Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei explores varied conflicts that mark a row over formula

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 May, 2013, 3:11am

An art installation in Sheung Wan takes the shape of a China map using some 2,000 cans of infant formula.

It is dissident mainland artist Ai Weiwei's way of questioning a debate that has engaged both sides of the border.

Ai's work, Baby Formula (2013), is showing at the government-owned Sheung Wan Civic Centre as part of an exhibition at Para Site art space, "A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. Sars, Leslie and the Hong Kong story".

Cosmin Costinas, executive director of the non-profit art space, hopes the show will provoke debate and wake up the critical spirit of the public.

"Politics is about living with others," Costinas said. "All art is political and it's inescapable. This exhibition touches on political issues about Hong Kong and China. People should start discussing these issues and problems from different levels.

"A more critical spirit means you analyse the situation and try to see the root cause of an issue."

The show draws from the creations of artists from Hong Kong, mainland China and abroad to tell stories about the plague and tries to connect its history with the birth of fear of otherness during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

It also looks at Hong Kong's identity through superstar Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's suicide in the same year.

Curator Inti Guerrero said 2003 was like "another handover" for the city.

In the aftermath of Sars, the economic impact of the disease was partly the trigger for an individual visit scheme that encouraged visitors from across the border, Guerrero said. Yet today, the influx of travellers had led to anti-mainland sentiment. On Cheung's death, Guerrero said it was important to understand that in context. While the superstar was a rebel who broke social rules, his funeral was a collective event that brought people together, out of hiding from Sars.

The mania over milk powder is another subject to ponder over. Last week, Ai told the South China Morning Post that while he found it very strange for people to be crossing the border to buy infant formula, he also traced the root of the problem to the discovery of an industrial chemical, melamine, in baby food on the mainland that made the food appear protein-rich.

Costinas said Ai's work questioned not just the issue but also Hong Kong. Ai picked seven of the most popular milk brands to represent different provinces.

He said an official cap on baby formula was absurd for the free market that was Hong Kong. "What the government should do is … to negotiate with the mainland to protect the real interests of the local people."

Ai's work will be on show for 10 days. The rest of the exhibition continues until July 20.