The Coronavirus: another means of controlling artistic expression?
Rhian Hutchings explores the ongoing debates surrounding the canceling of Hong Kong Art Basel show in response to the Coronavirus crisis
The narrative surrounding the Art Basel show in Hong Kong has certainly been colourful over the past couple of months. It has now officially been cancelled due to the impending threat of a virus that is thought to have been found in 42,000 people causing more than 1,000 deaths in China. The cancellation of this established event in the art world is certainly not one-dimensional. In the run up to the cancellation many artists and galleries had already considered withdrawing their contributions following demonstrations and unrest relating to the new extradition law in Hong Kong alongside the Corona Virus epidemic. Art at its core is a means of communication and expression, with the increasing public pressure in Hong Kong towards democracy and against censorship many artists feel uncomfortable showcasing art in such a contradictory environment.
The death of the ‘whistle blower’ for example sparked outrage as calls for freedom of speech and the avoidance of an autocratic government increases. The ‘whistle blower’ is the nickname coined for the doctor who alerted the Chinese public to the coronavirus outbreak. He died after his efforts to fight the virus but also before his death had to fight the iron fist of a government who accused him of ‘seriously disrupting social order’ in his attempts to be transparent and honest with the public. It’s thought that more than 300 Chinese people have also been detained and accused of “spreading rumours” for talking about what happened. His death started many twitter hashtag trends that were seen to have disappeared within the space of a few hours further highlighting the power that the Chinese government holds or attempts to hold over its media.
A powerful tweet by Nectar Gan highlighted this feeling of utter despair following the disappearance of the trending hashtag “I want freedom of speech”; “Not allowed to speak. Not allowed to die. Not allowed to be angry. Not allowed to desire.” The feeling of being voiceless also resonates with the public in Hong Kong. A seventh of the population are thought to have been demonstrating in the streets over the past few months with a pro- democracy journalist from the Financial Times taking exile in the United Kingdom having been tortured for speaking out. Simon Cheng echoes the thoughts of many in Hong Kong; “reverting to silence would be to surrender our lives”.
“Not allowed to speak. Not allowed to die. Not allowed to be angry. Not allowed to desire.”
The ongoing repression of people’s voice goes against art and its core values, contributing towards the unease felt by artists who were originally to be involved in Art Basel Hong Kong. There has also been tension however between the art community of Hong Kong and incoming galleries intending to showcase at Art Basel. Many argue that Art Basel plays an integral part in putting art from the Asia-pacific region on the global map. There was a backlash from several members of the art community in Hong Kong following the collective letter written by 24 international art dealers advising that the fair be cancelled. There is a general sentiment amongst gallery owners in Hong Kong that the visiting galleries have adopted the views portrayed by Western media regarding censorship and the Corona virus without considering the effect an art fair of this magnitude has on the art scene in Hong Kong. After the devastating cultural effects and stigma surrounding the ‘Middle East respiratory syndrome’, members of the art community and of society as a whole are undoubtedly afraid of the implications of associating a place with such a virus. Katie de Lilly, the founder of the Hong Kong gallery 10 Chancery Lane, is concerned with the increasing xenophobic feeling felt globally as a result of the virus. Even though the art community stands in solidarity against the repression of speech and expression, there is certainly a divide in opinions about whether Art Basel should have been cancelled this year.
As well as causing global chaos in the world of health and infection control, the Corona virus has seen political implications in the way in which it highlights state attempts to control public sentiment. Galleries in Hong Kong will undoubtedly have a challenge ahead attempting to keep the conversation surrounding art alive in such tumultuous surroundings whilst simultaneously battling stereotypes. Corona Virus is currently an enigma, the danger of the unknown is what causes the most concern. In restricting the public’s voice and minimising collective panic are Chinese authorities succeeding in protecting the population from a fear of the unknown? It is possible that many in Hong Kong take the view that as well as the impending threat on the health of the population, the virus will become another instrument implemented by the CPC (Communist Party of China) in maintaining their tight grip on power and authority. The cancellation of Art Basel therefore is a mere microcosm of a much larger scale crisis. Art holds at its core freedom and liberty, is the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong the first domino to topple in the battle against state censorship?