HELPERS – Domestic Maids Plant Toy Grenades for Art… But Were the Curators Ethical?

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu‘s series ‘Intervention‘ examines the working environments of Hong Kong’s Filipino domestic workers.

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100 people took part – placing a toy grenade in their employer’s home whilst they were away and photographing it.

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The project explores spacial intrusions and tensions between local families and their foreign helpers. Each participant was free to place the grenade anywhere within the home, though the artists insist the toy is neutral, does not carry implications of danger and that it is a game”.

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The artists stated that their work is not a political critique of the situation in HK.

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In an interview with Art Radar, the artists dodged ethical questions over whether they may be endangering their subjects or whether the employers involved may have felt violated if they spotted their home on display… They said: “We had no intention to expose individuals. Like I said, the photos of the maids and the homes are not meant to be specifically meaningful; they only a representation and a portrayal of the mass.”

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Sun Yuan and Peng Yu both graduated from the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

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They have been collaborating since 2000 and remain two of China’s most controversial artists, renowned for working with extreme materials such as human fat tissue, live animals and baby cadavers. They deal with issues of perception, death, and the human condition.

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Over the summer, a couple were found guilty of abusing their domestic maid – tying her to a chair and forcing her to wear diapers for days. It has been a wake-up call for the ongoing issue of ‘maid abuse’. Last month, the SCMP reported that 58% of workers had faced verbal abuse, 18% physical abuse and 6% sexual abuse. Such circumstances are enabled by the ‘two week‘ rule and the ‘live-in‘ law, which discourage workers from escaping abusive situations.

Earlier this week, HK’s Liberal Party (a misnomer) proposed that maids ought to be legally required to return home after the termination of a contract. They also suggested a probation period, scrapping severance pay if either party ends a contract early. This would only further entrap helpers who are at risk and is the latest proposal in what some commentators suggest is a ‘war against domestic helpers‘.

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Recently, HK allowed Bangladeshi domestic workers to apply for work in the city whilst some have called for Burmese maids to be recruited because the Chinese from that country can speak Putonghua and cook Chinese food”. The call was made in response to a debunked myth about ‘job hopping’.

Domestic workers are not entitled to the minimum hourly wage in HK and cannot obtain permanent residency, no matter how many decades some have resided in the city. Last week, maids received a ‘below-inflation pay ‘rise’ of HK$90 per month – effectively, a pay cut.

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The ‘Intervention’ exhibition was a centre-piece at Art Basel earlier this year.

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Today’s post forms part of a series leading to the December 1st launch of a separate ‘HK Helpers Campaign’ – a coalition of NGOs and activists united to spark debate and effect change for Foreign Domestic Workers.

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