At the LeRoy Neiman Center in early March, a small group of students huddled at the entrance to the SITE Galleries exhibition. The gallery space was a sight to behold — the entrance to SITE Galleries’ Be Water: 和你 Flow, featuring the work of six artists from Hong Kong on their experiences with the region’s political unrest, had been plastered with essays, pamphlets and posters passionately responding to the content of the exhibition.
A letter posted to the space’s Lennon Wall expressed worry that the show was using a political situation for attention, rather than showing genuine concern for Hong Kong. Multicolored sticky notes posted haphazardly across the wall displayed contrasting messages: “We support freedom of speech,” one said, “but it should not be one-sided! We need voices from mainland China in this exhibition!” Another one placed just a few inches away read in capital letters, “Taiwan stands with Hong Kong!”
An anonymous party even sent an email to SITE Galleries calling for the termination of the exhibition, threatening protest and legal action. The same email could be found printed and posted on the wall, marked up with subsequent criticism. A series of pink sticky notes above it read in English: “If you’re trying to censor this exhibition, then you are doing exactly what the Chinese government is doing.” Beneath it reads, in Chinese, “多質疑, 多問, 多了解.” Question more, ask more, understand more.
For a community that is 33% international students — many of whom identify as Chinese — the Hong Kong protests are a sensitive topic. The movement draws attention to Hong Kong’s complex identity as a British colony that was returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. As a result of these conditions, Hong Kong has some autonomy compared to other regions of mainland China, and its citizens have more individual rights. However, in June 2019, the Chinese government proposed a bill that would allow criminal suspects detained in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances. Hongkongers, concerned that such a bill would allow for the mistreatment of citizens and trials, initiated a series of protests in response to the proposal. Even after the bill was suspended protests continued, with motivations growing to encompass other issues, including fears that mainland China would continue to expand its influence over Hong Kong. The chaos, violence, and police brutality associated with the movement quickly attracted international attention, broadcasting the Hong Kong protests across the globe.
The collaborators behind Be Water: 和你 Flow chose to censor their names, as a commentary on how the Chinese government uses censorship against its people. One artist painstakingly produced numerous woven copies of a newspaper covering the protests, the last memento they took from Hong Kong before returning to Chicago. At the back of the gallery space, an audio-visual piece surrounded by black curtains compiled footage from Facebook Live, recreating the sensory chaos of witnessing the protests. By the window, a crumpled blanket turned sculpture lay covered in oil paint, a comfort object from home transformed by the artist’s turmoil over the movement in Hong Kong.
The exhibition also featured interactive elements. In addition to the Lennon Wall, where many students reacted to the show, a large timeline marked the political history of Hong Kong, leading up to the present-day protests. Tape, paper, and pens were set aside as invitations for visitors to make their own posts, resulting in a complex map of the international human rights movement. Additions include the ratification of the United States’ 13th Amendment, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even the timeline is not exempt from debate, however, as one addition that read, “Hong Kong is always a part of China” was replaced by another paper reading: “Some mainland students sent an email trying to censor this show. We don’t censor here!”
One of the most common criticisms of Be Water: 和你 Flow by students was that it was biased in favor of the Hong Kong protestors. A number of students expressed a desire to see the perspectives of people from mainland China as well, to avoid supporting a “one-sided truth.” In an interview, the show’s curator, Caroline Ng, whose family is from Hong Kong, clarified that the purpose of Be Water: 和你 Flow was not to take sides, but to showcase the experiences of a group of artists whose lives are directly affected by the protests. In this sense, including perspectives from mainland China would take away from the purpose of the exhibition.
“Hong Kong has never had many opportunities to speak,” she explained. “Our identity is currently one that doesn’t allow us any agency — the fact that protesters are disrupting the order and civility of Hong Kong’s society to draw attention to that means a lot … . It’s hurtful that some would assume we chose this kind of exhibition for notoriety, just because politics are involved.”
Some students also expressed concerns about how the show might affect the international image of China, as the show draws attention to a conflict between Eastern and Western ideals. Others worried about the divide that might form between Chinese students as a result of the discourse. A second year from Sichuan says, “I don’t blame any of the artists because they have their points of view. But there is more tension between mainland students once we know we are holding different political opinions.”
A student from Chongqing stated that she had trouble finding a resolution to this tension that didn’t result in dissent within SAIC’s Chinese community. Another student, from Changsha, preferred the debate be silenced to avoid further provoking the student body.
“Both students from mainland China and outside of it love their countries,” she emphasized. “While we are free to express our thoughts, I don’t think students should take this as an opportunity to make biased opinions.”
Ng clarified that the intention of the show wasn’t to promote anti-Chinese sentiment. It was an attempt, instead, to advocate for transnational solidarity, as Hong Kong is a product of both British imperialism and Chinese cultural influence. Such concerns bring up interesting points: How do we navigate politically charged conversation as a community? Is collateral pain unavoidable when discussing a topic as complex as the Hong Kong protests? Is such a situation worth approaching if it creates a divide in the student body?
Students and community groups alike proposed a number of potential options to further the conversation; SITE Galleries announced plans for a public discussion on the exhibition, with a portion dedicated to Q&A to give the audience a chance to speak. A group of students also expressed a desire to curate another exhibition, titled As Fire (似火), to show other perspectives than those in 和你 Flow. The excitement surrounding the show generated a learning opportunity for those attending SAIC, and while we continue to interrogate the idea of a multifaceted “truth,” it is with hope that the community moves to address this situation.