HONG KONG — M+, Hong Kong’s sprawling new contemporary art museum, ran into problems from the start. Billed as Asia’s premier visual institution, it was four years behind schedule and an undisclosed amount over budget. Several high-ranking executives left during the decade-long construction period. On the construction site, a sinkhole measuring 80 feet in width was formed.
Friday’s opening of the museum was accompanied by the greatest challenge: the threat from censorship by the Chinese Communist Party.
M+ was created to be a global institution that could make its hometown a cultural center of excellence. However, those ambitions are directly in conflict with a Beijing-imposed national security law designed to crush dissent.
Pro-Beijing activists criticized the M+ collection and demanded that they be banned. Officials promised to inspect every exhibition for illegal content.
“The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law,” Henry Tang, the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which oversees M+, told reporters during a media preview of the museum on Thursday. “It is not.”
M+’s arrival is a major event for Hong Kong and the art world. At 700,000 square feet, it is one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world, nearly twice the size of London’s Tate Modern. Its inverted-T-shaped building, designed by the renowned architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, is one of the most visible features on the city’s Victoria Harbor waterfront. It boasts, among its 8,000 works, one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art.
The excitement is high. According to the museum’s website, 76,000 people purchased tickets before the museum opened.
Given the political moment in which it has arrived, M+’s opening has become as much about a physical space as the question that it embodies: Where does a museum — and art more broadly — fit under China’s hardening grip?
Some of the best-known works in the M+ collection were created by exiled dissidents, such as Ai Weiwei, or draw upon topics that are taboo in the mainland, including the government’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of peaceful protesters. As a semiautonomous territory, Hong Kong was perhaps the only place where these topics could be discussed.
“Contemporary art doesn’t project the image of China that official China wants to have projected,” Uli Sigg, a prominent Swiss collector whose donations form the core of M+’s holdings, said in an interview earlier this year.
M+ was based on a vision of Hong Kong from the beginning. The city, which dubs itself “Asia’s world city,” was pitched as the ideal stage to showcase the region’s art to an international audience. The museum would also help the city to shed its culturally sterile reputation.
Hong Kong’s unique political status was also crucial, giving the museum the opportunity to recount the country’s history in potentially critical ways.
“We have the freedom of speech here,” Lars Nittve, the first executive director of M+, said in 2011. “We can show things that can’t be shown in mainland China.”
The difficulties started almost immediately.
The museum was scheduled to open in 2017. Construction delays and logistical problems caused the museum’s opening to be delayed to 2019, 2020, 2021. Several executives stepped down, including Mr. Nittve. The museum’s main contractor was fired over a financial dispute. In 2019, flooding caused a huge sinkhole.
Some Hong Kong artists criticized the museum’s international leadership, calling for more local representation. Lawmakers questioned the building’s price tag of $760 million.
The most important concern was whether Hong Kong’s promise of freedom of expression could be kept.
As anti-Beijing protests have roiled Beijing over the past decade, the Chinese government began to tighten its grip on the area. Booksellers of political material have been kidnapped. Art installations that poke fun at Chinese rule were taken down.
M+ organized an exhibition in 2016 to give the city a glimpse of the museum’s future. The show had already toured Europe, under the name “Right is Wrong.”
When the show opened in Hong Kong, the works remained the same, but its name was decidedly less provocative: “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art.”
The show’s curator, Pi Li, said at the time that museum committee members had objected to the title. Of whether the museum could still have free speech, he said, “you must continually test it, maintain it and protect it.”
When M+ was finally announced by museum officials in November of this year, the threat to censorship became more tangible.
In response to the violent and sometimes violent protests of 2019, Beijing passed its security law last summer. It gives the government broad powers to prosecute any speech it considers subversive. Nearly all of the leaders of the prodemocracy group have been arrested or gone into exile. Civil society has collapsed.
In March, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Eunice Yung, accused parts of the M+ collection of spreading “hatred” against China. She singled out a photograph by Mr. Ai, of his middle finger raised before Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
M+ eventually removed Mr. Ai’s photograph from its online archive, citing a legal review, and has not said whether it will ever be shown.
Similar attacks have been made against other artistic creations. The University of Hong Kong is currently trying to remove a campus statue that commemorates the Tiananmen massacre. The government recently increased its film censorship powers.
All of this means M+, long before its opening, was filled with symbolism that went beyond the cultural realm.
“The international stature of Hong Kong has been dwindling,” said Ada Wong, a prominent arts advocate and former member of the M+ advisory committee. Of M+, she said, “we need something to tell people that Hong Kong still has a future.”
Many M+ affiliates have complained that politics has taken over the ambition and breadth of the museum. At Thursday’s preview, officials themselves teetered between trying to redirect visitors’ attention and addressing the political concerns head-on.
In remarks outside the second-floor galleries, the museum’s current director, Suhanya Raffel, made no mention of the political upheaval or the delays, focusing on an overview of the opening exhibition.
Mr. Tang, the cultural district’s chairman, at first acknowledged the pressure on the museum only obliquely, asking for “openness and tolerance.” Yet when pressed by reporters about Mr. Ai’s photograph, Mr. Tang — a former high-ranking government official — said it had become a symbol of what he called the “riots” of 2019. He also suggested that in not exhibiting Mr. Ai’s photograph, M+ was no different from overseas museums that choose not to show racist artwork.
The exhibits seemed to be seeking a delicate balance. Though Mr. Ai’s middle finger photograph was not displayed, two of his other works were. Another painting by Wang Xingwei (a Chinese artist) was inspired by a photographPhotograph taken during the Tiananmen Massacre. A sculpture by Kacey Woong, an outspoken artist from Hong Kong, was featured in an exhibit on Hong Kong art.
Many of the more 1,500 works on display did not have any political overtones. One of the most important acquisitions was a whole sushi bar that was transported from Tokyo. Curators encouraged viewers to also consider commercial spaces as art. Furniture, architectural models and a chess set by Yoko Ono were also on display, as part of the museum’s goal of expanding the definition of “visual culture.”
Wong Ka Ying, a local artist and curator, said she was impressed by curators’ efforts to present critiques of Hong Kong society, even if in less provocative ways. She cited the inclusion of pieces addressing the city’s perpetual housing crisis.
“It’s safe, but it also touched on humanity and social issues,” she said. “I’m still looking forward to what they can do under so many constraints.”
Many challenges lie ahead. Officials have yet to disclose the final price tag of the building, although they admit that they exceeded their budget. Mr. Tang said that the entire cultural district’s financial situation was “grave,” and that a continuing lack of tourists, given Hong Kong’s strict pandemic-related border controls, would not help.
The museum’s collector, Mr. Sigg, stated that the opening would at least silence some of the most vocal criticisms, which were voiced long before the museum was even opened. In an interview shortly before the opening, he said he welcomed discussion about the art — but only if people had evaluated it for themselves.
“It should make us have a debate and discourse,” he said. “But of course my wish is for an informed debate. A debate with people who are not informed is very difficult.”
Joy DongContributed research
Source: NY Times