The flashy traveling art festival Art Basel that ended in Hong Kong last week served as a high-profile showcase for the work of Lee Wen, an artist from Singapore. But Wen's gallery debut was marred by violence when the artist was reportedly attacked.
Lee was hospitalized after a "suspected assault" following his participation in a lecture at City University of Hong Kong, according to The Business Times. Lee went to the restroom following the lecture, and woke up a half an hour later with injuries to his head and face, The Business Times reported.
— The Straits Times (@STcom) May 17, 2014
The artist was rushed to the hospital and was discharged Sunday, according to the South China Morning Post. Local news sources reported that Hong Kong police are investigating the incident.
A representative for Art Basel told HuffPost, ''We were shocked to hear what happened to Lee Wen. We have been in touch with him through his gallery, and are relieved to hear that he is recovering. We continue to monitor the situation. As far as we know, it is still unclear who injured him. If it was motivated by his speech, then this goes against Hong Kong's long embrace of freedom of speech, expression and assembly."
Hong Kong's central police station did not immediately return requests for comment.
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According to witnesses who attended the lecture, Lee posed a question about the value of art when the government is in control, and spoke out about the Chinese government's arrest of Chen Guang, an artist who was a soldier at Tiananmen Square during the government's violent crackdown on protestors on June 4, 1989. Though a museum dedicated to remembrance of the massacre opened in Hong Kong this year, the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators that left hundreds of students dead remains a taboo topic in mainland China.
With the 25-year anniversary approaching, the Chinese government has effectively muzzled those who would speak out. A number of activists and artists have been detained or arrested, and several have disappeared. Last month, participants in a talk about the anniversary were promptly arrested by Chinese authorities. Among them was one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers. Around the same time, The New York Times reported that Chen, the artist mentioned by Lee at the university, staged and performed an art piece commemorating Tiananmen. He was arrested shortly afterward.
Lee is perhaps best known for his identity-driven "Yellow Man" series, and he was pegged to be one of the standouts at this year’s Art Basel. In 2005, he was awarded Singapore’s highest artistic recognition, known as a Cultural Medallion. But he has never previously been represented by a gallery, and Art Basel Hong Kong, a gallery associated with the festival -- where he enjoyed “strong sales,” according to The Business Times -- provided a grand platform for his gallery debut.
— Stephanie Ip (@stephipster) May 18, 2014
Lee has said that he continues to be confused about what happened in the university restroom because he does not remember the incident. One theory is that he simply fainted and fell. Lee suffers from both Parkinson’s and scoliosis, and takes more than a dozen pills a day for the conditions. But The Business Times noted that Lee has never suffered such a reaction before. Photographs of his battered face circulating online show golf-ball sized bumps and other injuries that look too scattershot to have been caused by a fall.
Several sources have quoted a Facebook post believed to have been written by Lee that is not publicly viewable, reporting that the artist is not pursuing the suspected attack.
— Hong Wrong Blog (@hongwrongblog) May 19, 2014
Since the incident this past weekend, Lee also doesn't appear to have mentioned Chen Guang, the artist he referenced at City University. Chen was arrested by the Chinese government in April.
A Beijing-area artist, and “a bit of a provocateur,” as The New York Times once put it, Chen has built his oeuvre around the emotional scars he suffered as a teenage soldier at Tiananmen. One recurring motif is of human hair, inspired by a sheared-off ponytail he saw in the wreckage, which he says continues to haunt him.
The day before his arrest in April, Chen texted a New York Times reporter to say that “domestic security agents had been calling his cellphone ... nonstop,” according to the Times. His offense seems to have been a performance staged in his home for friends, recounting the massacre in which he played a part.
After Chen’s arrest, one of the attendees of the performance gave the Times a stirring review of the piece, which involved Chen whitewashing painted numbers that stood for each year since the protest.
“People want to remember what happened on June 4, but they can’t do it in public spaces,” the friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Times. “Now apparently you can’t even remember in private.”
This article has been updated with comment from Art Basel.