Safe Harbor

What story will Hong Kong’s M+ museum tell?

Visitors at the M+ museum in Hong Kong look at new commissioned artworks by Tong Yang-Tze. Photo: Lok Cheng.

AT A SPECIAL PREVIEW EVENING FOR M+, local artists and patrons—and some internationals who had abided Hong Kong’s rigorous quarantine measures—cautiously entered the Brutalist-style building, at 700,000 square feet one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world.

The museum has weathered criticism from its inception, dating back to a 1998 proposal for a cultural district complete with sites dedicated to visual and performing arts. In the 2000s, Hong Kong was unfairly stuck with the label of “cultural desert” despite the presence of a robust modern art scene there since the 1960s, and skeptics abroad wondered if an institution could emerge from such allegedly arid climates. The project then became hindered with delays compounded by bureaucratic red tape and the departures of multiple staff members, including the high-profile exit of Lars Nittve, founding director of the Tate Modern and M+’s inaugural director. With no physical building on the horizon and a tight closed-door policy on its operations, the overbudget, unfinished museum became a symbol of delusion: a fata morgana kept alive by a committed, faithful few (myself included).

Finally real, the museum now faces other challenges. Recent coverage has emphasized the existential threat posed to the institution by the censorial Chinese government. In particular, outlets inveighed against the museum’s decision to expunge from its website an imageof Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen, 1997, the famous photograph of the artist’s middle finger extended toward Tiananmen Square. It is undeniable that the museum must coexist with the national security law, which West Kowloon Cultural District Authority board chairman Henry Tang warned would not be violated at a recent press conference: “Art is not above the law.” (The WKCDA is a statutory body established by the Hong Kong government.)

This was an ominous statement. Yet to frame the museum’s debut in such stark political terms risks shoehorning the collection into a binary framing of the artist against the state, flattering the self-image of Western liberal democracies, and overlooking the complex continental vision the museum can still offer. “The notion of Asia is a question,” Singaporean artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen mused at a recent Asia Art Archive fundraiser dinner. “And it should always remain as a question. It is something that never quite takes on a solidified, finished form.”

View of “The Dream of the Museum” including, from left: Hao Liang, Eight Views of Xiaoxiang—Dazzle, 2015; Yoko Ono, Play It By Trust, 1966/1986–87; and Andy Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, 1977.

At the opening, the museum’s curators milled around their respective acquisitions in the concrete-furnished arena, designed by Herzog & de Meuron in partnership with TFP Farrells and Arup. Enormous calligraphic works by female Taiwanese painter Tong Yang-Tze, wrapped around structural columns, provided a meeting point for Lesley Ma, curator of ink art, who greeted patrons Mimi Brown, Uli Sigg, and William Lim, the latter two significant donors to the institution. Museum director Suhanya Raffel, freed from the tense press conference with Tang, joyfully embraced Asia Art Archive in America’s Jane DeBevoise, who had flown in from New York. Pauline Yao was found somewhere near the West Gallery, where Antony Gormley’s Asian Field, 2003—an installation of 200,000 hand-sized clay sculptures made by Xiangshan village residents—generated lines longer than at Don Don Donki. Across from there was the Courtyard Gallery, a bamboo-lined room featuring twenty-seven international artists who expanded on the found object, including Yoko Ono, Marcel Duchamp, Nam June Paik, and John Cage, delicately piecing together the rhizomic forms and interactions of global conceptualism.

Nearby, “Individuals, Networks, Expressions” charted a story of abstraction and sculpture from an Asian perspective. Visitors enjoyed a rare early painting by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, painted not by foot but with his fingers. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s column of stiff human fat—drawn from liposuction surgeries—viscerally reminded viewers of the savage consumerism that ails contemporary society, while also invoking the literary history of magical realism and cannibalism in China, particularly the work of Mo Yan and Lu Xun. “It is wonderful to see the best of Southeast Asian and Chinese art not relegated to a special exhibition or ‘othered’ section, but front and center,” said Yuk King Tan, a local artist.

Irene Chou, Impact II, 1977, ink and color on paper, 29 1/2 x 64 1/2".

Visitors noted the sensitively curated sections dedicated to Korea’s Dansaekhwa, Japan’s Gutai, and Hong Kong and Taiwan’s ink movements. “The narrative will keep changing,” chief curator Doryun Chong said of the works on display, which represent a mere fraction of the four permanent collections. “First we begin with something solid, foundational.”

“Foundational” describes the much-anticipated Sigg Galleries, which present a straightforward but rather cramped overview of mainland China’s art history from 1970 to 2012 drawn from the former Swiss ambassador’s donated collection of 1,510 works. More educational platform than cabinet of curiosity, the exhibition, entitled “From Revolution to Globalization,” is nonetheless pioneering in its scope—never has there been such an exhaustive display of Chinese art in a globally focused institution, drawing direct lineages between movements. Two concurrent timelines converged in a narrow room that lined up the glossy, government-approved paintings of Socialist Realism opposite works from the Stars Art group, who in 1979 illegally mounted an exhibition that sparked a peaceful protest against authoritarian control.

M+ has also acquired humbler commercial objects steeped in the region’s collective memory, acknowledging—perhaps for the first time for an institution of this size—the daily rhythms of contemporary Asian life. In “Things, Spaces, Interactions,” five hundred design objects, graphic artworks, and technologies included rice cookers, calculators, rattan lamps, a cooling ventilator shutter designed by Le Corbusier in 1957 for a gallery in humid Chandigarh, and Cao Fei’s landmark RMB City, 2008–11, a metaverse metropolis launched in Second Life. Encouraging visitors to ruminate on the ephemerality of such products and spaces, lead design and architecture curator Ikko Yokoyama and her team transplanted the entirety of Shiro Kuramarta’s Kiyotomo, a 1988 sushi bar which had once provided a refined, meditative oasis at the height of Tokyo’s economic boom.

Shiro Kuramarta, Kiyotomo sushi bar, 1988. Installation view, “Things, Spaces, Interactions.” Photo: Lok Cheng.

A similar attitude was felt in “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond,” where popular advertisements, never-realized buildings, and the city’s cinema were given due attention. A little muddled in its curation, the exhibition still featured some standouts, including ink art by Lui Shou-Kwan, the King of Kowloon, and Frog King; moving image works by Ellen Pau and May Fung, Hong Kong’s so-called godmothers of video art; and a newly commissioned animation by Kongkee in acid palettes and split-fountain visuals. A particularly nice touch was a wall of clips from violent video games whose neon Hong Kong cityscapes stand in for cyberpunk anxieties: a subtle dig at Western fetishes and stereotypes of Asian futurism.

The main galleries were overwhelming and at times hard to digest. Visitors found sanctuary in the cathedral-proportioned Focus Gallery, where moving image curator Ulanda Blair had arranged the monitors of a five-channel text-based video by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries into the shape of a cross. Near the Curator Café, soft-serve ice cream was offered in flavors of milk, vanilla, and chocolate, and an intimate carpet-lined cinema awaited those wanting to sample the museum’s thousands of films and videos. Further underground, in the mysteriously titled Found Space, a rope of chiming bells by Haegue Yang sang beside a giant conference table by Chen Zhen and a copper fragment from Danh Vo’s iconic and iconoclastic We the People, 2010–14, which replicates the Statue of Liberty in hundreds of scattered parts.

After the preview ended, visitors headed outside to experience the luminous LED exterior overlooking Victoria Harbor, which for weeks had been counting down its arrival to passers-by on water and land. In many ways, it was a remarkable moment: The institution completes the city’s existing ecosystem of galleries, independent art spaces, artist studios, art fairs, archives, magazines, and schools. Artists, docents, curators, and writers took selfies and sipped beers, quietly aware that, from this vantage point in Hong Kong, the question of Asia continues to be written. 

Ysabelle Cheung is a writer based in Hong Kong.