JASON LAM and SAMPSON WONGCountdown Machine, 2016, animation, dimensions variable. Photo by Jason Lam. Courtesy Phoebe Man. 

Mar 01 2017

Art should Remain Free

by Caroline Ha Thuc

To the Editors,

Freedom of speech is on a steady decline around the globe. Everywhere, fears as well as increased instrumentalization of these fears are spreading, thus fueling more cases of censorship and self-censorship.

In Hong Kong, erosion of freedom of speech is also an issue on the rise. Within this very tense context, and following the essay “Only Numbers” by Man Ching-Ying Phoebe published in AAP, I would like to reiterate the reasons why I decided to withdraw an artwork during the “Human Vibrations” festival last May in Hong Kong. It is indeed essential for me to insist that this decision had nothing to do with the artwork’s content, and thus did not represent any censorship. This decision was made in order to condemn the unprofessional attitude of the artists, who used the contractual framework of a large public festival for self-serving purposes.

“Human Vibrations” (5/18/16–6/21/16) was the 5th edition of the Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. It took place within the public space of the city and its concept was to listen to the hidden vibrations of the city through its art, as a way to hear to the voices of inhabitants and communities. For example, one artwork gave voice to former garment workers, while in another we could hear almost 300 dreams for the future from the public. One could also listen to the voices of old Hong Kong film stars in a different piece. When tuning into a city’s vibrations, doubts and fears were also echoed, including anxieties about increased continuous monitoring, the all-consuming, hectic daily grind, or an uncertain future. Each one of the featured artworks was meant to reflect a different aspect of the city, and the eight artists involved submitted proposals working around these concepts and themes.

Sampson Wong and Jason Lam had proposed “Our 60-second Friendship Begins Now” (2016), an LED artwork inspired by a Wong Kar Wai movie, for inclusion in “Human Vibrations.” Their work was displayed on the façade of the International Commerce Center (ICC), the tallest building in Hong Kong with one of the biggest urban screens in the world, whose messages can be broadcast to 2 million people at once.

The two artists are known for having created a major installation within the public space of Admiralty’s flyover during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. The work provided a platform for expressions of concerns and political claims from Hong Kong’s youth. Whatever opinion one has about this movement, one cannot deny that these voices are now part of the city. I cannot imagine Hong Kong’s vibrations without them.

However, on the eve of the “Human Vibrations” opening, without informing me or anyone else in the team, the artists organized a press call with the media to notify journalists of the political intent behind “Our Friendship Begins Now.” They revealed that the video contained a hidden hint about 2047, the date when Hong Kong will lose its status of Special Administration Region in China. The artists had taken note of a visit by a high-level Chinese official on the same day of the festival opening, and had seized upon the opportunity to publicize the political organization they support, therefore reducing their artwork to a personal, straightforward propaganda endeavor.

Whatever the intent and value of the message, it is not acceptable to abuse the framework of an exhibition to serve a strictly personal agenda. The artists had essentially hijacked the façade of the building at the expense of the whole exhibition, its organizers, partners (including the owner of the building) and other featured artists, whose artworks were overshadowed by this media coverage.

The withdrawal of the artwork was not an easy decision to make. I knew the artists were expecting it, and would make their claim for censorship. But this decision must be understood from my professional perspective. Relationships between artists and curators are based on team spirit and on mutual trust. If that trust is breached, which is what happened here, I believe a curator is legitimately entitled to withdraw an artwork from his/her own exhibition. The artists were working in the very precise contractual framework of the festival, and had already accepted its conditions and remuneration. If they wished to perform an activist gesture without a specific pre-agreement, they should have chosen another platform.

Besides, what motives do I have in censoring artwork for its political content? And how sensitive, in reality, was the content? Sampson and Jason’s message, quoted by the New York Times as being “subversive,” did not say anything more than what everybody already knows: that 2047 represents a key date in Hong Kong’s future, and, as such, embodies many fears and uncertainties.

My aim for “Human Vibrations” was to explore the ever-increasing intervention of new media art in urban territory, and to question the public space as a valid arena for art. My goal was for the artworks to be understood on multiple levels, including within this particular perspective. However, at the end of the day, my curatorial choices were intended only to provide general structure to the exhibition; obviously the artworks should not be held to my own interpretations and projections.

View of Counting Machine, 2016. Animation on the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo by Sampson Wong. Courtesy Phoebe Man. 

The public could have interpreted several works in the exhibition as political messages, in fact. For instance, a series of performances by Isaac Chong Wai, in which he invited volunteers to verbally express their visions of the future in a public area, were performed simultaneously in Hong Kong, China and South Korea. In those three territories, the public gatherings were totally different, revealing each nation’s definition of public space and its kinship to politics. In Korea, the performance took place in Gwangju on May 18, marking an anniversary of a student uprising for democracy in 1980. In China, we could not obtain any authorization for an outdoor gathering, so the performance took place indoors, within a private space. Thus, although Isaac does not define his work as political, one could have analyzed it as praising of democracy.

And what can be said about the artificial flies in Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s video work, which “invaded” the same façade of ICC nightly? In Greek mythology, flies are called “furies.” They embody the world’s evils and torment people by recounting their sins to them. Thus the work could have been interpreted as a metaphor for a scary invasion of sorts.

These works were displayed freely within the public space of Hong Kong for over a month; everyone was able to interact with them and interpret them at will. So which artwork was actually the most “subversive”? Art is truly a mirror in which everyone sees what he or she wants.

I recently worked on an exhibition in Hong Kong dedicated to freedom of speech, in collaboration with Amnesty International. I conceived this show not as a response to a set of claims about censorship, but as a platform where everyone is able to question the limits of this fundamental right, which are definitely very subjective.

I believe in engaging with art. I think one of the powers of art is its ability to open unexpected doors, to foster critical thinking and to offer alternative perspectives on the world we are living in. It triggers dialogues, widens scope and modifies our relationships with others and to our reality.

However, to me, art should not claim anything nor defend any truth. It cannot be reduced to a simple and unequivocal message, whatever this message may be. I do not intend to define art nor the curatorial practice, but this is my personal vision: art has to remain absolutely free.

By Caroline Ha Thuc