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.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. johniie5-1=4

    Sooner or later, we too will have our voices silenced. Read a blog called The Great Cosmopolitan Attraction and you will see where we're heading to.
    Ai might never be released and the Chinese government might come up with some lame excuse like, "Oh, he fell off his bed and died."

    May 26, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  2. mrtaurus

    Hi – fantastic post
    I'm doing a project in London called the Chinese Whisper Project as a response to the arrest of Ai Weiwei. I have just this second finished the video for the plan and put it on youtube and my blog. Trying to promote as much as possible! I guess it is all about raising awareness and artists pulling together!

    “A Community Based Art Project of Art Inspiring Art and towards the Freedom of Creative Expression, Interpretation & Ai Weiwei. Currently Seeking 5 unique Artists.”
    Would you be able to help promote this?


    May 29, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  3. Paul

    As an artist, I want to share with you how we can force the Chinese government to disclose the whereabouts of Artist Ai Weiwei who is imprisoned without charges.
    I found a poll on Qwanz.com " Should cultural exchanges between China and the rest of world be boycotted until the whereabouts and charges against Chinese artist Ai Weiwei are clarified?
    If we all answer this, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and then , through the site, send on results, to Elected officials, government agencies and the press, we may be able to create together enough noise and pressure to force the Chinese Government to react.
    Please click on http://qwanz.com/headline/international-eventually-by-country/should-cultural-exchanges-between-china-and-the-rest-of-world-be-boycotted-until-the-whereabouts-and-charges-against-chinese-artist-ai-weiwei-are-clarified/
    Your voice is important. Please help.
    Many thanks;
    PS: Don’t forget to share this with all your artists friends

    June 1, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Reply
    • Matias

      Taiwanese need visas to go to the other coentrius.Chinese need visas to visit other coentrius. People from china are only allowed into the country of Taiwan if they are travelling with a tour group at this moment in time, until China recognizes that Taiwan is a free and stable independent country.

      July 31, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  4. Ayhu

    i don't think someone know ayhnting about china ,this country is not like it is in the papers ,moives .or ayhnting else, coz u can say something and do something, and the authorities won't tell u why ,the only answer is :no u just can't

    September 8, 2012 at 8:53 am | Reply
  5. John

    None of these answers so far has it quite right.Hong Kong Island istlef was ceded to the British after the First Opium War, in 1842 (the U.K. had occupied the island since 1841). Kowloon was ceded to the British after the Second Opium War, in 1860. The British were given a 99-year lease to the New Territories in 1898.Obviously, modern China was not interested in renewing the lease to the British. The Brits, in turn, realized that Hong Kong Island and Kowloon was not viable as a self-sustaining territory on its own, especially with a large, powerful neighbor that considered Hong Kong stolen land. So negotiations began to return the whole territory to China but in a way that would be as acceptable as possible to the governments and population.That's how the deal came about to make Hong Kong a special administrative region, a part of China but with many of Hong Kong's institutions remaining in place, including currency, freedoms, English as an official language, etc. These are guaranteed for 50 years after the handover. In other words, 37 years to go.China negotiated a similar deal with Portugal to get back Macau, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. China has offered Taiwan status as a special administrative region to come under Beijing's autonomy, but not surprisingly, the renegade province has declined.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:01 am | Reply

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