Partly an archive of ephemera, mementos of a time already vanished into history, and partly an investigation of the role of the artist at historical flash points of social and political crisis, Before the Rain at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is also an exploration of present-day shifts in geopolitical currents and tensions in Asia. The exhibition gathers an intergenerational group of artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China to explore moments of change and reaction. Why “Before the Rain”? Curator and 4A director Mikala Tai says that in the humid air of Hong Kong, there is a particular moment when you know the skies are about to open and the deluge will arrive. As with barometric pressure, so too with human systems and political tipping points.
If pink “pussy hats” are the artifacts by which the 2017 Women’s March on Washington will be remembered, what are the objects that signify Hong Kong’s brief moment of revolutionary fervor, the Umbrella Revolution of 2014? The yellow umbrellas used by the protesters to shield themselves from tear gas, and the yellow Post-it notes used in impromptu art installations around the city, come to mind immediately. Not included in Before the Rain, but significant as a comparison, is the work of Hong Kong artist Samson Young. Young’s Stanley (2015) is a large, neon-pink text work that reads, “NOTHING WE DID COULD HAVE SAVED HONG KONG IT WAS ALL WASTED.” This work proclaims the despair felt by many around the globe right now: an unnerving and destabilizing sense that taken-for-granted democratic foundations may be less secure than we assumed. The work of the nine artists in Before the Rain, however, represents a rather different view. They reflect on possibilities of resistance and a sense of exhilaration, albeit at times mixed with sadness.
Images from the Umbrella Movement’s 79 extraordinary days of civil disobedience are unforgettable: the viral smartphone videos of Hong Kong’s streets, the crowds, the barricades, the pepper spray—and perhaps unique to the movement, the spontaneous agit-prop artworks made on Post-it notes, pages torn from school exercise books, sheets of cardboard, and on improvised banners. The ground floor of 4A’s gallery space has been transformed by artist Sampson Wong into Capturing a Hyperevent: Artistic Records of the Umbrella Movement, a visual archive created together with Mikala Tai and other collaborators. The gallery walls are covered by Swing Lam’s maps, Post-it notes, and sketches of the temporary structures established by the protesters, and James Kong’s bird’s-eye time-lapse videos of the protests, made using clandestine cameras hidden around the main locus of the drama. Under a makeshift canopy, visitors can sit and immerse themselves in CCTV and news footage, newspapers, images, blogs, and tweets from the movement.
Two artists in the exhibition present and subvert tools of bureaucratic control. Upstairs, Sarah Lai’s performance and installation, Demarcated Area (2017), is a collection of black barriers that were moved into different formations at regular intervals by stony-faced security guards at the exhibition opening, causing trepidation for visitors who found themselves unsure of how to navigate their way through the space, or or how to respond to the unnerving presence of the guards. These artifacts of crowd control are reminders of the generally compliant nature of citizens, often accepted as completely normal until they are installed in the unfamiliar context of the gallery. Conceptual artist Luke Ching, no stranger to social issues of bureaucratic and political control (he once became a security guard at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and lobbied for chairs for his fellow guards), presents 150 Lost Items (2014), a series of miniature identity cards that feature him with an open mouth, in a deliberate disruption of the serious poses mandatory for passport and identity photographs. In this work, Ching evokes the indignities of border controls and the apparent randomness of fate that determines who is permitted to cross; the piece bears even greater prescience now than when the exhibition was planned and installed, prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration and the subsequent travel ban.
Yuan Goang-Ming’s video The 561st Hour of Occupation (2014) documents the occupation of Taiwan’s legislative chamber by the Sunflower Student Movement. The camera pans across jumbles of bags, posters, drink bottles, and food containers left behind by the departing students. The students themselves have been edited out of the video, and their occupation thus becomes an unsettling absence. Seeing it first in 2015 at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, I found the piece somber, an elegy rather than a celebration. It seemed to suggest that populist uprisings inevitably fail, or, like the Arab Spring, would lead to darker outcomes and the rise of demagogues. Juxtaposed with the other works by the artists here, however, we see that there are important moments when ordinary people refuse to submit to authority.
Before the Rain, with its remnants and traces of a populist uprising, is a message of hope and validation. But for me, at least, there is a shadow presence, seen very obliquely, of Beijing in June 4, 1989. Ellen Pau’s 1990 video work The Diversion is the key to this reading of the show: She presented 1960s archival footage of a mass of swimmers jumping into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor for a swimming race. Lemmings? Or brave souls challenging their very reasonable fear in an impressive display of courage? On the outside of the gallery, a hand-painted banner hangs from the second-story windows. It reads: “You may say I’m a Dreamer, But I’m Not the Only One.”
Before the Rain will be on view through March 19, 2017.
 A series of street protests often called the Umbrella Revolution (雨傘革命), and sometimes also known as “Occupy Central,” took place in Hong Kong from September 26 to December 15, 2014, in response to proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. Protesters saw these reforms as an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to screen candidates. The protests were in large part led by young student activists, and exposed deep rifts in Hong Kong’s society during a time of great tension. Protest art was an integral part of the activism, and has been followed by works by Hong Kong artists that emphasize Hong Kong’s unique history, language, and culture.