Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's new work inspired by milk powder debate

Dissident artist's sculpture, to be unveiled in Hong Kong next week, examines the city's identity and anti-mainland sentiment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 5:46am

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei has drawn inspiration from the controversy over infant formula in Hong Kong and on the mainland for his new work, which will be unveiled at an exhibition exploring Hong Kong's identity and anti-mainland sentiment.

The as-yet-untitled sculpture installation is one of the works in the exhibition that will open in the city next week.

The exhibition - A Journal of the Plague Year: Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story - presented by Para Site art space in Sheung Wan, explored the theme of an epidemic and the fear of otherness it generated, curator Inti Guerrero said.

Ai's piece is one of two featured in a segment that explores anti-mainland sentiment, seen by organisers as an indirect consequence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

To me, mainland people going to Hong Kong to buy milk powder is a very strange thing. Will people have to go to buy air or even water in Hong Kong in future?

"To me, mainland people going to Hong Kong to buy milk powder is a very strange thing. Will people have to go to buy air or even water in Hong Kong in future?" Ai said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

He did not give details of his exhibit as he was still working on it, but he said he'd had the idea for a work about the baby formula issue since the melamine milk scandal was exposed on the mainland in 2008.

That year, milk powder and baby formula sold by major mainland manufacturers were found to be tainted with the chemical melamine, which made the milk appear to have a higher protein content.

The scandal was reported to have affected more than 300,000 people, causing six babies to die from kidney problems and sending more than 54,000 to hospital.

It created deep public distrust in mainland food safety. With mainland citizens flocking to buy baby formula in Hong Kong, Ai said the issue had not been resolved and he hoped to raise questions with his new offering.

"There are no simple answers [to social problems] but this is affecting people's lives," he said.

He said the issue of milk powder that threatened people's lives reflected the importance of a democratic and lawful society, and that, as an artist, he offered different perspectives.

"Society needs to resolve problems with reason," he said.

Guerrero said the exhibition would look at the history of epidemics in 19th century Hong Kong and the Sars outbreak in 2003 to explore how epidemics migrate from a health perspective to cultural and political perspectives.

He said the Sars outbreak spawned the fear of otherness, and that this fear was renewed by the influx of mainland visitors brought in by the individual traveller scheme.

The scheme was an attempt to revive the city's economy which was heavily hit during the epidemic.

The vast increase in the number of mainland visitors in Hong Kong had caused tension between the tourists and the locals. And access to baby formula became an issue after products were snapped up and smuggled across the border by mainland shoppers and parallel traders.

The exhibition will open on May 17 at Para Site and Sheung Wan Civic Centre Exhibition Hall.