Ai Weiwei

The buzz

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am

The latest in the excellent series of debates hosted by Intelligence Squared Asia will take place on May 27 during Art HK. Cultural figures, including American photographer David LaChapelle and Singaporean artist Ming Wong, will be arguing for or against the statement 'Art must be beautiful'.

However, in light of the recent drama over the local street art in support of detained mainland artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, perhaps a more topical theme for the debate would have been 'Art must be provocative'.

In the weeks after the outspoken artist was arrested on April 3 - for alleged economic crimes - stencilled artworks started appearing on the streets of Hong Kong showing a portrait of Ai above the question: 'Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?'

The buzz isn't going to name any names, but we've got a pretty good idea who the artists are, and they are following a tradition of provocation seen in some of the 20th century's greatest artistic movements. Marcel Duchamp and his fellow Dadaists exhibited 'ready-made' objects such as urinals; the pop artists mercilessly satirised the consumer culture of the 1960s; and Brit artists including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin set out to shock with such works as a preserved shark and a condom-strewn bed.

Eyebrows have been raised over the investigations into the street art by the West Kowloon Regional Crime Unit, which usually probes only the most serious crimes.

Of course, graffiti art is illegal, but as the Article 23 anti-subversion legislation has been withdrawn and freedom of speech and expression are enshrined in the Basic Law, why are the pro-Ai works being investigated at a higher level than your average random street tagging?

The involvement of the regional crime unit has sinister overtones and is backfiring on the authorities by encouraging more artists to rally in support of Ai, according to one prominent local street artist who preferred to remain anonymous.

'This has only led to more students or teenagers doing [pro-Ai] stencilling on the street,' he says. 'A lot more work has been appearing around Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui since the investigation started.

'I think there are two reasons why. First, to show support for the artist who created the original 'Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei' artwork. And second, to show the authorities that even if the original artist is silenced, many more will take his place - can they catch them all?'

Emboldened, one artist even went so far as to project that image onto a wall of the People's Liberation Army headquarters in Admiralty. Former Bar Association chairman Ronny Tong Ka-wah says there is no way this could be an offence, but a PLA spokesman ominously said the army 'reserves its legal right' to take action.

If there ever was any doubt, the question posed by the image has been answered by the police force's reaction. The investigation has attracted more attention to the image, and the authorities now risk turning it into the symbol of the local pro-Ai movement. On Sunday it was seen at a rally in support of Ai, alongside people wearing the mask of the protagonist of the Alan Moore graphic novel V for Vendetta.

V for Vendetta tells the story of a revolutionary wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who seeks to overthrow a totalitarian government. In the climax, thousands of ordinary people descend on Parliament wearing the same masks, having been converted to the cause by the regime's attempts to demonise the revolutionary, which only served to expose its corruption and brutality.

At the heart of all good provocative works of art is an idea that makes us stop and think. And, as the masked anarchist in V for Vendetta says, 'ideas are bulletproof'.