Wed, Apr 03, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Hong Kong battles Beijing as dreams for culture soar

AFP, HONG KONG

Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong plays the accordion inside a red mobile prison artwork called The Patriot, a performance art project protesting against the National Anthem Law, at his studio in Hong Kong.Wong’s work is a protest in a city struggling to square its vast cultural ambitions with an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Photo: AFP

At a sunny Hong Kong art studio Kacey Wong gazes out through the bars of a cage, painted communist red — his work a protest in a city struggling to square its vast cultural ambitions with an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Better known for its high-end commercial galleries — and glamorous fairs like last month’s Art Basel — Hong Kong is striving to turn itself into a cultural heavyweight through a spate of new multimillion-dollar public art spaces.

But local artists warn Beijing’s growing influence is creating a climate of fear that is stifling creativity and threatens the nascent grassroots art scene Hong Kong says it wants to enrich.

“The way I look at it is that all government-supported art space... is already not safe,” said Wong, who sat in his cage outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters last July 1 — the anniversary of the city’s return to China by Britain.

“The red line is invisible and it’s shifting all the time,” Wong, 49, said.

Hong Kong has rights unseen on the mainland but fears they are being steadily eroded were compounded last year when a highly-anticipated show by Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao (巴丟草) was canceled, with organizers citing threats made by the Chinese authorities.

Talks by dissident author Ma Jian (馬建) were pulled just a week later by the new Tai Kwun arts centre, before being reinstated at the last moment.

The freedom of the city’s publishing has also taken a hit, with five booksellers known for printing gossipy titles about China’s leaders disappearing in 2015 and resurfacing in custody on the mainland.

‘OBEDIENT ARTISTS’

The unprecedented challenges to freedom of expression come at a time of staggering public investment in Hong Kong arts and culture.

As well as Tai Kwun — a US$484 million renovation of a former colonial prison and police station led by The Hong Kong Jockey Club in partnership with the government — there is the 60,000-square-meter harborfront M+ gallery due to open next year.

M+ and the Xiqu centre, a recently-opened Chinese opera venue, are part of the vast West Kowloon Cultural District costing upwards of US$2.8 billion.

The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has said that West Kowloon’s success would “elevate the status of Hong Kong to among the great cities of the world”.

But others fear Hong Kong could follow the model of Singapore, which has a thriving, government-supported arts scene but is at the mercy of authorities who can withhold or withdraw funding if work is deemed to breach their guidelines.

Critics say this pushes locally-based creatives to self-censor and avoid delving too deeply into topics deemed sensitive by the government.

“Tai Kwun and West Kowloon will provide opportunities,” said Wen Yau, a PhD student researching artist participation in social movements at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“So it’s quite an easy way to get all these people in and they will be obedient artists because once you depend on the funding it’s hard to say no.”

Cosmin Costinas — the director of Para Site, one of Hong Kong’s oldest contemporary art centers — said the city’s artists were not yet self-censoring, but admitted censorship was a problem, albeit one caused primarily by middle men.

“I think it’s important to understand that the majority of them (censorship cases) have not come directly from sources of power but from different intermediaries that were themselves afraid,” he said.

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