After years of delay and waiting, the M + Museum in Hong Kong has finally opened its doors.
Perched on the waterfront of Victoria Harbor, the multibillion-dollar institution aims to become one of the world’s most popular contemporary art destinations, on par with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London, reports Alex Greenberger for ARTAnews. Its distinctive L-shaped building, designed by Swiss firm Herzog et de Meuron, offers 700,000 square feet of space and houses over 8,000 works of contemporary Chinese and Asian art.
More than 76,000 people have booked tickets for the museum before it opens on November 12, reports Vivian Wang for the New York Times. But looming threats of government censorship have tempered expectations for the long-awaited venue.
“Opening M + doesn’t mean artistic expression is above the law,” Henry Tang, head of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which includes the museum, told Reuters’ James Pomfret. “It’s not.”
Originally slated to open in 2017, M + has been beset by budget issues, construction delays, the Covid-19 pandemic, resignations of conservatives and a host of other hurdles, writes Enid Tsui for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) review.
Recent political developments have also posed problems. Last year, following widespread anti-government protests in the city, Chinese authorities imposed a sweeping national security law that gives Beijing broad powers to intervene in Hong Kong‘s once-independent judiciary, monitor residents. of the city, target activists who criticize the Communist Party Festivities and more. The law imposes severe restrictions that run counter to the city’s historic status as a semi-autonomous hub of freedom of expression, including artistic expression.
New pressure from Beijing has already led M + to change the way it displays politically charged art. Earlier this year, a photograph in the museum collections of Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei drew public criticism from pro-Beijing politicians. In September, the museum removed the image of the work from its online hub and publicly pledged not to display the work in person, for example ARTAnews.
Part of Ai Perspective study (1997-2015), the black and white photograph represents the artist raising his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In 1989, the square was the scene of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on a student protest against political corruption. Authorities injured, killed or arrested an unknown number of demonstrators; estimates of the death toll range from the official Chinese tally of 200 to student leaders’ claims of up to 3,400. The massacre remains a taboo subject for the Chinese government more than 30 years later.
Censorship issues have meant that M + kept the contents of its galleries tightly sealed until the museum’s press opened on November 11. But M + director Suhanya Raffel said the exhibits on display were planned long before Beijing’s crackdown in 2020.
“We work within the laws of our city,” Raffel told Kari Soo Lindberg and Stella Ko of Bloomberg. “We didn’t have to make any changes to our opening exhibits. We are absolutely certain that the integrity of the conservation is intact.
When visitors flocked to the building on opening day, they were greeted by a large exhibition, “The Revolution Towards Globalization,” which traces Chinese art from the 1970s to the present day. The galleries display works from the collection of a former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, who announced his intention to donate his Chinese art treasure to the museum in 2012.
Among the exhibited works are Dust (1987) by Huang Yong Ping, a Franco-Chinese conceptual artist and founder of the influential contemporary art group Xiamen Dada, and a painting by Zhang Xiaogang Bloodlines series, which is inspired by pre-Cultural Revolution family photographs.
Visitors to the museum will also experience site-specific installations, including that of British artist Antony Gormley Asian field (a sea of 200,000 hand-crafted clay figures arranged in a cavernous space) and a cross-shaped video sculpture by South Korean duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.
Two works by Ai appear in the exhibition: the video Chang’an Boulevard (2004) and Bleach (1995-2000), which consists of 126 Neolithic clay pots arranged in a grid, some coated with white paint. Although Bleach is not as provocative as Perspective Study: Tiananmen Square, Tsui from SCMP argues that the artwork “is still an irreverent treatment of ancient artifacts and could therefore be seen as a critical commentary on Chinese history and identity.”
Talk with Bloomberg, Ai “expressed his skepticism” about M + ‘s ability to “satisfy the art world and Beijing at the same time”.
The artist, who is currently based in Europe, added: “It is not possible for a museum to survive without freedom of expression.