JASON LAM and SAMPSON WONG, Countdown Machine, 2016. Animation on the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo by Jason Lam. 

Only Numbers

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

On May 22, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) announced that it would stop the display of Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now (2016), a LED-light installation that had been playing on the facade of the tallest building in Hong Kong, the International Commerce Center (ICC). The decision came after the artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam revealed to select media outlets, after its initial projection at the opening of the public media-art exhibition “Human Vibrations” on May 17, that there was a latent political message within the work. Commissioned by HKADC, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now was switched off on the grounds that the artists, according to exhibition curator Caroline Ha Thuc, had violated the contract and changed the nature of the piece. The artists then responded that they had submitted “the video” before the exhibition and it was impossible for them to change it after that. All told, it is correct that the physical appearance of the artwork did not change at any point in the process, but the timing and the content of the artists’ belated revelation caused quite a stir, culminating in heated discussions within the Hong Kong community about the politics of protest art and censorship. So what happened exactly?

Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now is a nine-and-a-half-minute animation, made up of six sessions showing imagery that conveys the tracking of time via a clock, numerical digits, Chinese measurement units and even a funnel. According to the artists, the work is inspired by a particularly iconic scene in Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild. In this story of lovelorn encounters, Yuddy, played by Leslie Cheung, invites Maggie Cheung’s character Li-zhen to look at the clock and be with him for one minute. “I will remember this minute because of you. We were friends for one minute. This is a fact you can never deny,” Yuddy says. The artists Wong and Lam said in their original proposal for their work that the animation “invites viewers to celebrate the memorable cinematic moment”—making it all sound very romantic. Nowhere in the proposal does it say that the nine digits in the last session of the work constitute a countdown to July 1, 2047, a date that will mark the 50th anniversary of Hong Kong’s transition from British to Chinese sovereignty and the expiration of Beijing’s promise of “One Country, Two Systems”—a rather key detail that the artists only shared with the press after the opening of the exhibition. Countdown Machine, the name the artists have given to the last segment of Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now, is an expression of their worries about the arrival of that fateful day. In an act of protest, the work points to growing anxieties among Hong Kong society over the imminent dissolution of the city’s semi-autonomous status and what is perceived to be excessive control by the Chinese administration on its social and political life. “The future of the city should be determined by the Hong Kong people,” Wong has said. According to the artists’ statement posted on their Facebook page, they hoped “to draw the world’s attention to the city’s ongoing struggle” through this work.

The statement HKADC released on May 22 was signed by Ha Thuc and the chairman of HKADC’s film and media art group, Ellen Pau. Noting that the artists had “changed the title and the statement of the work”—the artists had not used the name Countdown Machine until they were interviewed by the press after the exhibition opening—the curators criticized the artists’ actions for their “disrespect,” and for “jeopardizing our profession and put[ting] at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space.” The artists responded to this statement on Facebook, asserting that the removal was political censorship and adding that they did not change the name and the statement at all—instead, it was only people’s perception of the work that had changed.

The incident took on additional sensitivity as the display of Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now coincided with the three-day visit to Hong Kong of Zhang Dejiang, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and responsible for overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs. As it happened, the light installation was definitely visible from the window of the hotel where Zhang was staying. Whether even he—or indeed anyone—would have correctly interpreted the artists’ intentions and their reference to July 1, 2047, is uncertain.

American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth once said, “The reason we don’t consider the paintings by monkeys and children to be art is because of intention; without artistic intention there is no art.” So even though the physical appearance of Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now never changed following the artists’ revelation of their encoded references, the underlying concept of the work did change—not for the artists themselves but rather for the many viewers for whom the piece became a different work altogether. From Ha Thuc and Pau’s perspective, what was originally a largely apolitical animation suddenly carried a subversive meaning that they claimed no knowledge of. One could argue that artworks are always evolving and ideas can expand and multiply during the course of preparation or even after a show opens. As such, curators usually offer some flexibility to artists, thinking that additional leeway will improve the work. Was a politically sensitive message the reason Ha Thuc and Pau decided to deny the artists this flexibility? Ha Thuc said on Facebook that the artists turned the work “into a straightforward political statement,” thus betraying the trust of all parties involved.

ADD OIL TEAM (Sampson Wong, Jason Lam and friends), Stand By You: Add Oil Machine for the Umbrella Movement, 2014. Image projection on the side of the Central Government Complex, Hong Kong, 2014. Photo by Man Ching-ying Phoebe. 

It is interesting to note that Pau, a very established video artist, is also an activist herself, who made political art and co-founded the organization Hong Kong Shield to support the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Along with Ha Thuc, she also would have been privy to Add Oil Machine, a projection Wong and Lam made in collaboration with their friends during the same movement.

For the artists, creating the controversy was ultimately a tactic and also part of the artwork. Lam in fact told local news outlet hk01.com that the work would be completed only after he and Wong had publicly released the political statement. The artists’ narrative was that they were being suppressed and they were resisting. Furthermore, the timing was crucial. Because of Zhang Dejiang’s visit, Hong Kong had mobilized more than 8,000 police as a precautionary measure. Nevertheless, Lam and Wong’s ploy successfully broke through the “blockade,” ensuring the greatest likelihood that the Chinese official might see their protest art. In the eyes of those aligned with the artists’ cause, their disobedience was necessary to criticize the government’s increasing suppression of freedom of expression.

As a result of their decision, following the artists’ proclamations, Pau and Ha Thuc, as the co-curators of “Human Vibrations,” bore the charge of “art censorship.” The former is an advisor to HKADC and the latter is a guest curator; neither are staff or executives of the council. Why did they do it? A possibility is that they were the ones who had recommended the artists and thus felt obliged to fix the problem and shield the HKADC from political attack. According to noted Hong Kong curator and arts educator Oscar Ho, it is a common practice for commercial organizations, such as the ones who loaned space to the exhibition, to set out certain requirements or restrictions for art shows: provisions pertaining to safety, security, nudity or political messages. These organizations or corporations do not want to endorse either pro- or anti-government messages as these actions could have adverse effects on their businesses. Ho further explained that in the case of government venues and government-organized art projects, however, the same incentives should not apply. This begs the question: what about collaborative projects like “Human Vibrations,” which is at the same time using public funding andengaging a commercial venue sponsor? Should this exhibition be open and free of restrictions?

In HKADC’s defense, the countdown animation was not stopped immediately and continued showing for four days. The work actually remained visible during Zhang’s visit, undermining accusations of censorship. In fact, some artists have spoken out in support of HKADC, stating it had previously funded a number of projects with strong political messages and offered flexibility for artists to change and develop their projects. Furthermore, it seems the HKADC has a history of keeping its distance from politics and bureaucracy when sponsoring projects. As Hong Kong-based art critic John Batten said, “HKADC should only be a funding-body and not an operator of art events.”

This incident has brought into sharp focus the unspoken rule that, in Hong Kong, commercial organizations prefer not to express or endorse political messages of any sort. It also drew attention to whether HKADC should be an organizer of art exhibitions, and whether the council should invest its resources in venues that restrict artists from expressing themselves freely. Or is it acceptable to engage with spaces even with restrictions, in order to generate more resources for different kinds of art? Further discussion is needed to develop how we might work together to build a healthy art ecology. Perhaps more urgent for all of us in Hong Kong is to work toward building a democratic and open society that can accommodate different opinions.