Hong Kong’s extraordinary M+ museum opens amid ongoing censorship fears

Written by Stephy Chung, CNNHong Kong

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.

When plans for M+ were unveiled over a decade ago, many in China’s art world breathed a sigh of relief. The Hong Kong museum could, they hoped, provide a safe space for the types of risqué, politically charged artworks that were impossible to show in the heavily censored galleries of Beijing and Shanghai.

As it finally opens its doors to the public Friday, the multibillion-dollar institution finds itself in a far more complicated position.

Since the introduction of last year’s controversial National Security Law, which criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, Hong Kong has undergone a marked cultural and political shift. Critics allege the wide-ranging legislation has been used to stifle dissent and clamp down on free expression, bringing the formerly freewheeling territory in line with other Chinese cities.

Inside Hong Kong's brand new museum of visual culture.

Inside Hong Kong’s brand new museum of visual culture. Credit: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

But while the red lines denoting what is tolerated in mainland China are relatively well understood — in the art world, at least — in Hong Kong, they appear to be continually evolving as artists and galleries navigate the new law.

Just last month, the University of Hong Kong ordered the removal of its famous “Pillar of Shame” sculpture, memorializing victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, from its campus after several members of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group that owned the work were arrested. In October, a new film censorship law was passed, while reports of galleries and institutions keeping sensitive artworks from display have become commonplace.

As a government-backed institution housing a trove of over 1,500 Chinese contemporary artworks, including around two dozen by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, M+ is a high-profile test of the city’s artistic and curatorial freedoms. The question for those visiting the museum this weekend may not only be what is on display, but what is not.

Beyond politics, excitement builds

While a political cloud hangs over the opening, excitement around M+ is tangible in the art world and beyond.

Long touted as the region’s equivalent to London’s Tate Modern or New York’s MoMA, it will showcase items from a vast 8,000-item collection of visual culture (encompassing art, design, architecture, photography and moving images) from the 20th and 21st centuries, with a heavy emphasis on telling stories about Asia, from Asia.

“We are part of the first wave of international, transregional and even global institutions that are now arriving in Asia,” said M+ deputy director, curatorial and chief curator Doryun Chong, pointing to the National Gallery of Singapore and the forthcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as other museums offering historically neglected Asian-centric art narratives.

When it comes to storytelling, M+’s young, diverse curatorial team — and a wider staff made up of nearly 30 nationalities — offers a certain edge, Chong said.

M+'s LED screen will project images of art.

M+’s LED screen will project images of art. Credit: Virgile Simon Bertrand/Herzog & de Meuron

“Building a museum of this scale, where nothing comparable exists — and we’re not just talking about Hong Kong, we’re talking about greater China and maybe even the rest of Asia — means that it’s necessary to gather diverse work experiences and expertise to produce something that is best for us, that will set the standard of our region and perhaps for the rest of the world.”

This ambition is evident in the building itself, an elegant design by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, in partnership with TFP Farrells and Arup. Its harbor-fronted facade interacts with the city’s urban fabric via a massive LED screen that will display moving art instead of the commercial logos and advertisements peppering the rest of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline.

Other details, like the tower’s terracotta cladding, a reference to traditional Chinese roof tiling; the wall-to-ceiling bamboo lining several gallery spaces; and a cavernous basement-level exhibition space that follows the contours of the active railway tunnel below it, help further root the design in its culture and locale.

The atrium located on the museum's second floor.

The atrium located on the museum’s second floor. Credit: Kevin Mak/Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

What’s shown, what’s not shown

M+ has opened with six thematic shows across a sprawling 183,000 square feet of exhibition space. Of them, “M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation” presents what is arguably the museum’s pièce de résistance: The world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art from the 1970s to the 2000s.

A landmark donation and part-sale of 1,500 items, by renowned collector and former ambassador to China Uli Sigg, put M+ on the map in 2012, catapulting it from museum-in-the-making to serious global arts player. But its contents have also raised difficult questions for curators and politicians alike.

In particular, a 1997 photograph of Ai Weiwei raising a middle finger to Tiananmen Square was embroiled in controversy earlier this year, when the image was removed from the museum’s website, where users can browse through items in its collections. (Other images from his “Study in Perspectives” series, showing him making the same gesture towards the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre, the White House and the Federal Palace of Switzerland still appear on the site).

The provocative photo contributed to a larger conversation about censorship fears, after a pro-Beijing lawmaker asked Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam whether M+ risked “inciting hatred” towards China. Lam responded by telling culture officials to be “extra cautious” that the museum does not cross an unspecified “red line,” adding that while her government respected “freedom of artistic and cultural expression … all Hong Kong compatriots are required to safeguard national security.”

Addressing reporters at a press preview on Thursday, chairman of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Henry Tang, stressed that the museum would “uphold and encourage the freedom of artistic expression and creativity” while ensuring “all exhibitions will comply with the laws … including the National Security Law.”

Despite the political pressures, Sigg told CNN that M+ was still the best home for his collection, which he always believed should be displayed in China, if not the mainland.

“I still think that’s the way: The Chinese people can now or eventually can see their art, which they’re not so familiar with yet,” he said. “Maybe today we cannot show everything, but one day I am sure that whole collection can be shown. It’s for the long haul, in my view.”

Sigg co-curated the opening selection, a list of artworks he said predates the National Security Law. “For me, it was an important test that the list would be respected, and these works would be shown,” he said, adding that none of his original choices were removed.

Wang Xingwei's "New Beijing" as shown in the museum.

Wang Xingwei’s “New Beijing” as shown in the museum. Credit: Stephy Chung/ CNN

The show is expansive, over 200 items charting the emergence of contemporary art in China after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. Through movements like the avant-garde ’85 new wave and Cynical Realism, which rose in tandem with crucial points in China’s recent history, the works also reflect the country’s economic rise and breakneck urban development.

Wang Xingwei’s “New Beijing,” feels especially confrontational in the current climate — a satirical oil painting showing bloodied emperor penguins lying on a bicycle cart, a thinly veiled allusion to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the deaths of pro-democracy protesters.

Subversive portraits of former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong also appear throughout, as do videos of closed-door art performances and underground exhibitions tackling taboo subjects such as nudity and free speech.

A visitor sits in front of "Rouge 1992" by artist Li Shan.

A visitor sits in front of “Rouge 1992” by artist Li Shan. Credit: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

Ai’s middle finger is nowhere to be seen, but two of his works do appear: an installation of his earthenware jars and a 2004 video capturing Beijing’s Chang’an Boulevard, the street running from east to west via rural villages, the capital’s business district and right through the heart of government power.

Sigg recalled taking a group of art collectors around the museum ahead of the opening, saying that “some of the patrons were crying, they were so moved by what they saw.”

“It was unexpected to see Chinese contemporary art, at this depth and in this width, even when I’m talking about art collectors,” he added. “They made so many new discoveries, they were simply impressed by their own artists. That is what I hope to see again and again. That would be my biggest pleasure.”

Beyond the hotly-debated Sigg Collection, large-scale acquisitions offer intrigue outside the political.

With its sheer enormity, British sculptor Antony Gormley’s 2003 work “Asian Field” commands its own exhibition: Tens of thousands of clay figurines stare back at the viewer, a mesmerizing display of hand-sized pieces produced by 300 villagers in southern China.

The show “Things, Spaces, Interactions,” offers visitors an entire sushi bar to explore. Dismantled in Tokyo and reinstalled inside the museum, “Kiyotomo” is one of the few remaining examples of interior design by the celebrated Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata. It is one of several displays demonstrating the museum’s ambitious efforts to preserve and document design and architecture — not only in greater China, but Asia as a whole.

Antony Gormley's 2003 work "Asian Field."

Antony Gormley’s 2003 work “Asian Field.”

Visitors can see the Kiyomoto sushi bar, reinstalled into the museum.

Visitors can see the Kiyomoto sushi bar, reinstalled into the museum. Credit: Stephy Chung/ CNN

And, keeping M+’s local audience firmly in mind, the main hall exhibition, “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond,” presents the city’s visual culture from the 1960s to today. It is a story told through everything from Cantonese pop albums to movies and video games inspired by the city.

A framed photograph by photographer Michael Wolf in an exhibition focused on Hong Kong's visual culture.

A framed photograph by photographer Michael Wolf in an exhibition focused on Hong Kong’s visual culture. Credit: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

Architectural models and images of dense public housing projects meanwhile explore the issue of Hong Kong’s ongoing housing crisis. And while direct references to the 2019 pro-democracy protests that recently rocked the city are conspicuous in their absence, one of the movement’s most prominent artists, Kacey Wong, is represented in absentia (he is now living in self-imposed exile in Taiwan amid concerns he could no longer freely create art). His 2009 work “Paddling Home,” a four-by-four-foot apartment that he once floated in Victoria Harbour, was created in response to skyrocketing rents and cramped living spaces.

A museum’s ‘social value’

Hong Kong has in recent years become the region’s arts capital, home to a thriving auction market, international blue-chip galleries and the Art Basel Hong Kong fair. Had M+ opened before the pandemic, a glitzy, international art crowd might have been expected to flock to its opening.

But the city’s “zero Covid” strategy, which involves hotel quarantines of up to three weeks and a ban on most non-residents, has stymied travel in and out of the city.

Nonetheless, M+ will likely become a popular destination for travel-starved residents, and Chong, M+’s chief curator, hopes the museum can provide “healing” during a period of uncertainty.

“What museums can do — what cultural institutions can do — is to really provide healing through empathy, through the richness, through the imagining of different possibilities, looking back on history so they can also nourish their spirits and souls,” he said.

“This is the front of our minds. How we want to think about the social value of what museums are … has only become stronger and deepened during this time.”

A video sculpture by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries is suspended in M+ museum.

A video sculpture by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries is suspended in M+ museum. Credit: Kevin Mak/Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

For Hong Kong based curator Ying Kwok, who has worked extensively with local talent, the museum could help raise the ambition of artists in the city.

“In New York, in London, we see what international standards mean — what kind of artists are becoming household names, what is the level, what kind of shows they are doing,” she said.

“I think it’s very important in the art scene, if there’s a role model, a target that you can look up to.”

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