Hong Kong art display hiding political message cancelled

By Juliana Liu
Hong Kong correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
In this picture taken at night on 19 May 2016 from across Victoria Harbour, a series of a numbers is projected onto the side of the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong's tallest building.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The art project was originally agreed before it was known a top Chinese official would visit

Over the past week, onlookers gazing across Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong might have caught an unusual sight: a series of seemingly random numbers snaking down the facade of the International Commerce Centre (ICC), the tallest skyscraper in the city.

But hidden inside the numbers was a very political message.

A one-minute sequence of numbers was actually a creative piece of guerrilla protest art orchestrated by local pro-democracy artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam.

They represent the number of seconds counting down to 1 July 2047, when, in theory, any legal or political division between Hong Kong and the rest of China will disappear.

Over the weekend the Hong Kong government-related body that commissioned the display abruptly cancelled it, citing "disrespect" on the part of the artists behind it.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
International Commerce Centre is the territory's tallest building

Embarrassingly for Hong Kong officials, the first day of the countdown coincided with the visit of Zhang Dejiang, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the city since the 2014 pro-democracy protests.

Local media reported that an unprecedented security arrangement was in place during the three-day visit, with 8,000 police officers on patrol.

Critics of the arrangements, including media and pro-democracy groups, accused the Hong Kong government of deliberating trying to shield Mr Zhang from any opposition voices.

Political parties such as Demosisto and the League of Social Democrats used guerrilla tactics to get to close to the Chinese dignitary, without success.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Anti-Beijing activists attempted to hang banners in various parts of Hong Kong during Zhang Dejiang's visit. This poster reads "I want genuine universal suffrage"

The ICC display was originally scheduled to run until 22 June.

Since revealing the meaning behind the numbers last week, Mr Wong has been anticipating its cancellation.

"We are under immense pressure now," he told me before the latest decision was announced.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Pro-Beijing protesters gathered to welcome Zhang Dejiang, holding signs saying "oppose Hong Kong independence" and "Hong Kong needs economic development"

Mr Wong said the public display was approved by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in late January, long before Mr Zhang's visit was announced.

The council is a statutory body set up by the city government to promote artistic development in Hong Kong.

Mr Wong said he had no idea the display would coincide with Mr Zhang's visit.

"But what happens after 2047 is a seriously important question, and we want to draw attention to this problem. Time is running fast, and if we don't have solidarity and consensus about what this city's future should be like we may not be able to determine our fate.

"We want to invite everyone to join together and create a consensus about Hong Kong's future," he said.

Media caption,
Watch: Hong Kong pro-democracy activists arrested as key China leader visits

The artist did not admit to deliberately misleading the council, but told me that the first five sequences of numbers in the countdown were random and held no specific meaning.

Only the last one-minute sequence counting down to 2047 will be removed from Monday night onwards, according to the council and a spokesman for Sun Hung Kai Properties, the property developer in charge of the ICC.

"We do believe in the freedom of artistic expression, and do support our artists," the council said in a statement.

"Yet the disrespect demonstrated by Mr Sampson Wong and Mr Jason Lam, against the original agreement and understanding made with the curator and HKADC is jeopardising our profession and putting at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Yellow umbrellas have become a symbol of the territory's pro-democracy movement

As for the artists, they said the work was never meant to be entirely political.

"It is subtle and in a way poetic. It creates room for thinking. And we want people to be thinking," said Mr Wong.

"We do understand if the message is taken down. As artists, yeah, we are doomed. I think a lot of people will not work with us in future. But I think this reflects the paranoia in the city."

As Hong Kong heads into legislative elections this year and chief executive elections in 2017, greater public discussion about what happens after 2047 will no doubt emerge, even if the conversation is not happening on the city's tallest building.