The Hong Kong M + Museum is finally open. It's already in danger.

HONG KONG – M +, the new sprawling of Hong Kong Museum of Modern Art , ran into problems early on. Presented as the first visual instit...


HONG KONG – M +, the new sprawling of Hong Kong Museum of Modern Art, ran into problems early on. Presented as the first visual institution in Asia, it was four years late and an undisclosed amount over budget. Several senior executives left during the ten-year development period. At one point, an 80-foot-wide sinkhole formed on the construction site.

As the museum opened on Friday, its biggest challenge had just materialized: the threat of censorship from the Chinese Communist Party.

M + saw itself as a world-class institution that could make its hometown a cultural heavyweight, but these ambitions now collide directly with a new national security law imposed by Beijing to crush dissent.

Even before the opening, pro-Beijing figures criticized the pieces in the M + collection as an insult to China and asked for their ban. Authorities have promised to examine each exhibit for illegal content.

“Opening M + does not mean artistic expression is above the law,” Henry Tang, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which oversees M +, told reporters in a media preview. from the museum on Thursday. “It’s not.”

The arrival of M + 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. His inverted T-shaped building, designed by renowned architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, is one of the most visible features of Victoria Harbor’s waterfront. Among its 8,000 works, it has one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art in the world.

The excitement is high. More than 76,000 people have booked tickets before opening day, according to the museum.

Given the political moment in which it arrived, the opening of M + has become as much a physical space as the question it embodies: where is a museum – and art more broadly – under the hardened grip of China?

Some of the best-known works in the M + collection were created by exiled dissidents like Ai Weiwei or were inspired by taboo subjects on the mainland, including the slaughter of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square by the government in 1989. Hong Kong, as a semi-autonomous territory, was perhaps the only place on Chinese soil where these matters could be discussed openly.

“Contemporary art does not project the image of China that official China wants to have projected”, Uli Sigg, a prominent Swiss collector whose donations are the core of M + ‘s assets, said in an interview earlier this year.

From the start, the vision of M + was linked to a specific vision of Hong Kong. The city, which calls itself “Asia’s Global City”, has been touted as the perfect stage for presenting the region’s art to an international audience. The museum, in turn, would help the city shed its reputation for cultural sterility.

Hong Kong’s unique political status was also crucial, giving the museum the opportunity to tell the country’s history in potentially critical ways.

“We have freedom of speech here,” Lars Nittve, the first executive director of M +, said in 2011. “We can show things that cannot be shown in mainland China.”

The difficulties started almost immediately.

The museum was due to open in 2017. But construction delays and other logistical issues pushed the date back to 2019, then 2020, then 2021. Several executives have resigned, including Mr. Nittve. The master builder of the museum was fired on a financial dispute. In 2019, the floods opened a massive chasm.

Some Hong Kong artists have criticized the museum’s international leadership, calling for more local representation. Lawmakers have questioned the building’s price of $ 760 million.

Perhaps the most fundamental concern was whether Hong Kong’s promise as a free speech haven could deliver.

Over the past decade, as waves of anti-Beijing protests rocked the city, the Chinese government has begun to tighten its grip on the city. Booksellers of political articles were kidnapped. Art installations against Chinese domination were cut.

In 2016, M + organized an exhibition to give the city a glimpse of the still unfinished museum. The show had previously toured Europe under the name “Right is Wrong”.

When the exhibition 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 curator of the exhibition, Pi Li, said at the time that the museum committee members objected to the title. As to whether the museum could still have freedom of expression, he said, “you have to continually test it, maintain it and protect it.”

When museum officials this year announced that M + would finally open in November, the threat of censorship became more concrete.

Beijing imposed its security law last summer, in response to months of fierce, sometimes violent protests in 2019. This gives the government sweeping powers pursue any discourse that he deems subversive. Almost all of the leaders of the pro-democracy camp have been arrested or gone into exile. Civil society collapsed.

In March, pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung accused part of the M + collection of spreading “hatred” against China. She chose a photo by Mr. Ai, with his middle finger raised in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

M + possibly removed the photo of Mr. Ai from its online archives, citing a legal review, and did not say if it will ever be shown.

Other artistic creations have been the subject of similar attacks. The University of Hong Kong is work to remove a campus sculpture commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre. The government also recently expanded its cinema censorship powers.

All this means that M +, long before its opening, was charged with a symbolism far beyond the cultural domain.

“Hong Kong’s international stature has diminished,” said Ada Wong, prominent arts advocate and former member of the M + advisory board. About M +, she said, “we need something to tell people that Hong Kong still has a future.”

Many M + affiliates have lamented that the focus on politics has overshadowed the scale and ambition of the museum. At Thursday’s preview, officials themselves wavered between trying to redirect visitors’ attention and addressing political concerns head-on.

In remarks outside the second-floor galleries, the museum’s current director, Suhanya Raffel, made no mention of the political upheavals or delays, focusing on a preview of the opening exhibition.

Mr. Tang, the president of the cultural district, initially acknowledged the pressure on the museum only indirectly, asking for “openness and tolerance.” Yet when pressed by reporters over Mr. Ai’s photograph, Mr. Tang – a former senior government official – said it had become a symbol of what he called the ‘riots’ of 2019. He also suggested that by not exhibiting Mr. Ai’s photo, M + was no different from overseas museums that choose not to show works by racist art.

The exhibitions themselves also seemed to seek a delicate balance. Although the photograph of Mr. Ai’s middle finger was not on display, two of his other works were. Another The painting, by Chinese artist Wang Xingwei, is inspired by a photograph taken during the Tiananmen Massacre. An exhibition focused on Hong Kong art featured a sculpture by Kacey Wong, an outspoken artist who emigrated to Taiwan earlier this year, quoting political repression.

Most of the more than 1,500 works exhibited had no overt political connotation. A major acquisition was an entire sushi bar, transported from Tokyo, with curators urging viewers to view commercial spaces as art, too. Furniture, architectural models and a chess set by Yoko Ono were also on display, as part of the museum’s goal to broaden 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 in less provocative ways. She cited the inclusion of articles dealing with the perennial housing crisis in the city.

“Sure, but it has also touched humanity and social issues,” she said. “I am always eager to see what they can do under so many constraints. “

Many obstacles await us. Officials have yet to disclose the final price for the building, although they have admitted going over budget. Tang said the financial situation of the entire cultural district was “dire” and a continued shortage of tourists, given Hong Kong’s strict border controls linked to the pandemic, would not help.

But Mr Sigg, the collector behind the museum, said the opening could at least quell some of the harshest criticism, which took place before people even saw the museum. In an interview shortly before the opening, he said he welcomed the art discussion – but only if people had rated it for themselves.

“It should make us have a debate and a speech,” he said. “But of course my wish is informed debate. A debate with people who are not informed is very difficult.

Joy Dong contributed research



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Newsrust - US Top News: The Hong Kong M + Museum is finally open. It's already in danger.
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