators on their own umbrellas, rain or shine. “We want to create mobile ‘democracy walls’ that belong to individuals each with their different voices,” said Savona Ling, one of the calligraphers in the project initiated by Sunny Wong. “Fighting for our demands does not mean forgoing aesthetics, which gives a strength different from straight messages on markers or ball pens.”
Chan also noticed art expressed through the use of objects as well as through action at different protest sites. According to him, demonstrators playing table tennis and eating hot pot on 8 October in Nathan Road, Hong Kong’s golden mile, was an act of art without relying on the form. “By taking away its original function and relocating it to the new context of the streets.., [the game of table tennis and the hot pot] challenged our existing concept of their uses and expanded our minds to re-think and re-consider the issues behind the metaphor of art.” Local art group Woofen Ten, on the other hand, found humour from the creative genius occupiers demonstrated through their own shelter designs. They started an “architecture design competition” congratulating the occupiers’ effort, not without hinting at the phenomenon of high property prices that afflict many aspiring home owners.
Will the unusual scene of art outside the government complex and in the streets open up Hong Kong leader’s minds to change? “Art definitely does not effect change as directly as dialogues by politicians and students with the government, but the symbols it creates can make an imprint in people’s minds, precipitate and ferment for change in the long run,” said Chan. “Chanting ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ or ‘democracy’ does not seem to make much difference anymore. A fight can take many forms.”
A writer and photographer based in Hong Kong with a particular interest in arts, culture and design.