In China, six babies died in 2008 after ingesting tainted milk formula from a domestic brand. 300,000 more fell ill, sparking a country-wide panic over the purity of domestic dairy products. As a result, Chinese mothers turned to foreign brands that they trusted more, even traveling to Hong Kong, and in some cases to the U.K., to buy safer formula. This has created tension with Hong Kong's locals, as tourists from the mainland buy up the powder in bulk, leaving supermarket shelves bare and mothers wondering about supply. The problem was so rampant that on March 1, restrictions went into affect. Now, anyone leaving Hong Kong with more than two cans of milk powder is considered smuggling. In fact, these "smugglers" face fines of up to $64,000 and two-year prison sentences.
Addressing this tension head on, Chinese artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei unveiled a new sculpture in Hong Kong last week. The piece is a massive map of China made entirely from cans of the seven most popular international milk formula brands—1,815 cans to be exact. The installation, on view at Sheung Wan Civic Centre, likely touches a nerve for those on both ends of the problem—families in Hong Kong hoping to care for their infants on limited resources, and those in China wanting to do the same, but with limited and dubious resources.
Weiwei has built an entire career on calling out his homeland in an effort to get those in power to act more accountably. "A country like this can put a satellite into space but it can't put a safe bottle teat into a child's mouth," he said in an interview with Reuters. "I think it's extremely absurd." Weiwei brings to the surface issues that most would prefer not to talk about, namely the Chinese government. By doing this, he demonstrates how powerful art can be as a way to create discourse and affect change.
It's unclear what Weiwei will do with the cherished milk formula once the exhibition comes down. Maybe divide it up equally between the Mainland and Hong Kong?
Photo via (cc) Flickr user Mungosciko