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Tea Leaves

Hong Kong's political 'revolution' is artistic as well

A vibrant art scene created the conditions and demand for free expression

Locals check out contemporary works at Art Basel in Hong Kong. (Photo by John Krich) 

Art and politics: their connection has been pondered through the ages. But the current upheaval in Hong Kong offers a new twist on old debates. For it is the same generation that helped transform Hong Kong into a global center for cutting-edge exhibitions and ambitious museums that is now fighting on the streets to protect democratic rights. It is also the generation that has provided much of the appreciative public for the city's vibrant art scene.

Not so long ago, amassing money and spending it on luxury items seemed to be the overriding pursuit in this famed trading post. Relatively few citizens of any age appeared interested in art (except as part of an advertisement perhaps for designer jeans). Visiting the stuffy, tradition-bound Hong Kong Museum of Art one Saturday a decade ago, I found myself entirely alone: one man amid dozens of landscape scrolls. But on a visit earlier this year, before protesters took to the streets, I was being jostled by a crush of hip youth eager to view the latest wild expressions and obscure installations of the contemporary art world.

Once smugly dismissed as a "cultural desert," Hong Kong over recent years blossomed into an Asian art hub, with dozens of internationally known art dealers and prestigious annual fairs such as Art Basel. The city boasts sophisticated and compelling new art spaces, such as the Tai Kwun complex that transformed a former city prison into a venue for liberation of the imagination, or The Mills, the last of the city's dank fabric factories which was redeveloped as a creative global textile showcase.

In the past, Hong Kongers have been portrayed as the fearful offspring of refugees from Communist China, whose collective characteristic was an abiding political passivity. When Chinese leaders came to give speeches at the Hong Kong Convention Center, security forces barely had to bother to maintain order in the face of a few pro-democracy, picketing "cranks."

But these assumptions have been proven wrong by two things: mass support for the current protests, and the territory's evolution into one of the world's most valuable art markets. Perhaps it makes perfect sense that a citizenry awakened to appreciation of artistic expression might equally value a society that promotes human rights, electoral representation and free thinking. These elements converged in the "Lennon Walls" -- collective political outpourings of artistic expression -- that first appeared during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when Hong Kongers demanded democracy in electing their territory's leaders.

Hong Kong's appreciation of artistic expression and free thinking converge in the "Lennon Walls." (Photo by Mike Chinoy)

In July, millions of protesters made it clear they are less motivated by ideology than by allegiance to a set of values. They are battling to protect freedoms: a universal way of life that includes being able to enjoy uncensored media, tell political jokes openly, even love as they choose, or travel the world on passports that are not granted as a privilege or reward.

If those freedoms are overturned, the damage would be immeasurable, not only to the people of Hong Kong and to financial companies, hoteliers and traders -- but also to the territory's creative art institutions and galleries. These range from the local franchise of New York's trendy Gagosian Gallery to Art Basel and the many fledgling underground art spaces.

Perhaps most at risk is M+, the crowning jewel of Hong Kong's artistic rebirth, which is scheduled for completion in 2020. Spurred to compete with a spate of museum building in China, this exhibition space nearly matches New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern in size.

Its razor-thin Herzog & Meuron facade will serve as a giant electronic display broadcasting avant-garde video works, while its 33 planned galleries, three cinemas and a "mediatheque" are intended to be "the number one site for new canons, new architecture, a new history of the world -- serving a population hungry to see new things," the museum's director Suhanya Raffel told me.

M+ has already amassed an impressive collection of dissident art works from mainland China and other parts of Asia. Although there is little record of mainland interference in elite institutions like museums compared to the territory's mass media, Hong Kongers clearly fear a coming freeze in the civic environment.

The M+ Museum: Is artistic freedom still under construction? (Photo by John Krich)

Already, the same leading lights of Hong Kong's art scene who eagerly publicized thriving art sales and successful exhibitions have fallen strikingly silent when asked to comment on the future. Whether gallery owners, curators or organizers of artist collectives, most now seem as cautious as their displayed works are bold.

It cannot be proven that any single piece of protest art, whether created by artists ranging from Salvador Dali to Ai Weiwei, has ever led anybody to demonstrate or mount the barricades. But as long as Hong Kong stands up for its independent identity, it is also protecting its newfound role as an Asian center for the arts. This revolution is not just colored green or purple, but all the shades of an artist's palette. And it should stay that way.

John Krich is an Asia-based journalist.

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