In late September, I walked the tension-filled streets of Hong Kong Students had taken to the streets in pro-democratic protests and were met with riot police. I was ready for the heightened emotions: fury in eyes of the youth and the anonymous authority of armored men in storm trooper helmets with guns and batons, but there was none of that. Instead, the streets were devoid of people and full of umbrellas, hopeful paper umbrellas hung from signs and escalators, charismatic posters of umbrellas and slogans flapping in the wind. No one told me the civil unrest had taken a name, become a revolution and was now digitally branded.
The pollution mask is a reference to Beijing’s pollution problems. Another reference, #occupycentral, replaced the #occupywallstreet movement with Hong Kong’s Central, home to the largest protest site.
Although there was no physical warzone here, something else was happening. A symbol was coming into being and the Umbrella Revolution took on form. When riot police attempted to disperse the crowds with tear gas and pepper spray, citizens opened up their umbrellas to block the onslaught. The image stuck. At midnight of September 28th, approximately 720 tweets were sent each minute spreading the news around the globe. While the streets seemed empty, cyberspace bustled with pictures and posters telling the world about the protests in Hong Kong. In three days alone, 1.3 million tweets were published discussing the protests and communicating its imagery. The umbrella became a symbol at the hands of a generation more capable than any other at casting, molding and spreading an image with a message.
The umbrella art that has been subsequently produced is modern, distinct and enchanting. The iconography of the umbrella is playful – formally a symbol of politically weak, toothless government establishments, now transformed into a beacon of popular solidarity among citizens and the basic and unanswerable grounds for democratic rights. It is beautifully everyday, the umbrella: universal to the diverse cultures in Hong Kong. The graphic art that blossomed in multitudes is clean, vibrant, full of yellows and reds and wrought with icons. The statues and fixtures occupying the streets of Central Hong Kong photograph beautifully. The images are grand and moody with low angles and liberal use of Instagram’s array of filters.
The naïve aesthetic and ironic motives are reminiscent of the Pop Art of America’s 1950s and 60s. But what’s changed?
Now the tools available to develop quality graphic art and photography lie in the hands of millions. Social media, in turn, has provided a safe and secure forum to distribute these images. In 1989, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to disperse protesters, a handful of photographers were on sight. One single image spread across the world and changed the face of the movement. Today, everyone’s a photographer. China’s Internet blocked access to Instagram in an effort to prevent the fast and effective spread of these political images. Even as the Chinese government employed some of the most sophisticated cyber-control methods in the world, they clumsily managed to slow but not stop the news from reaching the mainland.
While forcing the issue, the members of the Umbrella Revolution, mostly students, are cunningly tongue-in-cheek. Many of the slogans printed on Umbrella Art posters play on words and altered meanings. Hong Kong’s Cantonese and Bejing’s Mandarin are two distinct languages that share a written system. The artists capitalized on this to create witty double-entendres and puns. This form of word play is particularly potent in Chinese cultures, which often employ well-known sayings, stories and truisms in common speech.
The Chinese government established and enforces one standardized official dialect of Mandarin, Putonghua. The hundreds of linguistic variations over several diverse cultural and ethnic groups are deemed as insignificant, dated structures that are on the way out. Hong Kong’s native Cantonese is one of these ignored dialects. Some dissidents contend that the government’s push towards eliminating linguistic diversity amounts to an effort to mitigate the citizen’s ability to produce political speech.
The ironic art of the Umbrella Revolution holds its own lesson. As the world becomes more digitally intertwined, the barriers of public space mutate and fade. Physical measures of distance and locality lose significance. Verbal and artistic properties of symbolism, subject matter and viewpoint become the borders of the conversation. When interviewed about the role of Umbrella Art in the protests, artist Wen Yau responded, ‘Hong Kong lacks public space, which suppresses our imagination. When the rules that bind your actions are suddenly lifted, you are given the freedom to redefine everything.’