A Hong Kong department store has removed digital artwork containing hidden references to jailed dissidents, in a move the artist says is evidence of the erosion of freedom of expression in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
It was unclear whether the government played a role in the decision to remove the artwork, which came days after a slasher film featuring Winnie the Pooh, a figure used in a playful taunt of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was pulled from local cinemas.
Patrick Amadon’s “No Riots” was put on the billboard for an exhibition at the SOGO Causeway Bay store that opened last Friday, as the city promoted its return as a vibrant cultural hub after years of pandemic travel restrictions. Art Basel Hong Kong, one of Asia’s leading art fairs, kicked off this week along with other art events.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, pledging to maintain its Western-style independence. Massive pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2019, which ended after China enacted a “national security law” that criminalized much dissent. The city government has silenced many activists by jailing them.
Amadon said he has followed the protests in Hong Kong closely, and he wants his work to show solidarity with the protesters and remind people of the city’s new reality.
“The pretense that the Chinese government hasn’t crushed democracy and turned Hong Kong into a vassal surveillance state is too much to watch Art Week in Hong Kong … because it’s a convenient location for a good market,” said the Los Angeles artist.
Amadon said he knew the work would be controversial and that it was on public display for several days. It housed a panning surveillance camera.
Flashes of matrix-like text show the names and prison sentences of convicted activists and other prominent figures in the pro-democracy movement, including legal scholar Benny Tai and former student leader Joshua Wong, who were charged with sedition in the biggest case. National Security Law.
Amadon said these details were shown too quickly to be seen with the naked eye, but viewers could see the details if they used a camera to take photos. It also mentions journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho who was attacked in July 2019 while live-streaming a mob attack during a large protest over an extradition bill.
It is not known whether the gallery, which organized the exhibition, was ordered by the government to remove the work, Art Innovation Gallery CEO Francesca Boffetti said in an email.
“Our mediator told us that the owners of SOGO were concerned about the sensitive political content hidden behind Patrick’s work, so they immediately decided to remove the work from the exhibition,” Boffetti said.
No one mentioned any laws or threatened them with fines, he added, but SOGO’s legal team asked the gallery if it was aware of the content and message of Amadon’s work.
Local police and SOGO did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Bureau of Culture, Sports and Tourism told The Associated Press it had not contacted SOGO.
Amadon said the gallery told him in an urgent call that it was very concerned about its legal exposure after the conversation with SOGO.
Since the passage of national security laws, the city’s arts and media communities have learned to be wary of crossing vaguely defined red lines. The pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close after authorities arrested its top editors and executives and accused them of foreign collusion. Some artists known for their political work left Hong Kong under the shadow of the law. Some filmmakers have stopped showing their work in the city. Producers of non-political content have also become aware. But the government has continued to enjoy the freedoms its residents were promised after the law came into force.
Amadon said what happened to his work shows the city has lost its freedom of expression and artistic freedom.
“It objectively shows that they’re not here now like they used to be,” he said. “From a narrative standpoint, I mean, it should have been censored and removed, I think, a complete piece.”
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