Before the Rain

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney
21 January – 19 March 2017

When I lived in Hong Kong around 1980, I was amused by the anti-colonialist Guardian newspaper in Britain being forced to admire the bureaucratic handling of the chaotic Vietnamese refugee influx—white-outfitted civil servants taking down meticulous details as queues of bedraggled boat people waited their turn to be taken into open-door refugee camps that would lead to resettlement in the kinder world of those days.

Clearly, post-colonial Hong Kong has learnt something from those days. Even as the new Chinese bosses were being challenged by the Yellow Umbrella movement that shut down not just streets but the very acme of Hong Kong’s existence—business—for 79 days in 2014, an Umbrella Movement Visual Archive was being assiduously collected by the more bureaucratic-minded demonstrators.

Before the Rain is a recovery action by the Hong Kong-born Mikala Tai, curator of the exhibition and Director of 4A. One of the artists involved is the intriguing Sampson Wong, whose work Capturing a Hyperevent: Artistic Records of the Umbrella Movement, prepared with Mikala Tai, is a visual archive of ephemeral material collected during the Movement. Wong is an urban studies major in the creative practices of Occupy cultures, who was involved for two years in preparing an Occupy action for Hong Kong involving parks and open spaces, only to be overtaken by the spontaneous explosion that went straight on to the streets. Unfazed, today he compares the events of 2014 to the 19th Century Paris Commune—which ended a little more bloodily with some 20,000 deaths and 38,000 arrests.

That level of drama is not apparent in Sydney’s Chinatown. It is all too neat and tidy, diminished by both the small size of the artworks—especially the tablet screens showing videos—and by a reluctance to grasp the nettle of failure.

As far as size is concerned, poor James Kong devised a brilliant system for continuously filming the protests from inside hidden biscuit tins—a people’s CCTV—which captures something of the pop festival mood behind the tenting of the streets in Admiralty and Mongkok. But viewing it on a ten centimetre screen frustrates.

As for failure, I would make comparison with Samson Young, composer and increasingly multi-media artist, whose work Stanley (2015) was shown at the Kunsthalle in Düesseldorf over the same time period. Its twisted pink neon words hung bleakly over empty desert sands, reading ‘Nothing we did could have saved Hong Kong, It was all wasted’; which really challenges the thinking.

In Sydney, the closest we get to this is the Taiwanese offering of Yuan Goang-Ming’s The 561st Hour of Occupation (2014), a large-screen video looking at the Sunflower Student Movement, which preceded Hong Kong’s Umbrellas and actually took over the island’s Parliament. The work captured both the adrenaline of the youthful take-over and the devastating sense of loss as he excises people from his film and leaves only the brave slogans, accompanied by a lugubrious, slowed-down version of Taiwan’s national anthem.

Luke Ching’s work, on the other hand, does raise political hackles by subverting his Hong Kong ID card. In 150 Lost Items (2014) he presents 150 miniature identity cards, to match the number of migrants from Mainland China who are permitted into Hong Kong each day. Transmigration of the Han, as practised in Xinjiang and Tibet? But Swing Lam’s neat mapping of the revolt has that bureaucratic bent that I referred to earlier, without any of the emotion that I know lies behind this movement of a population that spent 190 years falling between the stools of distant Britain and threatening China and, according to the catalogue, began to want to ‘become determiners of their city’s future’ when the Chinese civil war of the 1940s forced them to see themselves as ‘a separate identity’.

I had observed just that feeling in Hong Kong at the end of a viewing of Chen Kaige’s film, Farewell My Concubine, which brilliantly examines the way malign forces may set out to control a country’s culture—whoever that may be. Half of the Hong Kong cinema’s audience left the screening in tears as 1997 loomed for them.

While admiring the cool conceptualism of Sarah Lai’s two films, I wish her performance and installation, Demarcated Area (2017), pointing to the pointlessness of crowd barriers, had employed the bamboo that supportive Hong Kong scaffolders brought down from the skyscrapers they were working on to help demonstrators deflect police charges, rather than Sydney’s hi-tech equivalents. Talking of which, the trio of anonymous red banners wittily subverted the Hong Kong Police signs, which read ‘Stop Charging’, with suggestions of a sexual response, do capture something of the mood of those days, even as they stand crowdless on the gallery floor.

Which leaves only the gallery’s stairwell, overflowing with the very core of personal protest—A4 sheets with the passion of individuals captured at its most subjective level. Definitely worth a slow climb or descent—with my favourite one of the simplest: a pencilled, furled umbrella accompanied by the Yoda-like caption, ‘Impossible is Nothing’. And I have to admire the commercially-minded restaurant that managed to slip into the Archive the note, ‘Keep Calm, We Are Still Open’!

Talking to Samson Wong, I certainly gained a more reflective perspective than the show offered. His reading of the two and a half years since the Umbrella Days is that the collective will has split into those demanding independence and throwing bricks at the police, ‘which is easily suppressed’, and those recognising a need to get into Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods and ‘talk to the people more—the conservative people’. Even the art scene that united behind the Umbrellas has developed an ever-widening gap between an energetic political sphere and a quintessentially Hong Kong commercial attitude.

Reproduction items and image from The Umbrella Movement Visual Archive, 2014. Installation view, detail, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive. Photograph Document Photography.

Reproduction items and image from The Umbrella Movement Visual Archive, 2014. Installation view, detail, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive. Photograph Document Photography.

Centre: Mikala Tai and Sampson Wong, Capturing a hyperevent: artistic records of the Umbrella Movement, 2017. Installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists.

Walls: Swing Lam, Temporary structure, research in Umbrella Revolution 2014-2016, 2016. Works on paper. Installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Courtesy the artist.

Photograph Document Photography.

Reproduction items and image from The Umbrella Movement Visual Archive, 2014. Installation view, detail, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive. Photograph Document Photography.