Art in the Umbrella Movement

Art has become a central element of the umbrella movement in Hong Kong. But, what will happen to the artworks in the aftermath of the protest?

The night falls in Admiralty, in front of the Central Government Offices on Connaught Road Central. In what would normally be a busy traffic road, people are sleeping on blankets, playing music or discussing the future of Hong Kong politics.

It is almost two in the morning but Sunette Cheng, a secondary school student, is not going home. Instead, she is making small umbrellas using recycled paper with dozens of other people she just met. She started folding umbrellas with her friend and other people joined her.

“The umbrellas can replace the people here,” Cheng says. She says she noticed that less people are coming to the protest and tries to replace them with umbrellas. “This art is to support the umbrella revolution, just like the other artworks.”

The Umbrella Man, by artist Milk.

Thousands of people took control of major streets of Hong Kong to condemn the decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to limit the choice of candidates in the upcoming Chief Executive elections in 2017. People have now occupied the area for 13 days despite the use of tear gas and episodes of heavy rain.

This movement is now known as the Umbrella Revolution or Umbrella Movement after people started using umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray and tear gas. The number of protesters has since significantly decreased but one thing is still keeping the occupied areas visible: art.

Hundreds of artworks were made throughout the protests and turned the occupied streets into a large-scale street art gallery. Most pieces follow the theme of the umbrella and made the object a real symbol of the movement.

The Umbrella Bauhinia, a flower made out of umbrellas, next to the Legislative Council.

On the walls of the government building, a rainbow of paper memos covers a dozen meters of concrete. These are messages from various people who support the movement. It has now become known as the Lennon Wall, as a reference to the singer’s lyrics in the song Imagine, repeatedly used by the Umbrella Revolution protesters.

Many memos are wrinkled by the rain, and some are flying away with the wind as the only thing that holds them to the wall is a piece of tape. “We don’t know how long we could keep this wall. So like this page and share photos”, says a piece of cardboard next to the wall. Indeed, many wonder what will happen to the umbrella movement artworks after the movement ends.

The idea of having people writing messages on memos and to stick them on the wall was started by a group of students from the City University of Hong Kong. “I found that many people don’t know why they are coming out,” says Ronald Wong, one of the initiators of the artwork. He explains that the idea came to make people reflect why they are taking part in the protest. “We come because of democracy, it’s not for fun,” Wong says.

Wong and his classmates are satisfied with the progress of the wall and decided to let it grow by itself. Many people ask him what will happen to the wall in the aftermath of the protest. “I think the best way to keep those memos is to keep [them on the wall], because the meaning of the memos starts from that wall,” Wong says. “But in fact we can’t keep it because that wall belongs to government.”

Wong Tsun Kiu took the initiative to create the Facebook page “Lennon Wall Hong Kong” to keep a memory of the wall. He came all the way from Dubai to see the protest and spent three days protecting the artwork. “I feel this wall is full of thoughts,” he says. He created the social media page to keep a record of the Lennon wall.

People writing messages on memos to stick on the “Lennon Wall”.

One person took one step further and decided to find a home for the Lennon Wall and other artworks in the aftermath of the movement. “People are very concerned that someone is going to come through during the night and tear [the wall of memos] down,” said Meaghan McGurgan, editor of HKELD, a blog on performing art in Hong Kong.

“The reason it was going to be thrown out is because no one is going to take the initiative to think beyond Occupy [Central],” says McGurgan. “So I said I will be the person to think beyond.” She decided to contact art galleries and museums to find a storage place for the umbrella movement artworks.

Finding space was a difficult task as most museums and galleries are funded by the government. “If they’re seen commissioning work that is anti-government they could lose their funding,” McGurgan says. She has now found a gallery to host the artworks. The gallery is not relying on government money and the owner is a private collector who has a lot of storage space to donate.

But certain pieces such as the Lennon Wall seem difficult to transport into a gallery environment. “A lot of pictures and a lot of boxes,” says McGurgan. She describes the process as a gigantic puzzle.

Umbrella art installation in Causeway Bay. It reenacts the use of umbrellas to protect people from pepper spray.

“The issue is that five, ten years from now, the political ramifications of these works really aren’t going to matter that much,” says McGurgan. She wants to keep the artwork because of its role in art history. “People will be really mad at us, mad at Hong Kong if we let these pieces go to the dump just because we had lack of storage space.”

But not everyone agrees with the idea of putting the artworks in a museum environment. Maurice Benayoun, French artist and professor at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong, thinks that the gallery environment is not adequate for protest art. “You kill the protest if you put it in a museum,” he said. “There are always people who consider that art has to become objects.” He explains that there are other ways to keep a record of the protest, particularly with the use of the Internet.

Photo installation in front of the Legislative Council building in Admiralty.

Justin Hui, a student in architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong created the Facebook page “Umbrella Creation” that gathers all kinds of artworks from the pro-democracy movement. Hui and his classmate created the page two days after the tear gas episode and managed to reference about 50 works in three days.

“I created the page because I think artwork and creation could be a great support to the movement and I’d like to create a platform for artists to submit and publish their work,” Hui says. Hui says it is important to keep record of the creations born from the movement. He is now thinking about publishing a book on the artworks of the umbrella revolution.

A few meters away from the Lennon wall, next to the entrance of the Legislative Council, Sally Ng, a drama teacher, is concentrating on writing lyrics on a piece of paper. She is part of the “24 hours in the Revolution” artist group. The group of performing artists write and play songs about stories they gather from the public in Admiralty and Mongkok. “We are all angry,” Ng says. “People have some feelings, they need a sort of relief.” The artists’ initiative is thus a way to put these emotions into music.

When asked if she thinks their songs will be remembered, she says she does not think about it. “We come here not because we want to have something to stay in history,” she says. “We come to take part in history.”

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