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The M+ museum in Hong Kong. Photo: © Virgile Simon Bertrand. Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron.
The M+ museum in Hong Kong. Photo: © Virgile Simon Bertrand. Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron.

M+ Bows to Government Censors, Will Not Show Ai Weiwei Work

Hong Kong’s brand-new M+ museum, slated to open this June, will not show in its inaugural exhibition a work by Ai Weiwei depicting the artist’s middle finger raised in front of Tiananmen Square. The decision comes just weeks after Hong Kong chief Carrie Lam promised to scrutinize art shown in public institutions out of concern that works might pose a threat to the government. Lam’s assertion is only one indicator of the Hong Kong government’s fast-increasing willingness to enforce the national security law criminalizing dissent that went into effect into the region last June; at that time, Lam had said that the law would only be used in a “handful” of instances. Since then, however, more than a hundred activists and opposition politicians have been arrested by the government. The Ai work, which is one of a series held in the museum’s Sigg collection, came to officials’ attention following a press preview.

The Bangkok Post reported that Henry Tang, chairman of the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District, where M+ is located, acknowledged on Monday, “If there are any works that the national security department thinks . . .  [have] violated the law, we will act according to the law.” Tang further said that M+ had not planned to show the cited Ai photo—which he characterized as “vulgar”—in the inaugural exhibition in the first place, and stated that he welcomed the attentions of the police force’s newly created national security unit. He said the task force could “browse all of our collections online, and if they think any work illegal, they [can] approach us, and we will cooperate with them on how to deal with the illegal work.” 

His remarks stood in stark contrast to those of M+ director Suhanya Raffel, who earlier this month said that showing works by dissident artists would be “no problem.” After Tang’s press conference, the museum issued a statement announcing that it would comply with the laws of Hong Kong while maintaining standards of professional integrity. In an op-ed published this morning in the South China Post, Dennis Lee noted that in singling out Ai’s work as a threat, the government of Hong Kong had brought the offending photo exponentially more attention than it would have garnered on display at the museum’s opening.