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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.
Anonymous graffiti artists have spray-painted Ai's face and freedom slogans across the city and thousands have marched and performed street art in carnival-like gatherings, providing a stark contrast to the silence of mainland China artists.
"There's a new fear I could feel that's going on in Beijing," said Katie De Tilly, a gallerist who organized a Hong Kong exhibition of stark, censored works by noted Chinese artists, including photos of sex on the Great Wall, a montage of banknotes perverting a patriotic slogan of Chairman Mao Zedong, and "To fight with crossed arms," a quartet of images of Ai holding a brick.
"Artists are whispering the name Ai Weiwei but at the same time wanting to talk about it," said de Tilly, who also runs the 10, Chancery Lane Gallery beside a colonial-era prison.
In a cluster of industrial buildings to the east of Hong Kong island, looking onto a dock at the mouth of Victoria Harbour, more artists have flocked to Ai's cause, pushing the bounds of tolerance from Beijing, which has pressured Hong Kong since the handover
"It (Hong Kong's arts community) has always been very politically active, through performance, through action," said Valerie Portefaix, a Hong Kong-based French architect and cross media artist who is a longtime collaborator with Ai.
"We have something to say that is so much between different time zones, creating something very unique here with the living condition, the urban landscape, the port, the light." added Portefaix, who is hosting an exhibition inspired by the injustice of Ai's arrest.
Close associates of Ai's, including Huang Rui, a respected pioneer of China's contemporary art movement that germinated after the Cultural Revolution in 1979, have also flown into Hong Kong for this week's proliferation of arts events.
In a room with an eclectic assemblage of work from nearly 50 Hong Kong artists and poets, including a wall of faces tattooed with Ai's name beneath a sculpture of fluorescent tubes spelling the word "Free-doom," some brushed off the risks of incurring China's wrath.
"Of course, that fear is always looming above the head," said Kacey Wong, the curator of the Love the Future display.
"You can't escape it. But like Ai Weiwei once said if you don't do anything, the fear and the consequences could be even worse," Wong added. "Hong Kong could become mainland China and this is not what we want to see."
(Editing by Elaine Lies)
This story was corrected in the first paragraph to make clear that Ai Weiwei is in detention, not in prison