Kacey Wong is a Hong Kong visual artist, activist, and educator, politically engaged through his art and performances. Wong talks about the uncertainty created by the National Security Law in Hong Kong.
Kacey Wong was born in Hong Kong in 1970. He studied architecture at Cornell University and received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Chelsea School of Art and Design and a Doctor of Fine Arts Degree from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is the founding member of Art Citizens, Street Design Union, Umbrella Movement Art Preservation, and former curator & member of Para/Site Art Space. His research investigates artist’s and designer’s roles in social-political causes.
How did you approach the world of art? What were your first sources of inspiration?
I think the approach is definitely personal first. And inspiration is always, depending on the topic. Because as you can see, from my portfolio, I create a lot of works, I’m kind of productive. I try to tell the story uniquely, according to different themes, or topics that I’m dealing with. I don’t have a particular style or form. Furthermore, I don’t believe in that. But I have kind of a consistent tone of voice in terms of my methodologies. I think I enjoy art because it allows me to take the time to search deeply inside myself to commit to a certain belief. And these are very internal. It’s kind of like an investigator examining oneself in whatever issues that one is exploring. But of course, on the public side, if the work can empower others, then it’s a bonus. And I think that’s what the exhibition is all about.
When did your political awakening happen? What were the causes?
I think it can be traced back to 2011. When the mainland Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was illegally kidnapped by the state. That for me is a wake-up call. If you remember, back in 2011, Ai Wei Wei was trying to investigate the Sichuan earthquake. He found out that like 5000 students were killed due to corruption in the school system. In a normal society, artists like him should be given an award. But instead of an award, he was kidnapped and taken away in secret locations by the state, for telling the truth. That was my wake-up call because I can see a great man like Ai Weiwei can undergo this kind of treatment for telling the truth. And I don’t think anybody will be immune to the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal harassment. Of course, back in 2011, the political situation in Hong Kong wasn’t as bad as it is now. But now I can relate with Ai Weiwei and also, being an artist myself, I can see the gate of freedom is being slammed towards the arts and creative sector. So I started preparing ever since 2011 by studying the news in mainland China, by paying close attention to how the citizens deal with the regime, and as well as the reality behind every word of the mainland Chinese government.
Wong’s experimental art project investigates the space between men and their living environment with a social intention
What is the relationship between art and politics? Is it still possible for a Hong Kong artist to express himself freely?
Well, I don’t think it’s possible anymore for Hong Kong artists to freely express themselves ever since the passing of the national security law in Hong Kong. The National Security Law is not a law, it’s a fake law. That is more like a series of executive directions from Beijing, that is sitting on top of the existing law. And since it is not clearly written, the national security law is like a piece of art, totally open for interpretation by anyone enforcing the laws, including police in the front line, or the judge sitting in the courts. So there’s a lot of abuse being conducted in Hong Kong right now, as you can read from the news. So the red line was established. But it’s flexible. It’s not like a normal law that we’re used to when growing up under the former British colony. Here, with the National Security Law, everything is changed: there are many exceptions, nobody knows where exactly the red lines are. Today, it can be a black t-shirt, yesterday could be a yellow t-shirt. This is why some an analysis is saying that Hong Kong right now is the most dangerous place, more dangerous than Beijing. Because in Beijing, people know where the red line is. If you’re in the media, you know what can’t be talked about and what can’t be mentioned. But in Hong Kong, the authority is falling into this frenzy to play the ultra extremist. So, you know, all these bad movies from the Nazis to the greatest tyrant are being played out right now in Hong Kong. That’s why it’s causing a lot of fear and chaos.
Did you expect such an acceleration from China?
I didn’t, actually, I mean, if I did, I’d be gone. Right? I didn’t, that’s why I stayed and tried to fight back during the whole year of 2019. Because I do see some hope of changing the system. The whole world is watching, they claim to be a big country and if they want to join the worldwide community, they must act in a certain way. But obviously, they didn’t because their true nature was revealed after 2019. Another acceleration of the decay of the system was caused by the final realization that the Chinese government cannot use Hong Kong as a lure for Taiwan to surrender without a fight. The whole one country two systems is like a facade to try to lure Taiwan to surrender themselves. So this is why they suddenly stop pretending and just become themselves.
Being an artist is similar to being a detective, the case on hand is to investigate the self” (Kacey Wong)
What should the international community do to protect the rights of Hong Kong citizens?
Well, I think a lot of other countries, like America, or Britain, are already doing things, punishing those human rights violators, don’t let them get away. I think these are all good because what the government is trying to do here is to try to erase their wrongdoings. The same thing with 1989 June 4, like this year, like last year, we cannot publicly commemorate those who were students and who got shot and ran over by the tanks in 1989. This is the news that just came in: one hour ago, the government sent the hygiene department into the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong. The officers said the museum doesn’t have an entertainment license. All kinds of existing systems have been turned into weapons to crack down on any chance of freedom and democracy movement. Of course, it’s not as bad as what’s going on in mainland China, but it’s getting close.
How are art galleries reacting to these changes?
Art galleries and commercial art galleries are international affairs. Rarely touch upon the local artists’ needs. They’re more like an international supermarket with air conditioning. So the galleries fell under the active assault on the arts, like a month ago, when a series of articles, smearing artists, as well as art organizations, including powerful institutions like the M+, or the Art Development Council were published in the Chinese Communist propaganda newspapers. This was not an editorial choice, but they probably received orders from the top, like, the United Front work. This is a purge on a certain sector of society.
If you run a commercial gallery in Hong Kong, and you’re not particularly interested in political art anyway, and you’re more particularly interested in decoration because that’s where the money is, when you see these kinds of assaults, led by the government, you will be scared and you will think about not only your own curatorial but also your potential clients as well. So it’s spreading self-censorship everywhere as well as white fear because you don’t know, where’s the red line. What if some artists use some black painting? Or a symbol that potentially seems sensitive? It’s free for interpretation. And, and who is who? Who is in charge? Well, the director of the M+ had an answer a while ago. The media RTHK asked a question to the director of the M+ a few weeks ago if the Ai Weiwei photograph of the middle finger violated the national security law. He answered: “Well, the national security people didn’t call us yet. If they do call us, we would love to sit down with them and have a discussion”. It’s ridiculous when art asks the police to decide what it can be shown, and whatnot.
Do ordinary people support local artists?
No, it’s always not that way. That’s happening everywhere, I guess. Because normal people are just normal people. They are busy with the obstacles of everyday life, and they have to deal with their problems. Right now, the ordinary citizens of Hong Kong, actually, a lot of them are considering moving away from Hong Kong. There’s a gigantic exodus of talents and money moving out of Hong Kong to England, because of the British National overseas scheme, because they have no faith anymore in Hong Kong, after years of witnessing this kind of bad governance. They put up a spectacular, strong fight ever since 2014, Umbrella Movement 2019, and it continues to inspire the rest of the world. We all learn from each other. The ordinary people of Hong Kong are devising ways to participate in this campaign for the fight for freedom and democracy, such as the yellow economy, actively going out to support those restaurants that were outspoken in terms of democracy. There are many creative ways to contribute, but in terms of the artists, of course, my political art wasn’t a big seller. In terms of social media, people have empathy for your courage, and I think that’s already good enough.
What’s your next project?
My next project will be a project for June Fourth. I created this project called ‘The Candle light is guilty’. 10 years ago, I collected a bunch of those burned candle sticks melted on top from the annual June fourth candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. I realized an important artifact. Each candle is like a sculpture done one by one by Hong Kong citizens with love, memories, and with a lot of emotions because they watched the candles burn for like two hours. So I collected them. This year, since we cannot gather at Victoria Park anymore because of the government, I decided to donate them. They were put on the Chickeeduck stores, which is a pro-democracy movement, and two of their stores will hand them out for free for people to collect them. The candles have multiple meanings: one meaning is to mourn victims of democracy from 1989 in Beijing, but it also mourns the people of Hong Kong for not being able to mourn publicly anymore. So that’s the significance of it. And that’s because the procession of it might potentially violate the national security law. And certainly, if you lit it up, and if you were caught nearby Victoria Park on the night of June 4 in Hong Kong, I’m sure the police would harass you.
Do you run any risks organizing this event?
Well, it’s all done under the legal constraints of Hong Kong law. I mean, as long as the people keep social distance and wear face masks and not causing a riot, this is still legal. But who knows? It’s not for me to say, right. Yeah, it’s for the authoritarian governments to say who violates the law and who doesn’t. So it’s very sad.
Photos courtesy of Kacey Wong