Sun Yuan & Peng You: “Hong Kong Intervention” – Art Basel Hong Kong 2013

At first glance, the photographs of various cramped dwellings and subjects’ backs facing the camera appear to be another post-1997 handover statement, one of defiance and opposition to the rapid demographic changes taking place in Hong Kong.

As it turns out, yes, Sun Yuan and Peng You wanted to make a statement on the city’s population, but of another ongoing issue that happened to make major headlines earlier this year.  “Hong Kong Intervention,” shown by the Osage Gallery at Art Basel Hong Kong, actually depicts the stories of 100 Filipino domestic helpers, a small sliver of the more than 300,000 that work in the city.  Neither artist actually took the photos, as the helpers had agreed to be responsible for supplying their own portraits, and the pictures of the spaces that they look after, without their employers’ consent.  A closer look at the dwelling photographs reveal one common item throughout: a toy grenade placed somewhere in the middle of the space, symbolizing an uneasy situation about to erupt.

That collective secrecy brought on a greater meaning when, after a two-year legal battle that included protests in main areas of town, it was ruled on Mar. 25 that domestic helpers – some of whom have lived in Hong Kong for decades – were ineligible to apply for permanent residency.  (The Chinese artists’ work was completed in 2009.)  Without a true identity to call their own, both on paper and in front of the camera, these individuals also technically do not have a home to call their own either.