At a Thursday morning preview of Hong Kong’s eagerly anticipated M+ museum, the chairman of the district council overseeing the city’s landmark cultural project stood on a podium in the heart of the cavernous contemporary art gallery and delivered a striking contradiction.
“We will uphold and encourage freedom of artistic expression and creativity,” Henry Tang, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) said. “On the other hand, our dedicated curatorial team will ensure that all the exhibitions comply with the laws, including…the National Security Law.”
When the WKCDA first proposed the M+ museum in 2012, Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) didn’t exist. China’s central government promulgated the NSL over Hong Kong in 2020 to quell pro-democracy protests that had roiled the city’s streets for much of 2019. The law granted local authorities sweeping new powers to crack down on dissent and narrowed the scope of lawful expression.
On the same day that Tang stood on a podium in M+, Hong Kong courts sentenced a man to six years in prison for chanting slogans advocating “Hong Kong independence” during a protest in 2019—a crime that didn’t exist before the NSL was imposed.
Even before M+ opened, pro-Beijing politicians within Hong Kong accused the museum of violating the security law by displaying works by noted Chinese artist and political dissident, Ai Weiwei. That controversy called into question the museum’s ability to engage meaningfully with contemporary art that might be critical of Beijing.
“The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law,” Tang says. “It is not.”
West Kowloon Cultural District
M+ is one of several flagship museums to open in the West Kowloon Cultural District—an area of reclaimed land on the western tip of the Kowloon peninsula, built to serve as a public arts space.
The museum—a brutalist concrete structure, designed by Herzog & De Meuron and plonked on top of the undulating gardens of Hong Kong’s coastal West Kowloon Park—has almost twice the floor space of London’s Tate Modern and has accrued a collection of over 8,000 works.
“Having a decent gallery in Hong Kong is long overdue,” said Toby, a 50-year-old pilot who declined to give his surname, while waiting in line on the museum’s opening day on Friday.
Over 1,000 visitors waited in a line that snaked through the shade of the imposing building’s main entrance before jutting across the main courtyard and trailing down the sunlit path of the museum’s landscaped gardens.
“Until now the best way to see art in Hong Kong was when it’s on sale,” Toby said.
Hong Kong’s easy access to Chinese art and money has already established it as a powerhouse for commercial art sales. According to industry tracker ArtTactic, Hong Kong auction houses sold $314 million of contemporary art in the first eight months of 2021, compared to $303 million of sales in London. Hong Kong surpassed London as the world’s second-largest market for contemporary art last year, occupying 23% of the market.
M+ is Hong Kong’s bid to assert itself as the region’s leading authority on Asian contemporary art in a non-commercial setting. The WKCDA, which manages the site, announced plans for M+ in 2012 and expected the venue to open in 2017. But in 2015, due to political wrangling over the venue’s budget, the WKCDA announced M+ would be delayed until 2019.
That delay was then extended to 2020 and then 2021 as the total budget for the publicly-funded West Kowloon Cultural District ballooned to $9 billion, from an initial $2.8 billion. The delays have caused the site to open during a turbulent time for the city.
“Hong Kong is the center of the art market in Asia and now we have an international museum with an important collection that could make Hong Kong’s role in the art world even greater,” says Lau Kin-wai, a prominent art critic. “But since we have the national security law, there is a lot of worry in front of us.”
In March, a group of pro-Beijing lawmakers filed a complaint accusing the museum of violating the National Security Law, because M+ planned to exhibit particular works from noted Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei. In the work—Study of Perspective: Tiananmen—the artist raises his middle finger before the portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs permanently in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
M+ director Suhanya Raffel downplayed concern of censorship at the time and said the museum would have “no problem” exhibiting sensitive works. But, in September, M+ removed an image of Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tiananmen from its website, without explanation.
The controversial Ai Weiwei artwork is one of 1,510 pieces donated to the museum by collector Uli Sigg, hundreds of which are on display in M+’s Sigg Galleries in an exhibition called From Revolution to Globalisation. Ai’s Study of Perspective is not on display in M+, but two other works by the artist are.
In fact, the Sigg collection on show at M+ includes many items as politically fraught as Ai’s Study of Perspective series. In Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing, which hangs opposite a satirical portrait of Mao, the artist recreates an iconic scene captured in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
A rickshaw driver pedals frantically through a crowd. Two protesters, bloodied by gunshot wounds, lie limp on the tricycle’s flatbed as the rider rushes them to the hospital. In an absurdist twist, the protesters in Wang’s work are replaced by emperor penguins, but the scene is unmistakable—a snapshot from a time Beijing has tried hard to suppress the memory of.
Yet, in M+, there it is. For now.
“Our exhibition was curated four years ago, and nothing has been changed,” Pi Li, curator of the Sigg Galleries, told Fortune on Thursday. Other M+ curators told Fortune the NSL hadn’t crimped their curatorial control and, certainly, many of the inaugural M+ exhibits are not inherently political.
The museum’s East Galleries boast an impressive collection of more than 500 works of design and architecture from across Asia, including a sushi bar designed by Japanese architect Shira Kuramata that has been disassembled and transported from Tokyo’s Shinbashi district, then reassembled inside M+. (No, it doesn’t serve sushi anymore.)
In the West Gallery, 80,000 tiny clay figurines carpet the floor of an exhibition hall. The crowd of clay creatures—each hand-molded by one of 300 amateurs from a village in Guangdong under the guidance of British sculptor Antony Gormley—gaze silently back at visitors.
Meanwhile, on the ground floor, the M+ mediatheque hub houses a suite of screens and viewing booths where visitors can browse the museum’s library of over 250 videos, as well as explore video games, immersive virtual reality, and digital art. There are no NFTs yet.
The queue of expectant visitors streaming into the sunshine on Friday morning shows Hong Kong’s public is keen to explore the city’s new museum. To manage the crowd, M+ has divided its opening hours into four 2-hour slots and limited entrance to 6,000 visitors per slot. Entrance is free for the next 12 months.
According to M+, 76,000 people had already registered online as of Thursday. Tang, the district’s chairman, anticipates M+ will welcome 1 million visitors over the next year—about one-seventh of the Hong Kong population—but expects international visitors won’t arrive until later.
Hong Kong remains virtually closed to outside travelers. Arrivals face up to three weeks in quarantine, repeated testing, and a mandatory month-long quarantine in a hospital if a test returns positive. The grueling restrictions cut Hong Kong’s tourist numbers 98% in the first nine months of the year.
The pandemic has greatly curtailed the international reach of M+, which bills itself as “Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture.” Hong Kong—which the local tourism board refers to as “Asia’s World City”—remains effectively closed to most of the world as the local government pursues a “COVID zero” strategy.
The local government has prioritized re-opening its border with mainland China over re-opening to the rest of the world. But Beijing appears content to keep the drawbridge raised. Early this week, an advisor to the Hong Kong government, said free travel to the mainland will “maybe” resume by mid-2022.
Until then, access to Asia’s “first global museum of contemporary visual culture” will be limited to Hong Kong.
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