Culture | Hong Kong's Occupy street art legacy is pretty vacant
One of Hark Yeung's Umbrella Movement-themed works. Photo: Joyce Lau
One of Hark Yeung's Umbrella Movement-themed works. Photo: Joyce Lau

Hong Kong’s Occupy street art legacy is pretty vacant

Two years ago, the streets of Hong Kong teemed with Umbrella Movement protesters creating a vast amount of public art. There is little sign of it now

October 15, 2016 7:14 PM (UTC+8)

In 2014, the art gallery owner Françoise Thurière took part in an exhibition at the Conrad Hong Kong that was all but deserted. The French expatriate looked out the window and saw below her the exact opposite of what was happening in the luxury hotel: the streets of Admiralty district were teeming with Umbrella Movement protesters creating and consuming an extraordinary amount of their own art.

The explosion of creativity from the Occupy Central protests in late 2014 –massive banners, sculptures, paintings, political cartoons and graffiti art — caught the world’s attention. Hong Kong protest art was shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and tourists in Hong Kong itself gathered around the “Lennon Wall” and “Umbrella Man” to take photos. I wrote in The New York Times that “the art, pointedly political and often witty, has become as much an expression of the protest as the megaphone speeches and the metal street barricades”.

In a gallery catalog, Thuriere wrote recently: “That period saw the blooming of creative design and artistic expression of all generations: expression of freedom in a very unique way”.

It was that sentiment that inspired Thurière to host her recent exhibition of about 30 Umbrella-inspired works by the Hong Kong artist Hark Yeung at Rouge Ephémère, a one-room, upstairs gallery located across from the PMQ design center in Soho.

The show included several works in which Yeung uses yellow paint to draw crude umbrellas and slogans, sometimes on top of old photographs. She chose to use both English and Chinese because she feels that one of Hong Kong’s biggest problems is language and communication.

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Another of Hark Yeung’s Umbrella Movement-inspired works. Photo: Joyce Lau

“I didn’t just want to look back at an event, I want to look forward. One of the problems of Localism is that there is not much English,” she says, referring to a youthful political movement that has emphasized self-determination.

Yeung’s Hong Kong exhibition was much smaller than the 100-plus Occupy-themed photographs she showed last year at three libraries in the West: Grand Central Library and Mulberry Street Library in New York City, and the Westminster Reference Library in London.

‘This is not a history museum’

In Hong Kong, Occupy’s second anniversary on September 28 was marked by downtown commemorations, some online slideshows and the unfurling of a 20-foot “democracy” banner on Devil’s Peak in Kowloon.

However, aside from small exhibitions like Yeung’s there is little sign of the vibrant protest art that once filled Hong Kong’s streets. It feels incongruous in a city that is the world’s third-largest art market after New York and London.

In 2014, community groups like the Umbrella Movement Art Preservation (UMAP) and the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive (UMVA) sprang up to preserve the street art. Volunteers patrolled protest zones and cleared out artworks before the police could destroy them. Truck drivers helped with transportation, while gallery owners lent spare storage space.

But, as often happens with voluntary groups, even the best-intended efforts can peter out — especially in a city with expensive rents and a highly commercialized art scene.

Casey Wong of UMAP held a well-reviewed show of Occupy-related art in 2015 at Amelia Johnson Contemporary, but that gallery has now closed down. When reached by email recently, Wong said that he has been focused on ongoing political developments.

Meanwhile, Sampson Wong of the UMVA took part in a talk in March about “activist art” which was hosted by the authority managing the planned M+ museum.

However, a proposal to have protest art added to the museum’s collection has also stalled. When asked by The New York Times, curator Aric Chen said: “We’re still debating whether the ‘Umbrella Man’ fits into the collection … There’s no doubt that it was a prominent piece in the protests. But we are not a history museum”.

Best footage forward

The Umbrella Movement may not live on in museums and galleries, but it is on film.

Right before Occupy’s anniversary, Christopher Doyle (best-known for being Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer) premiered his Hong Kong Trilogy, which featured extensive footage of the protests.

A few months later, 10 Years (2015), a collection of five short films set in 2025, became a surprise success. It premiered at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and won Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, whose prize ceremony was then blocked in China. It has shown at Broadway Cinematheque, UA theaters, independent cinemas, universities, private clubs, and in public locations — most prominently outside the Legislative Council building that served as ground zero for the protests.

This year, a 133-minute documentary called Yellowing (2016) showed at the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, as well as at festivals in Taiwan and Canada. There are three more screenings planned for October at an arts high school.

Its director, Chan Tsz-woon, told The Guardian recently that he was having a hard time finding a broader release in Hong Kong.

Yeung, the artist whose show was at the Rouge Ephémère gallery­­­, also shot a film called “UmbrellaCity” (2016), which consists of two shorts that put the protests into the broader context of the city’s politics.

Part one showed at small festivals in the United States and at Short Stop, a UK-based online festival. As we spoke at her gallery opening, a notification popped up on Yeung’s phone. She had snagged another screening — this time in Portugal.

Yellowing is showing at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity (135 Junction Road, Kowloon City) in Hong Kong on October 15, 22 and 29. Tickets available via Urbtix.

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