Essays

1,588-Foot-Tall Artwork Lights Up a Political Inferno in Hong Kong

Add Oil Team's "Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now," aka "Countdown Machine" (2016) (screenshot via Vimeo)
Add Oil Team’s “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now,” aka “Countdown Machine” (2016) (screenshot via Vimeo)

HONG KONG — Add Oil Team is the name of the artist duo of Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai, whose most recent work, “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” — aka, the “Countdown Machine” — has sparked a firestorm of controversy, both locally and abroad.

The pair’s installation, displayed on the tallest building in Hong Kong — the 1,588-foot International Commerce Centre (ICC) Building in West Kowloon — was originally accepted into the fifth large-scale public media art exhibition, Human Vibrations, curated by independent curator Caroline Ha Thuc. The show’s mandate is “encouraging the public to experience the invisible frequencies and also question their impact on our daily lives.” The exhibition, which continues through June 22, includes educational programs, artist symposia, artist workshops, and docent tours. Alongside Add Oil Team, Human Vibrations features works by the Franco-Austrian duo Laurent Migonneau and Christa Sommerer as well as local artists Isaac Chong Wai, Jaffa Lam Laam, Cedric Maridet, and Kingsley Ng Siu King. It has involved the K11 Art Mall and the Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department. All the artists received sponsorship from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), the arts granting body of the government of Hong Kong.

“A city is never a passive environment: it is an echo chamber for all the vibrations constantly created and modulated by its inhabitants,” Ha Thuc wrote in her curatorial statement. “Being aware of these vibrations enable people to keep track of how they connect to their environment, and to learn about themselves.” This is not the stuff of wild controversy. Ha Thuc was in fact quite clear from the start with her artists that political content was not to be part of the exhibition.

However, Wong and Lam took their original concept of numbers counting down and dropped a bombshell by revealing — though, crucially, after their piece’s installation and unveiling — that the one-minute digital countdown on the façade of the ICC Building was actually a covert countdown to July 1, 2047. That date is when Hong Kong’s legal agreement with mainland China maintaining the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement officially expires. The date, so benign to most of us, is the 800-pound gorilla portending Hong Kong’s future, and a ticking time bomb between the Mainland and Hong Kong.

The other incendiary event that happened to coincide with Wong and Lam’s reveal was the second day of the visit of Chinese state leader Zhang Dejiang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo. Zhang is third in line in China’s political power structure, akin to the Speaker of the House in the United States. He was there ostensibly to discuss the future of Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing and the Communist Party. The city was so on edge that it called up 8,000 police officers, placed road blocks in major locations, and literally glued down the cobblestones to prevent a repeat of the not-so-distant Chinese New Year’s Mong Kok “Fishball Riots,” so named because local fishball snack vendors were prevented from plying their trade and retaliated by ripping cobblestones straight from the street and hurling them at the police. The police described their extreme precautions as “counterterrorism” so that Zhang would not see or hear any protests.

The post-Occupy Central feeling in Hong Kong is subdued, fractious, and on slow boil. Chinese interests are increasingly intertwined with real estate interests, with Hong Kong magnates developing large projects on the Mainland. In order to keep their profit margins high and get necessary contracts and permits, they must appease the powerful in the Communist Party. There is a tangled relationship between these magnates and the funding of public arts projects, much like in the past when tobacco companies sponsored the arts in the United States. Political discourse in Hong Kong is allowed, as are demonstrations, but bit by bit those freedoms are being eroded by entrenched political forces aligned with Mainland interests. This includes the increasingly tenuous right to political assembly and the gradual disappearance of the Southern Cantonese language and script, further intertwining issues of language with those of power. Strategic government, academic, and administrative posts are slowly but very steadily being supplanted and awarded to staunch party loyalists who adhere to Beijing’s point of view. There is a nascent independence movement to break Hong Kong away from the Mainland entirely, which is akin to New York City clamoring to become its own country. Instead of humoring those who float such ideas, the powers that be see them as threats to their sovereignty and aim to squash them one way or another. It is against this backdrop that the “Countdown Machine” fiasco occurred.

The phrase “Add Oil” has a very specific meaning in Cantonese and Hong Kong English, and it is important to understand the subtlety behind the term. It began as slang during the Macau Grand Prix races in the 1960s , but was also used in artworks in 2014 during the Umbrella Revolution to mean additional support. During the protests, which lasted from September 26 to December 15, Wong and Lam set up an “Add Oil Machine” by projecting over 40,000 messages of support from all over the world onto a wall on Gloucester Road. In 2015, that defiant act won them the Freedom Flowers Foundation Award from the Geneva-based human rights organization of the same name. The Slought Foundation created a virtual online exhibition curated by Melissa Lee and Aaron Levy titled Stand By You: Add Oil Machine for the Umbrella Movement to examine “the power of individual and collective assemblage and the formation of community and solidarity through art.”

When Wong and Lam presented their concept for the ICC Building to Ha Thuc and to HKADC, they were fully aware that ICC did not allow political content on its façade. The tower, owned by Sun Hung Kai Properties, is part of the billionaire Kwok brothers’ vast real estate empire, which also includes Mainland properties. The artists also were aware that their work was being presented to ICC through trusted Hong Kong intermediaries. This is where the fracas began. In order to get their message across, the artists made sure it could not be preemptively censored by either the curator or the HKADC. The curator was aware that the piece contained numbers that counted down, but apparently was unaware of their coded meaning. Though she and the rest of the participating institutions knew of Wong and Lam’s art during Occupy Central, no one understood or figured out the second, hidden meaning of their newest project.

Add Oil Team's "Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now," aka "Countdown Machine" (2016) (screenshot via Vimeo)
Add Oil Team’s “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now,” aka “Countdown Machine” (2016) seen at left amid the Hong Kong skyline (screenshot via Vimeo)

Once both Ha Thuc and the Arts Council found out what was going on, they quickly pulled the plug. “Carrying out an exhibition, or a festival, is a teamwork based on confidence between the artists, the curator, the institutions and partners who are supporting the project,” Ha Thuc and Ellen Pau, the chairman of the HKADC Film and Media Art Group, said in a joint statement. “We do believe in the freedom of artistic expression, and do support our artists. Yet, the disrespect demonstrated by Mr Sampson Wong and Mr Jason Lam against the original agreement and understanding made with the curator and HKADC is jeopardizing our profession and put at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space.”

This is a strong statement. Pau is a very well-respected artist and curator who founded Videotage, the first space for new media art in Hong Kong, in 1986. She is also a tireless champion of free speech. In 2011 she organized, along with curators Isaac Leung and Li Zhenhua, the first ever joint exhibition of new media art between Hong Kong and the Mainland, One World Expo. She just realized her long-held goal to bring the International Festival of Electronic Art to Hong Kong in May, after years of preparation. As part of that festival, she was involved in producing WIKITOPIA 2016: Surveillance and Privacy in the Post-Snowden Era, a three-day mini-festival. This is not the professional output of someone who opposes free speech.

The headlines that imply the curators or HKADC are against free speech are contradicted by Thuk and Pau’s track records. Pau, who called “Countdown Machine” a “propaganda piece,” consulted legal advisors, then personally spoke to Wong. She recounted their exchange in an interview with RTHK’s The Works podcast, including asking him, “Since your work is not the version that was supported by the (HK)ADC, can we take it down?” She said, “He agreed with this”. However, the artists later said they did not change anything from the original proposal, and that the artwork is the same as when it was originally presented. They believe they are being politically censored.

I asked another Hong Kong digital media curator not involved in the exhibition (who wished to remain anonymous) what he thought about the controversy. He was horrified by what had occurred and believed the artists were being “careerist.” He added that Wong is by trade a geologist and that Lam has never been that deeply involved in the Hong Kong art world. A digital media artist I spoke with (who also wished to remain anonymous) was more in favor of the artists’ stance. He felt that all public art in Hong Kong has to go through an approval process that involves agencies aligned with the powerful real estate industry, which in turn is involved with promoting the Mainland’s agenda. Only by doing something subversive could artists get their message across. He agreed with their tactics, including duping both the curator and the granting agency.

On May 30, Pau released a personal statement on her Facebook page stating there was no political pressure from either ICC or HKADC to suspend the work. She said that “the artists displayed a lack of professionalism” and “the sudden strategy adopted by the artists in changing the nature of The Work and communicating it to the public without informing the curatorial team was not apt professional practice. As a result of their deliberate strategy, The Work came to be regarded by the pubic as simply the Count Down Machine, a piece embodying a different approach that was not communicated in the initial exhibition proposal.”

It is because of the difficult cultural and political environment in Hong Kong, and mainstream media’s need to make this a quick, easily digestible story that this complex situation between curators, arts councils. and artists was portrayed as Hong Kong’s desire to censor political art. What has resulted is a sense of betrayal between the usually close-knit troika of curator, funding agency, and artist. Though the artists’ message about the looming deadline of “one country, two systems” was broadcast loud and clear across the globe, back home it had a different effect. It drove a stake through the heart of a local art scene that needs all the support it can muster in the coming years to stand up to the 800-pound gorilla in the north, breathing down its neck at every inopportune moment. Will this be another one of those moments? Only time will tell.

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