If you were in central London on Friday, you may have been wondering why there was a hooded and shackled man being paraded through the streets on a horse and cart dragging another man beneath its wheels. We certainly were, so we sent Rosalind to find out.
It was Habeas Corpus, the work of Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang, who accompanied his carriage from the Tower of London to the Chinese embassy on Portland Place. The parade coincided with the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, which was this year given to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
The horses with their ostrich plumes and the cloaked coachman drew attention and smiles. From the front it looked impressively traditional, even festive, but it became disturbing as the carriage moved past, revealing the hooded prisoner and the convincing dummy lashed to the back, dressed in the traditional clothing of emperors, his legs dragging in the street.
At the Tower, eager tourists approached the carriage with their cameras, intending to pose until they caught sight of the passengers. Some posed anyway. The carriage rolled through a Parliament square that bore the marks, tents and shattered glass from protests the day before. At the Tate, builders in yellow took photographs on their mobiles and on Oxford Street Christmas shoppers stopped to do the same.
At Speaker’s Corner, a policeman refused the procession entrance to the Park and asked them to remove the emperor for being distastefully lifelike and offensive. At half past three, the carriage arrived at the embassy of the People’s Republic of China and stood quietly across from the doors.
We spoke with Huang and asked him about the parade.
Habeas Corpus famously refers to the physical presence of a prisoner before a court of law. Your prisoner, by contrast, was present at some of the most iconic sites in London, including those famously associated with state violence, social protest, freedom of expression, democracy. What kind of narrative did you have in mind when you planned the route through London?
The UK has its own history of arbitrary behaviours at the helm. It managed over centuries to overcome the violence of its ruling power, introducing such fundamental laws as Habeas corpus to protect human rights and individual freedom. The route of the parade was a narrative thread about this journey. Vigilance about protecting these essential rights is vital, even in well established democracies.
I hope that China, famous for learning fast on the technology front, can also apply these skills to the political sphere. It does not have to spend centuries embedding democracy and human rights, a universal dimension of humanity.
Will the Nobel prize further the cause of human rights in China?
The award of the Peace Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo is an historical moment for the PRC. It is seen as the most meaningful event to be associated to China since the Tiananmen slaughter. It is also signaling to the word that it is time for China to fulfill their moral obligations towards the rest of the world, and to respect basic human rights.
The fact that Chinese authorities have exerted an intensive lobbying on other countries to boycott the official Nobel Prize ceremony today is indicative that they are not ready (yet!). But I trust the ability of Chinese people to gradually overcome the political pressure placed on them: a crowd large enough cannot be controlled.
Although the Nobel committee has awarded this year's prize to a dissident, last year it went to a head of state, Barack Obama. Do you think both men deserve the same prize?
Yes. Both President Obama and Liu Xiaobo, in their own way, convey hope that peace can prevail.
You can visit the two figures at Huang’s pop-up exhibition until 23rd Dec at The Music Room in South Molton Lane, Mayfair.
All photos are copyright Vincent J.F. Huang, courtesy of the artist.