May 26th, 2011
12:11 PM ET

Is Hong Kong afraid of Ai Weiwei?

A man in marble is giving me the finger.        

I'm at Art HK, Asia's leading art fair, and the one-finger salute is from the 2007 sculpture "Marble Arm" by outspoken artist-activist Ai Weiwei. As we all should know by now, Ai was detained by Beijing authorities almost two months ago in an ongoing campaign against Chinese activists. Ai has since been accused of tax evasion.

"Marble Arm" is linked to a series of provocative snapshots featuring Ai raising his middle finger to various symbols of power from the White House to Tiananmen Square.  On reserve, it has a prospective buyer who is willing to pay $280,000 for the work.

And today, that marble middle finger is greeting prospective buyers and curious visitors at Art HK's Galerie Urs Meile exhibition space.

But it is a lonely protest. Among the 260 galleries at the international art fair, "Marble Arm" is the only work by Ai on display.

There are a few "Where is Ai Weiwei?" freebie pins and t-shirts available from Galerie Urs Meile and two other dealers at the fair. But for the most part, at Asian's largest art fair, China's most well-known artist is noticeably missing.

Both the United States and the European Union have called for the artist's release, but the commercial art community in Asia seems to be taking a more, shall we say, diplomatic approach. Art HK director Magnus Renfrew calls Ai Weiwei "an artist who we greatly admire."

And yet Renfrew delivers even more praise for the city of Hong Kong "where freedom of expression is greatly valued, and freedom of expression is protected under the Bill of Rights of Hong Kong and under the Basic Law of Hong Kong.  So it is a very good place for the full variety of voices to be heard."

Those voices are being heard far from the gleaming halls of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.

In a gritty industrial space in the city's Chai Wan district, 50 Hong Kong artists are speaking out against Ai's detention in a non-selling exhibition called "Love the Future." In Mandarin, it reads as "Ai Wei Lai," a pun on "Ai Wei Wei" and a code name used by the artist's online supporters when he first went missing.

Those three characters have been censored on the Internet in Mainland China, but in Hong Kong it's clearly seen online and throughout the makeshift gallery space. There's a lightbox of a hyper-pixellated portrait of Ai Weiwei. In another corner, there is a photo collage of various Hong Kong figures with Ai's name painted on their foreheads.

"Love the Future" is organized by Hong Kong sculptor Kacey Wong. Wong also organized a Hong Kong protest march in April that attracted an estimated 2,000 people. Wong calls Ai's arrest a wake-up call for him and fellow local artists. He tells me, "We Hong Kong people tend to live inside a bubble because we have freedom here. Whereas in China, there is suppression and illegal detention of good-hearted people."

Wong also says Ai's detention has brought about a personal ephiphany about what it means to be a Hong Kong artist, as opposed to a Mainland Chinese one: "We, in contrast, can speak the truth... without thinking too much."

In the days immediately following Ai's disappearance, high-contrast graffiti images appeared throughout Hong Kong showing the bearded face of the artist and a simple question, "Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?" Another graffiti campaign flashed a projection of the Ai Weiwei image onto the Chinese People's Liberation Army barracks in Hong Kong.

The artists behind the graffiti are laying low... and for good reason. Hong Kong police are investigating criminal damage charges against them, which could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

One can only wonder if Ai Weiwei would nod in approval to such acts of creative defiance here in Hong Kong.

Ai remains detained for an indefinite period of time in an undisclosed location. Despite his imprisonment, Ai has opened major exhibitions in New York and London... and inspired a grassroots movement in Hong Kong while defiantly raising his middle finger in a massively public space on Chinese soil.

The artist may be silenced, but not his message.