Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong
Liu Xiaobo was in Hong Kong on Saturday. He sat silent in a frame, on an empty chair, as hundreds of people bent down to him, a sign of reverence, gazing at him imprisoned behind a wall of glass. This photograph is now well-known to much of the world, but this weekend was the first time it was shown, full-size, on Chinese soil. “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” premiered Saturday morning at the City University of Hong Kong, where it will remain for two weeks before moving to the Hong Kong Arts Center. The main organizer of the exhibit is the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), where Liu Xiaobo served as president for four years from 2003 to 2007, and where his wife, the artist Liu Xia, was a founding member. I’ve written before about the haunting images Liu Xia presents in her work. In Hong Kong, though, the silent screams of the Brazilian rag dolls seemed to take on new urgency as 12 ICPC members from the mainland were present to re-absorb them into their own histories, many of which are shared with Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo, both still imprisoned today. Throughout the ceremony, performance artists encouraged people to speak their grievances toward the Chinese government through them, with one artist cutting himself and letting blood drip down his arm before dazed spectators. Another lay nearly naked onstage with his mouth wrapped in tape before throwing his clothes at the audience and encouraging them to throw them back, making him whole again. The participation of everyone is necessary for change, he seemed to suggest. Every detail of the exhibit was uniquely Chinese and very different from the classic opening of the exhibit here in New York in February. Rather than being hung on solid walls, the photos were propped against what appeared as stone, forcing one to bow ever so slightly. The glass shielding each work and the lights above them forced a reflection: instead of a casual observer one became an active participant, inside each frame with Liu Xia and her subjects. What does it feel like to be trapped and bound? The very air, thick with the Hong Kong summer, seemed to seethe with purpose. Why else would people stand in a 100-degree room if not to stand in solidarity with each other, with their silenced friends, and with the dolls in the photos? But as Liu Xia reminds us in her work, we must not let her forced silence be taken as quiet submission. As time goes on, she and her husband slip from the headlines. And yet this most momentous stop of her exhibit’s worldwide tour demands that we not forget her, Liu Xiaobo, and all those who are behind bars or walled in for questioning authority in China. Liu Xiaobo’s gaze off in the distance—forward, perhaps—as he sits on his empty chair, asks us to help create the space that will allow all of China’s citizens to express themselves freely, so that the next time this exhibit is on Chinese soil, it is in Beijing.