Interviews

“It’s All Fear Circulating”: Interpreting a Towering Artwork’s Removal in Hong Kong

Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai's “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” (2016) amid the Hong Kong skyline (all photos courtesy Sampson Wong)
Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai’s “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” (2016) amid the Hong Kong skyline (all photos courtesy Sampson Wong)

HONG KONG —  A nine-and-a-half-minute video created a stir here when it opened on the giant LED façade of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) tower as part of Human Vibrations, an exhibition of public new media art curated by Caroline Ha Thuc, resulting in the curator and the funding organization, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), taking the work down. You won’t find the names of video’s creators — artists Sampson Wong Yu-hin and Jason Lam Chi-fai — on the exhibition website anymore, nor any information about their piece. “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” consisted of a series of six counting-themed animations in reference to a scene from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), in which Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) tries a pickup line on So Lai-chun (Maggie Cheung) that involves asking her to watch one minute go by with him.

The problem cited by the organizers when pulling the work was that, prior to the opening, the artists sent a statement notifying friends and a press list of five media outlets about an alternative reading of the final minute of the video, thus changing the meaning of the work — without consulting Ha Thuc or HKADC. Referring to the one-minute segment at the end of their animation, the artists revealed that it was a countdown to July 1, 2047, the day when Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” agreement with China will come to an end.

“The curator knew it was part of the work, we told that to her, but we didn’t tell her about our strategy to divulge it publicly, so that is why we were accused of breaking the rules and being dishonest,” said Wong, who recently sat down with Hyperallergic. “But the artwork was untouched since last approved on April 27, we just changed the way people looked at it. […] Without telling, it would come and go, just as another art exhibition known only to a small circle of people.” When asked if he and Lam are now in trouble with the authorities, he said, “I don’t know, the curator or HKADC would not tell us.” But all indications suggest the decision to pull the plug on their work was taken solely by the organizers, whose stance seems to be that they would not have included the work if they had known that the artists were going to reframe the video.

“It was to coincide with the visit in Hong Kong by Zhang Dejiang,” Wong said of the timing of the announcement, referring to the high-ranking Communist Party official, who oversees Hong Kong affairs and was visiting at the time of the “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” debacle. “We had always planned to reveal the meaning of the work, this seemed the most effective way. […] But not much happened when we disclosed the work’s additional meaning actually. Only the next day the curator called and said we are turning the art into a political statement. I think she was angry we didn’t warn her. The debate that ensued in the community was about whether or not we have the right to announce it like that. I don’t think that is a good debate.”

The entrance to the 2015 edition of Affordable Art Basel
The entrance to the 2015 edition of Affordable Art Basel

Originally I thought the fear was about politics, then after three days I saw the fear shifting to art funding,” said Wong. “I have been doing these kind of things for a while, maybe this time is too much.” He has taken the public accusations of dishonesty to heart. Known for projects like the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive and, also with Lam, the “Add Oil Machine,” Wong has benefited from HKADC funding before to pursue guerrilla-style projects. His previous pieces included questioning Art Basel’s benefit to Hong Kong’s local art scene with the Affordable Art Basel project, an art fair for the 99%, in 2014 and 2015; Emptyscape, a festival in a village’s abandoned school bringing together artists and villagers; and, in 2013, “Hacking Freespace Fest,” which subtly critiqued West Kowloon Cultural District’s Freespace Fest. “West Kowloon eventually even endorsed us,” Wong recalled.

“I am just trying to do what artists do, challenge and provoke,” Wong said, but the fallout from “Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now” has divided Hong Kong’s art community. “A lot of artists are against us. Of course, if we make people angry, they don’t give you money anymore, that’s a fact. But what is art if all you do is expecting to get money? And what does it mean that if the ICC says there should not be political work and the HKADC and the curator fully accept that condition? […] It’s all fear circulating. But if you take away the fear, it is a small thing, just some numbers on a building.”

Exterior view of the exhibition 'Hereafter: Objects from the Umbrella Movement' (2015)
Exterior view of the exhibition ‘Hereafter: Objects from the Umbrella Movement’ (2015)

Most importantly, we wanted to talk about 2047,” Wong continued, noting the art community’s anxiety about that date, when Hong Kong will likely lose its quasi-independence and become just another Chinese city. “We expected that when we’d say there is a countdown there, people would think about what 2047 means to them.” He and Lam were prepared for their piece to be removed due to its potentially controversial meaning, but not for the reason that they betrayed contractual issues or the apolitical curatorial statement of the exhibition.

“But this is so simple, the 2047 is not political,” said Wong. “The work we made referenced Wong Kar-wai also because the number 2047 is important in his 2046 movie. What they hate is not the countdown, it’s how we talk about it and how the media portrayed it. […] This is not activism. Activism calls for specific actions. We are just talking. Whether this is a piece of good art or bad art we will leave it to history, but the immediate debate is geared towards artists’ honesty. What they are saying is, ‘We won’t behave as these bad boys, so we’ll kick them and be done with it.’”

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