‘We Want To Protect This Space’: After 14 Years, Hong Kong’s M+ Museum Opens in a Changed Political Climate. Can It Still Thrive?

The long-awaited museum has been embraced by the public during previews, but questions around artistic freedoms remain.

Counting down: M+ museum will finally open doors to public on November 12. Courtesy of M+ and West Kowloon Cultural District.

This Friday, November 12, Hong Kong’s M+ museum—Asia’s first institution dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century visual culture—will officially open its doors to the public. First proposed 14 years ago as a centerpiece for the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District, the museum has come a long way. An initial price tag of $760 million and a target opening date of 2017 were repeatedly revised due to delays in construction, a management reshuffle, and a ballooning bill, which was footed by taxpayers.

Yet these setbacks do not seem to have dampened the public’s anticipation for this mega-institution, the first of its kind in the city. Excitement is in the air, mixed with a sense of relief that the museum is finally here—and there is no lack of happy photos taken by early-bird visitors floating around on social media, accompanied by captions singing praise.

But behind the smiling faces is concern over the future of this museum, which boasts nearly 8,000 works in its collection. Against the backdrop of a very different political landscape compared to when M+ was first discussed—including last year’s implementation of the national security law following the 2019 anti-government protests—debates and criticisms around the museum’s spending and acquisitions have subsided and transformed. Now, protecting M+ from becoming a victim of political turmoil has emerged as the new imperative.

“In the past, people criticized it. They didn’t understand where the money had gone. But I’m surprised to see how this has changed over the course of time. Now we want to be careful and protect what we have, so that we can still keep the space,” Wong Ka Ying, a Hong Kong-based artist and curator, told Artnet News. “This is the only place where we still have hope.”

<i>Flower in the Mirror</i> (2021) by Kongkee, commissioned by M+. Courtesy of the artist and M+.

Flower in the Mirror (2021) by Kongkee, commissioned by M+. Courtesy of the artist and M+.

Hong Kong Identity on Display

During the weeks leading up to Friday’s public opening, a number of invitation-only previews have been held, giving a first glimpse not only to patrons and certain figures from the local art community, but also to family and friends of the institution’s employees and even select members of the public, such as those from the travel industries, taxi drivers, and social media influencers.

The museum will open with six thematic exhibitions, showing a total of 1,500 works drawn from the museum’s collections. Two have already been installed and opened during these preview sessions, which also served as stress tests for the brand-new building, housed in a 700,000-square-foot concrete structure designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with TFP Farrells and Arup.

People who attended the previews told Artnet News that they were “excited” and “thrilled” to be able to at last set foot in the museum and to catch a glimpse of its vast collection. They also felt reassured by the fact that M+ has placed a strong focus on Hong Kong in its opening exhibitions.

“It’s going to create such an amazing opportunity for Hong Kong, for sure. I still haven’t seen everything,” said entrepreneur and collector Queenie Rosita Law, one of the founding patrons of M+. She also praised the M+ curatorial team for adopting everyday language in its wall texts and communications, making the exhibitions accessible to a wider audience.

“I really liked it. It feels very frank. The Hong Kong exhibition really moved me, as a Hong Kong resident. It is not about the Hong Kong image that the West may have,” Jacobo Garcia Gil, a collector and founding patron, told Artnet News.

<i>Domestic Transformer</i> (2020) by Gary Chang. Photo: Lok Cheng, M+.

Domestic Transformer (2020) by Gary Chang. Photo: Lok Cheng, courtesy of M+.

The anchor exhibition he was referring to is “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond,” a ground-floor show that documents the evolution of the city’s contemporary art and visual culture in parallel to the city’s transformation from the 1960s to the present. Divided into four chapters—Here, Identities, Places, and Beyond—the exhibition features a wide range of works, from highlights of the New Ink art movement (echoing a concurrent exhibition at the nearby government-run Hong Kong Museum of Art) to the iconic street calligraphy of the late “King of Kowloon,” Tsang Tsou-choi.

Works that reflect the city’s urbanization are also foregrounded, from documentation to artistic interpretations of Hong Kong’s housing conditions, as in photographic works by the late Michael Wolf; architect Gary Chang’s installation Domestic Transformer (2020), a one-to-one reproduction of his design for his 345-square-foot apartment; and the installation Paddling Home (2009) by Kacey Wong, who left Hong Kong for Taiwan amid the political crackdown in the city.

Moving-image works also play a key role. A two-channel video installation compiles some of the most iconic scenes from Hong Kong cinema, as well as snapshots of video games and a new animation, Flower in the Mirror (2021), by Hong Kong artist Kongkee, accompanied by an original soundtrack by Choi Sai Ho.

Tina Pang Yee-wan, curator of the Hong Kong exhibition, dismissed speculation that the national security law implemented by Beijing last year—which bans activities related to subversion, terrorism, secession, and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security—has had any impact on curatorial decisions. 

Album cover, <i>Anita Mui: Leaping in the Spotlight</i> (1984), designed by Alan Chan. © Capital Artists Ltd.

Album cover, Anita Mui: Leaping in the Spotlight (1984), designed by Alan Chan. © Capital Artists Ltd.

Another of the inaugural exhibitions, “Things, Spaces, Interactions,” showcases design and visual culture from Asia and beyond. Designs for some of the key Canto-pop albums are featured among the crowded displays.

Despite a lack of works referencing the political turmoil the city has faced in recent years, viewers still embraced the shows—particularly the Hong Kong exhibition—as a mirror of the city’s trajectory. “The [Hong Kong] exhibition pairs these artworks with an exploration of Hong Kong architecture, advertising, movies, TV shows, music, and more. This shows the wider context in which the art was created, and should help me better understand the art and the city I live in,” said Yuri van der Leest, a Hong Kong-based collector and one of the museum’s founding patrons.

‘I Can See Where the Money Goes Now’

Certain highlights from the previews helped dispel earlier criticisms about the museum’s purchases. One that had been particularly panned was the Kiyotomo sushi bar, designed by the late Japanese designer Kuramata Shiro, acquired for a reported HK$15 million ($1.9 million), an amount that M+ never confirmed nor denied. The piece turned out to be a popular spot for photographs, with a long queue waiting to get in to the set, preview-goers told Artnet News.

Another controversial pick was the 2018 acquisition of the complete archive and the rights to future work by the digital art duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. One of the internet trailblazers’ titles commissioned by M+, Crucified TVs – Not a Prayer in Heaven (2021), is given a special treatment. Screens of the five-channel video work flashing texts in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin Chinese form a gigantic crucifix hung from a high ceiling. The strobing images, accompanied by a soundtrack chanting “Oh yeah,” transforms the concrete gallery into an ethereal, quasi-religious space.

“This is the most impressive work,” curator and artist Wong said of the piece. “The way it is displayed responds to why the museum has to collect this. At the beginning, the purchase deal felt so vague, but now I think it is a bargain, because the collection keeps growing.”

“I can see where the money goes now, finally, after all these years. We have never had this kind of experience in Hong Kong,” said one of the preview attendees, a 30-something office worker who asked not to be named. “As an ordinary citizen, I enjoyed it very much. There’s a feeling of nostalgia from the Hong Kong show. Regardless of one’s background, one can definitely find something to resonate with. It is exciting and very special, exactly what we need in Hong Kong right now.”

<i>1995.2</i> (1995) by Fang Lijun, M+ Sigg Collection. Courtesy of M+.

Fang Lijun, 1995.2 (1995), from the M+ Sigg Collection. Courtesy of M+.

Sizing Up the M+ Sigg Collection

All eyes will be on the exhibition of the Swiss collector Uli Sigg’s collection, which he famously donated to the museum in 2012. The 1,510-object collection is widely recognized as the world’s most comprehensive assembly of Chinese contemporary art.

Earlier this year, however, attacks on the collection’s content—in particular a photographic work by artist-activist Ai Weiwei—from the city’s pro-Beijing politicians shocked the art world locally and abroad. Allegations that certain works may violate the national security law have set off alarms over censorship while uniting the local art community to defend the institution’s remaining artistic freedoms.

Sigg was in Hong Kong for the opening of the museum and its exhibition “M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation,” which surveys the development of Chinese contemporary art from the 1970s to the 2000s. Speaking on stage at an Asia Society Hong Kong Center event on November 4, the Swiss mega-collector hinted at his uncertainty about the future of the art scene in Hong Kong.

“The legal framework has changed, and that remains to be seen what that means exactly for contemporary art,” said Sigg, who was interviewed by Ronnie Chan, a property tycoon and chair of the board of trustees of Asia Society Hong Kong. Chan, known for his pro-Beijing stance, quickly followed up with an anecdote about past exhibitions of Ai’s work at Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

Concerns aside, Sigg praised the development of M+ despite the long wait: “It’s really up to the latest technology and knowledge in how to present art—particularly contemporary art, with all its facets, materials and dimensions. It’s a fantastic museum.”

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