Hong Kong artists revel in freedom to support Ai Weiwei

Fri May 27, 2011 3:27am EDT
 
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By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Ai Weiwei may be languishing in Chinese detention, but the influence of the prominent artist and social activist has permeated Hong Kong's burgeoning art scene, from glitzy art fairs to edgy street art.

The cavernous halls of the ART HK International art fair straddling the iconic harbor are filled with a blitz of works, from the nature-inspired art of Iceland's Olafur Eliasson to male nude photographs by Zhang Huan.

But tucked inside one of nearly 300 galleries cramming the stark white spaces, a single marble sculpture of a life-sized arm and hand giving an unseen person the middle finger has gained widespread attention for its particular poignancy.

Created by Ai Weiwei in 2007, the "Marble Arm" formed part of a series exploring the defiance of authority in which the bearded and burly artist was photographed giving the finger to centers of political power around the world -- from the Reichstag in Berlin to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the nucleus of Communist Party rule and site of a bloody crackdown in 1989.

"It's important that we still have this discussion (on Ai) ... but I'm not sure whether this will help in the higher levels of the government," said Karin Seiz, with the Galerie Urs Meile, as visitors to her gallery chuckled at Ai's work.

While China's artists have largely been silenced over the plight of Ai, who was detained by authorities in April for evading a "huge amount" of taxes amid a clampdown on dissent, a tenacious and angry band of young artists in Hong Kong have emerged as a major force rallying to Ai's cause.

The city, formerly a British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, was promised a high degree of autonomy as enshrined in its mini-constitution and now sees fervent mass protests, a vibrant, free media and a lively political arena -- a liberal climate the city's artists have seized upon.

"I think Hong Kong is a very special place in Asia, a place where freedom of expression is greatly valued ... so it's a very good place for the full variety of voices to be heard," said Magnus Renfrew, the head of ART HK.   Continued...

 
<p>A man walks past the sculpture titled "Marble Arm" by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei at Hong Kong International Art Fair May 25, 2011. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu</p>