Throughout history, Agitprop has been used to great effect, but the uneasy alliance between art and politics can fall back into overarching simplicity, reducing the most complex of social issues to a “sound bite” or slogan.
Slogans do have their place, and might be compared to poetry, but ultimately poetry’s aesthetic inclinations are unfettered. Poetry embodies too wide a scope of thought to settle for crude assertions.
And so, also throughout history, we find that “art” is placed at the service of politics, its individual or eccentric ambitions corralled into the more practical (and boring) aspects of advertising, directed at and for the masses.
On the other hand, we now have a whole tradition of something called “artistic intervention”, where art flips the equation. Art can be aligned with progressive causes, but this “intervention” refuses a complete relinquishing of creative discourse.
It maintains its ability to parody or even question its own followers, to embed self-criticism into its very aesthetic; or at least to have fun, to go for the tongue-in-cheek rather than the overly strident.
Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong has been appearing at the city’s political events for many years in his role as an individual artist; it might even be said that he conducted an artistic residency at the Admiralty Occupation in Fall 2014.
His appearances, or his artistic entities, are non-aligned, autonomous productions that clearly come under the banner of individual initiative but still maintain their political sympathies. In effect, Kacey’s work at these events offers a cool glass of water to an audience steeped in the overheated ambience of politics.
Sometimes these productions are grand, as when he appeared in a full-scale pink tank at the annual July 1st march, garbed as some kind of weird general who tossed (fake) money (“cultural capital”) to the crowd, an action that at once critiqued military power and the penetration of mainland capital into Hong Kong schools and cultural institutions.
At other times Kacey’s efforts are modest, such as when he appeared at the 2014 Admiralty pro-democracy camp as a de facto greeter at an “Art Study Station”. This station included two chairs and signs that suggested topics of discussion, topics that introduced seemingly tangential but vital subjects into the occupation’s discourse.
Spontaneous discussions were an integral part of the occupation, one of its tangible but often sidelined outcomes. People did want to talk and by creating a formal space for discussion Kacey allowed peoples’ minds to wander, to go beyond the topic at hand.
Kacey’s artistic practice also encompasses other concerns that demonstrate that he too lets his mind wander when confronted with the relative livability of urban space, or how any given environment can maintain its “sustainability”.
Trained as an architect, Kacey has turned that skill towards the creation of various self-contained mobile forms of housing and pseudo storefronts. These include an absurdist bed on wheels (Sleepwalker 2011 – a two level metal bunk bed with a tricycle chassis) which upends the private to public and thus not only considers Hong Kong’s relentless insomnia but the unrealized experiences of an entire population of Hong Kong dreamers.
Other more practical mobile structures consist of “Wandering Homes” (2008 and 2014) and a “Wandering Space/Camper Tricycle” (2015), relatively easy-to-construct basic housing (powered by a pedalling human) that provides us with a fantasy of the simple life and a reminder of the problems of homelessness.
Kacey was nice enough to answer a few questions for the purposes of this article.
Q: Was your artistic practice always concerned with social/political issues?
Kacey: When I first started out my work always related to ‘poetic reflection on space’ due to my training as in architecture. My work touched on topics such as housing, homelessness, and living. Naturally that would cover politics since no one can escape from its influence. In retrospect I suppose my inspiration comes from humanity rather than just architecture . . . just trying to make the world a better place, bit by bit.
Q: What influence do you think your “art/performances” have on events like the annual July 1st March in Hong Kong?
Kacey: I am always interested in pushing the boundary of art, and curious about what, where, and how it can exist. I guess I was always a rebel without a cause. I want my art to serve a higher purpose and I am dissatisfied just showing my work in galleries, art fairs, etc. So when political injustice heated up in Hong Kong, starting with the mainland Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s detention back in 2011, I had a brainstorm.
Artists always complain about not having enough space to display their works or not enough audience. In political rallies the streets are wide and there are literally tens of thousands of people, so I combine art and politics and take it to the street, fight for what I believe in and create some art at the same time.
Another thought is to simplify my life. Instead of separating art and political activism like some of my artist friends, I combine them instead, which minimizes a lot of contradictions.
I genuinely feel my life is more complete this way. I have also been a wargames coach for 20 years, and going to a political rally is kind of like being in a war, so I can understand why some of my artist friends don’t enjoy it at all.
Q: What artists or artistic practices (or artistic theories) inspire you?
Kacey: I was influenced by Joseph Cornell’s box work and Joseph Beuys’ concepts on art and society. But Ai Weiwei’s social activism work really inspired me, how he transformed himself and social media into an art medium.
His investigative works on the earthquake victims in China opened my eyes to how art can be a powerful weapon, bringing out awareness of injustice and as a form of resistance to the corruption of the Chinese Communist Party.
Q: During your lifetime, what changes have you noticed in the Hong Kong public’s attitude towards contemporary or modern art?
Kacey: One of the major shifts in Hong Kong contemporary art is the occurrence of art fairs. It used to be you had to go to a gallery opening to get in touch with the scene but now I hear from gallery owners that their clients have stopped going to openings, and instead just stop by the fair for one-stop shopping.
As you know art fairs are like street markets with air conditioning, so it is the worst possible space for intellectual reflection and dialogue. More and more art schools and art students and big money get dumped into the construction of mega size art institutions but unfortunately the results do not have a significant cultural impact.
Some view these art fairs as a form of entertainment and most of the public sees a big gap between their life and contemporary or modern art. This view hasn’t changed in my lifetime.
Q: In other interviews you touched on discussions you have had with pro-establishment types (such as during your “Art Study Station” at Admiralty 2014)… what were those arguments about or (more pertinently) what is your strategy when arguing with an opponent?
Kacey: I will usually try to understand both sides and their intentions by researching a person’s background. Once you understand the personality or the motive then you can understand why a person would make such a seemingly unreasonable statement.
For example, an architect and art collector outwardly spoke about the anti-occupation movement because he might have strong business ties with mainland China. The thought of losing all his architectural design jobs from the mainland overnight looms over his head.
Under this circumstance self-censorship is the only way to go. There is a saying: “You can never wake up somebody who is pretending that they are sleeping.” So I don’t. Instead I focus all my energy on those people who are still willing to listen, changing the world one person at a time.
Q: Why do you persist with this kind of artistic/political activity?
Kacey: I do what I do to expand the possibility of art and also try to save myself and the city that I love so much. I am afraid if I don’t do anything and pretend everything is still OK the consequence will be even worse.
Resistance work should be done before a full-blown occupation happens. What is full-blown occupation? Look at mainland China. Regarding ‘persistence’, my favorite quote from the Umbrella Movement is: “It is not that one sees hope and then becomes persistent; it is because of the persistence that there is hope.”
We are in the middle of a culture war; most didn’t recognize it but this is how I see it. If we win, we get to keep our language, our identity, and our ways of living. Isn’t that worth fighting for?