Hong Kong artist/researcher wen yau presented her installation and performance, both titled Wir sind das Volk! (homage to all peaceful revolutionaries), as part of the exhibition ‘The Ends of Freedom’ at Halle 14, Leipzig, Germany from 7 September to 7 December 2019. wen yau completed her PhD with an auto-ethnography on the Umbrella Movement (2014) and performative practices in Hong Kong art and activism. Her continuous engagement in the protests in Hong Kong leads to her reflection upon the romanticism of a peaceful revolution as well as the individuality and collectiveness in civil struggles.
The current protests in Hong Kong have shocked the world, as thousands of people have been persistently protesting for more than five months against the amended bills of extradition to mainland China. Protests then turned to focus on universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the Police’s abuse of power as well as the issues of misgovernment and structural violence.
wen yau discovered in the news a banner with the words ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ from the 1989 protest in Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. This coincides with the recent leaderless protests in Hong Kong voicing: ‘We are the People!’ The installation she conducted for the exhibition ‘The Ends of Freedom’ (until December 7, 2019) gathers current posters, flyers and videos that wen yau has collected from artists, friends and other protesters in the protests in Hong Kong since June 2019. It is a picture of the resilient and versatile spirit of resistance, which documents Hong Kong protests. Remembering the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989, as well as other serial uprisings in different parts of the world, wen yau staged a performance in the exhibition space in Leipzig on November 7, 2019. The performance was a tribute to peaceful revolutionaries, but also an introspective portrait of the dialectics of militancy and non-violence in revolutions that drew on the emotions and desires wen yau experienced herself during her participation in social movements.
For documentation of this performance, please visit:
30 years. Peaceful. Revolution. 30 Jahre Friedliche Revolution.
The festive celebration in Berlin on 9 November 2019 made the fall of the wall 30 years earlier the focus of attention, while I was walking quietly down the street in Leipzig on the same Sunday morning. ‘Is there celebration of the fall of Berlin Wall in the city?’ This was probably the most stupid question I asked at the Tourist Information counter in Leipzig. The puzzled receptionist checked the city guide and the event calendar carefully, ‘You’d better go to Berlin for the celebration events.’
Revolution was commemorated where the political change had happened. Leipzig, where the Monday Demonstrations took a leading role in the protests for freedom in East Germany and beyond, has its own date to commemorate with its Festival of Lights in recent years: 9 October 1989, the date when masses of people marched in the city, which led to the fall of Berlin Wall, a symbolic moment ending the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) regime.
I am blind-folded, searching with a strobe light in the dark in the midst of the rumbling sound of helicopters. ‘Wir sind das Volk! Wir sind das Volk! Wir sind das Volk…’ People were chanting this slogan again and again fanatically in the street in 1989. We are the people. People are holding candles in their hands, just like people taking to the street after the Prayers for Peace in St. Nicholas Church. ‘反送中，反惡法’ (No extradition law, no evil law), ‘沒有暴徒，只有暴政’ (There is no rioter but tyranny), ‘五大訴求，缺一不可’ (Five demands, no one less), ‘光復香港，時代革命’ (Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of the time), ‘解散警隊，刻不容緩’ (Disband the Police immediately) I whisper in people’s ears. ‘Nein!’ People were saying ‘No’ loudly to oppression. ‘Nein!’ I am staring at those people standing still with candles in their hands, tearing apart flyers they hold, and covering their eyes, ears, nose, etc. with fancy tapes.
What does ‘freedom’ mean to the people who have enjoyed it without question? Who needs a peaceful revolution when people are living in peace?
Leipzig is called a ‘City of heroes’ (Stadt der Helden) after the 1989 peaceful revolution. St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirch) is a landmark for its Prayers for Peace that have been held every Monday since 1982. People started to gather in the square near the church demonstrating for freedom and civil rights after the prayers on 4 September 1989. The size of protest grew from about 1,000 people in September to 20,000 on 9 October, and then 70,000. The church is said to have played a crucial role in the revolution by giving people a rare platform for free expression in the DDR regime. Pastor suggested that the people carry candles in their protest to promote peaceful revolution.
I was sitting in St. Nicholas Church on 4 November 2019 after a long flight from Hong Kong, a city where people have been fighting for freedom and against authoritarianism for months. Some Leipzigers were there as usual at 5pm. Pastor and others were speaking about the struggles around the world and praying. Organ music and singing followed. I could hardly pick up a word from their speeches in German or songs performed one after another. I was in some sense exiled, yet my heart was still with my hometown; I knew. I prayed, as if I were religious, as if there were a saviour who could save me and my fellows from hell. The anxiety of not being listened, the effervescence of collectivity, the fear of intimidation and reprisal, the anger at injustice and inequality, the precariousness of life, etc all mixed in my mind these days. We listened, we sang, we stood up, we prayed. Then we left the church one after another. We went our separate ways in the wintry darkness. Did people still remember the struggles against oppression as well as rapture over freedom from 30 years ago? How do we make sense of a so-called peaceful revolution that overthrew a regime and embraced another government for unification? How much does a revolution cost? With whom the notion of peace is reasoned?
I am marching and strenuously waving two small flags of Hong Kong and People’s Republic of China. The audience probably does not know what these flags stand for and that they are intriguingly inverted. The stillness of the audience casts shadows on the projected documentary of police brutality that currently happens in Hong Kong. I stare at these silent faces resentfully. ‘Möge der Ruhm Hongkong gehören!‘ a soprano sings spiritedly the German version of ‘願榮光歸香港’ (Glory to Hong Kong), the anthem of the protests in my city. ‘Wir bitten Sie dringend um Besonnenheit, damit der friedliche Dialog möglich wird,’ spoke conductor Kurt Masur, one of ‘Die Leipziger Sechs’ (The Leipzig Six) who collectively appealed to everybody in the city via the government’s city radio to remain calm and peaceful on 9 October 1989. Organ music from the Prayers for Peace at Nikolaikirch reminds us the turmoil of the present. I wave a large black flag even more strenuously, and then get blindfolded by it. I sing loud a capella, ‘願榮光歸香港’; I mime to belt out a protest slogan with tears rolling down my face. The light goes out with solemnity and tension in the air.
What does a ‘peaceful revolution’ mean? How can we resist the authoritarian persecution and brutality? Who wants the peace most? Who are we when we chant ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the People), and who are we not? What binds us together as ‘the People’?
Performance has a magic capability to weave the past and the future in an immediate time-space; it may also numb us with a sense of liminality and anaesthetize our alertness. In the post-performance talk, a member of the audience asked, ‘I was stunned by your cruelty to us — why did you blind us, deafen us and even tie us up like an authoritarian?’ ‘I was stunned by the conformity of the audience too,’ I responded wryly, ‘Why didn’t you resist? To what extent have we taken freedom for granted?’ My retort might sound rude yet it is accurate, as I have come from a city of political turbulence, and I had just re-presented such struggles in my performance. Can anyone guarantee that the freedom the people gained 30 years ago is going to last forever? We were all lost for words.
For me, and some younger audience members who have no personal memory of the 1989 protests in Leipzig, the peaceful revolution 30 years ago sounds like a legend and even a myth. What’s in my mind are the troops and bloodshed in Beijing on the other side of the world that year. The fall of Berlin Wall that separated the nation is celebrated at the cost of the passing of a regime. It might be the people taking to street, or any domestic or international politics that brought down the DDR regime. The notion of peaceful revolution remains paradoxical as we celebrate only the victory but not the failure or fear of failure to maintain power. ‘30 Jahre Friedliche Revolution’ sounds like a spell cast on the revolutionaries who will overthrow a regime again one day. It is make-believe. It is a speech act that performs a promise of conflict resolution and stability maintenance, just like the messages by Die Leipziger Sechs being manipulated by the government to pacify the outrageous masses taking to the street.
Reality bites. A day after I returned home from Leipzig, the police started raiding university campuses one after another in the name of law enforcement. In a single night, a thousand canisters of teargas were fired in the university. A week later, the police besieged another campus and indiscriminately arrested protesters, students, social workers, reporters, first-aiders and others on site. A peaceful revolution appears to be denied – it is distant both from the city and from the present. We are the people. Glory to Hong Kong. The unspoken slogan that I chanted in my performance comes to my mind from time to time. I would rather keep them in my heart unspoken, as if it were real life rather than a wish, a spell, a promise, or make-believe.
As a cross-media artist, researcher, curator and writer, wen yau has concentrated on performance/live art and social practices in the last few years. Her works often grapple with cultural difference and intimacy in public space. Her work has been shown in Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China (Beijing, Chengdu, Xi’an & Guangzhou), Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Burma, USA, Sweden, Finland, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Slovakia, New Zealand, Bolivia, etc. She is also actively engaged in various creative and arts educational projects and curated various research-based projects. She completed her PhD thesis at the Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University about autoethnography of performative practices in post-Handover Hong Kong art and activism. In 2015-2016, she served as Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Performance Studies Department at the Northwestern University, USA. wenyau.net