Friday, August 4, 2017

Marco Wan on the Artwork of Hong Kong's Occupy Central Movement (new book chapter)

Marco Wan
in Michael Ng and John wong (eds), Civil Unrest and Governance in Hong Kong: Law and Order from Historical and Cultural Perspectives (Routledge, June 2017), pp. 179-195
Introduction: Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement, or the Umbrella Revolution as it became known in the international media, was an event that changed the city’s cultural fabric. From its origins as a peaceful protest against the package of electoral reforms imposed on the city by Beijing, as well as against the city’s slow pace of democratization more generally, it turned into an event that divided Hong Kong society in an unprecedented way, exposing divisions between people of different generations, political persuasions and aspirations. As the title of this volume indicates, any form of civil unrest has implications for the maintenance of law and order, and much of the local discussion of Occupy Central has focused on its legal dimension. For instance, there have been lively debates about whether it constituted a form of civil disobedience, as its organizers claimed, or whether it was merely a form of reckless public disorder for which they should have been punished. There have also been concerns about the abuse of police powers and whether the authorities used an inordinate amount of force to contain the protesters.
     Another strand of the discussion around Occupy Central has focused on its artwork. As one online art magazine noted during the movement, ‘colors abound [on] the streets […] as protesters create public art and turn occupied areas into surreal exhibition spaces. Arguably the most iconic artwork was the ten-foot-tall wooden statue of the Umbrella Man by the artist Milk. This towering figure with an outstretched hand holding the symbolic umbrella of protest became an artistic focal point for the movement. However, the street art produced during Occupy Central extends far beyond the Umbrella Man, encompassing a plethora of hand-drawn pictures, printed images and graffiti. There was keen awareness that once the government cleared the streets, much of this artwork would be lost. The Umbrella Movement Art Preservation project, or UMAP, was established as a way of archiving and preserving these images, although at the time of writing its digital archive is still under construction.
     This chapter moves beyond discussions of Occupy Central’s legality to explore the cultural significance of some of the images that this momentous event generated. Civil unrest cannot be understood in isolation from the societal forces that produced it, and the artwork of Occupy Central provides one medium for understanding such forces. This chapter therefore focuses on the movement’s aesthetic, rather than political or legal, dimension. It argues that its street art provides a point of entry into questions of identity in Hong Kong. In other words, the images can be interpreted as reflections of the ways in which Occupy Central perceived itself, as well as the ways in which some Hong Kongers imagined their own sense of self. These images suggest that Occupy Central was an event that did not have a unitary or unambiguous notion of itself, and that this multifaceted self-conception may be tied to the complex sense of self amongst many Hong Kongers in the early part of the twenty first century. 

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