The Artist and the World around Them

Justin Leung

The Artist and the World around Them

“Art a the mirror of society” or one might hear things like “the artist is an interpreter of reality”. In all the arts this prevailing theme goes on… one might ask why is art like this? When did even people start calling pieces of human creation as “art”? Calling on the historian might help but I want to share my story about how I found my art in this beautiful, strange, and ephemeral world.

I am Justin and I am a singer-songwriter from Hong Kong. During the 2019 democracy movement in Hong Kong often called as the Anti-extradition Bill protests or the “Be Water Movement”, series of awakenings have emerged for Hong Kongers against the tyranny of the central Chinese Government, especially for the artists and creatives who have been a big part of the movement. It has often been said that the Three underlying ideologies of this movement are:

不割蓆 : No Separation  不分化 : No differentiation  不篤灰 : No betrayal 

In full, that means everybody will not betrayal each other, and will support each other when one is in need of help, while also maintaining the mindset that everybody is equally important, from the frontline protester, to the peaceful protester, to the self-initiated publishers spreading news of the movement… As an artist in this situation, I found myself helpless because often in times of crisis utility is placed as the foremost priority, making music, painting, does not help the injured person who has their life threatened, and the government is too ignorant to hear us. 

Artists started doing poster designs and ideological art that bloomed during the period, and the Lennon walls in subways were often the places of happening/exhibition for these applied artworks, the Lennon walls in fact have evolved into a symbol of the movement, because words played a big role to spread ideas and vital information.


Musicians associated with the local hip-hop scene like LMF and Young Hysan have started to take a stance in this, and produced music that directly informs the atrocity of the police and government, Often times explicitly stating their ideas about the movement, which is one of the first things that made me want to say something musically about this movement. 

Firstly I could not write anything like that.. If I did it would be like a countryman trying to talk about state politics. Instead what I was inspired by Bob Dylan’s speech-like writing, combined with the mellow vibe of Daniel Caesar’s “ Best Part” to write a song that summed up my impression of Hong Kong. Looking back at my memories of Hong Kong when I was a child and as a part of the unique culture, To the things about the neon lights, to the way that everybody has an almost eternal struggle LMF, HK based Hip-Hop group of buying property, to that way the city having an education system that is crazily difficult. Its all reflected in this movement.. The Hopelessness in the young generation being ridiculed by their parents because they protest and be so hot-blooded about the movement, Its like a puzzle that goes full circle and completes beautifully to complete the picture of Hong Kong, I called this tune

Since then I found that from sitting on the minibus reading the news about the movement and hearing a kid whining because he didn’t get his sweets, that the democracy that we want is just as hard as the kid wanting his sweets; things in this world are not that different, in fact it is so beautifully unified. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra of Buddhist Mahayana teaching, we can find this passage:


This body itself is emptiness  and emptiness itself is body.

This body is not other than emptiness And emptiness is not other than body.

The same is true of feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. 

Often mistaken as saying that everything is nothingness, rather it is saying that everything, feelings, perceptions etc.. is empty of a separate existence; everything is “inter-being”. This I can say is the essence of the movement, the essence of art, and maybe of everything. That the world “feeds” stuff into the artist and the artist uses this stuff to create art, is saying that the art is separate, alien to its source, but rather, the source, a the artist, the artwork and everything is connected… they need each other, just as a child needs its mother and the mother needs its child. Hence by the oneness of people created by this movement to the point where every protest almost feels like a big piece of performance art really shows the idea of art not as a mirror of society, but as society itself. Art is not separate of reality, and reality is not separate of art. Ai Wei Wei, who has been an artist/activist in opposition to the Chinese government since the 90s has said that: “The practice of photography is no longer a means for recording reality. Instead, it has become reality itself”, once one realises everything is not so much separate, art and medium blends together into a continuum of reality.

The most frightening or beautiful thing is that there seems to be no boundary between art and non-art, narrative and non-narrative, when a person shouts out a slogan at 10pm out of their apartment window, when a person draws a Pepe frog on the Lennon wall, when a person folds a paper crane for the blessings of the protesters who died in the movement.. everything is so beautifully intertwined. Coming back to the start, the artist is the layman, and the layman is the artist, just as there is universal in the particular. And particular in the universal. This way art is not a thing the artist does but breathes, that’s how art manifested itself in my life.

Images: 1. Lennon Wall in Mong Kok (Source: Justin Leung) 2. Exhibition of Poster art about the movement organised by locals (Source: Stand News) 3. LMF, HK based Hip-Hop group (Source: SCMP) 4. Young Hysan’s post featuring the black bauhinian flag symbol “Wonton Tattoo”, a statement of the hidden cultures of Hong Kong (Source: Instagram @younghysan) 5. The Black bauhinian flag, a symbol used by protesters as a sign of HK’s situation (Source: Yahoo Post Singapore)