The M+ Museum, Explained: Why Hong Kong’s Newest Art Institute Could Rival Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou

The M+ Museum, Explained: Why Hong Kong’s Newest Art Institute Could Rival Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou

At long last, Hong Kong’s M+ museum is finally almost here. When it opens on November 12, M+ will be among the biggest museums in Hong Kong, and it could very well become one of the most important contemporary art institutions in Asia. With 700,000 square feet of space, it is expected to be a major entry into the region’s art scene. But the run-up to its opening has been marred by controversy, and behind the scenes, the institution’s leadership has weathered rapid turnover amid a series of delays.

But what is the M+ museum, and why is it important? Below, a look at the institution’s history, its inaugural presentations, and its difficult road to opening.

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What makes M+ a museum worth watching?

There are many big museums in Hong Kong and mainland China—the West Bund location of Shanghai’s Long Museum is a whopping 355,000 square feet, for example. M+ is set to be almost double the size of the Long Museum, with 700,000 square feet of space. (For comparison, that makes it only a touch smaller than the recently expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York.) Because of its scale, M+ could become a destination—not just for Hong Kongers, but also for international art lovers—in the same way that Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris currently are. But size is only one measure of a museum’s significance. Another, more important one is the art it plans to host.

One reason the M+ museum has been so closely watched is a promise of freedom from censorship. Whereas in China museums face difficulties showing certain kinds of contemporary art that authorities deem too critical of the country’s government, institutions and galleries in Hong Kong can in theory present more explicitly political art. Recent developments in the city have made artists concerned about whether M+ really can mount all of the presentations it intends to. More on that later, however.

What will M+ show?

M+ will be broadly dedicated to modern and contemporary art, with a specific focus on work made in and around Hong Kong in the 20th and 21st centuries. Its collection already numbers nearly 8,000 objects; collectors have been responsible for the acquisitions of many of them. In 2012, Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman and diplomat who distinguished himself in the ’90s as one of the foremost collectors of Chinese art, gave M+ more than 1,400 works from his holdings. The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which facilitates the museum, also paid him $22.7 million for 47 more works.

At the time, Sigg told ArtAsiaPacific, “Hong Kong is important because the Chinese artists can also communicate with their own public—more than 30 million mainland Chinese travel to Hong Kong per year, and M+ will be that one big thing beyond shopping!” It’s clear that other collectors have had a similar thought. In the past year alone, M+ received two major donations from collectors, including Hallam Chow and William and Lavina Lim. The Lims gave the museum 90 works, including pieces by Haegue Yang and Lee Bul, and Hallam Chow donated art by Chim Pom, Liang Yuanwei, Shioyasu Tomoko, and more.

A group of men and women surround an architectural model of a building resembling an inverted T.

From left to right, Hong Kong Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing, Herzog & de Meuron senior partner Pierre de Meuron, former M+ director Lars Nittve, and Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.
Photo Kin Cheung/AP

What can’t M+ show?

A controversy in 2021 cast into doubt director Suhanya Raffel’s assertions that M+ would be able to mount exhibitions featuring art critical of the Chinese government. One work that was added to the museum’s collection, a photograph by Ai Weiwei entitled Study of Perspective: Tiananmen (1997), was at the center of negative media attention that swirled around the museum before it announced its opening dates. Part of Ai’s series “Study of Perspective” (1995–2017), the photograph features the artist sticking up his middle finger in a Beijing plaza where, in 1989, the Chinese government violently quashed a student revolt against political corruption. The photograph had been added to the museum’s collection as part of the Sigg donation.

Pro-China news outlets seized on the Ai work, even though it was not necessarily even expected to appear in the inaugural exhibitions, as the South China Morning Post reported. Amid pushback over whether the museum would comply with China’s national security law, Henry Tang Ying-yen, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, said that the arts district “will definitely uphold the law, comply with the Basic Law, local laws, and the national security law.” M+ has agreed not to show the photograph. Then, in September, M+ deleted an image of Study of Perspective: Tiananmen from its website. In an essay published by Artnet News, Ai said that M+ was part of a series of institutions that “have rushed to cozy up to China, bowing and scraping before the great rising authoritarian power, bubbling with flattery at every turn.”

Who else is involved in M+ behind the scenes?

M+’s current director is Suhanya Raffel, who, in top-ranking posts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, proved to be a transformative figure in the Australian art scene. But she is not the first person to have led M+ since the project to open the museum kicked off a decade ago.

Its first director was Lars Nittve, whose CV includes leadership positions at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. Nittve was the one who, starting in 2012, began undertaking efforts to significantly bolster the museum’s collection. In 2015, not long after the museum pushed its opening back to 2019, Nittve made the surprise decision to leave the museum—a rare move, considering that directors rarely depart before major buildings or expansions are completed. He hinted that the work to open M+ was proving unexpectedly difficult, saying, “I have to accept that after five years here, there are still another four years of very hard work remaining until the opening of M+.”

In fact, until this year, M+’s opening was cloaked in a haze of uncertainty. The delay in 2015—it was at the time thought to be opening in 2017—came amid construction delays; 2019 came and went, and the museum still hadn’t opened. Then in 2020, its inauguration was pushed back once more by the pandemic. Amid the delays came resignations. In 2015, M+’s senior curator, Tobias Berger, left. Then, in 2019, five more members of the executive team also quit.

A painting of an Asian family done in muted tones recalling an old-timey photograph. The two children depicted having colored heads; everything else is rendered in blue tones.

Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline – Big Family No. 17 (1998) was among the works that Uli Sigg gave to M+. It will be on view in a show devoted to the Sigg collection when M+ opens.
©Zhang Xiaogang/M+ Sigg Collection

Where is M+ sited?

M+ will be in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, at the heart of an area rich in arts venues such as the Hong Kong Palace Museum and the Xiqu Centre, which hosts theatre productions and operas. The museum’s building is designed by Herzog & de Meuron, who are also responsible for institutions such as the Broad in Los Angeles and the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Among those the firm beat out in a competition to design the museum was Snøhetta, another favorite of institutional directors, which designed SFMOMA’s expansion.

Herzog & de Meuron’s museum resembles an inverted T and faces Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. With its minimal form, the towering museum is meant to recall “an Asian version of Tate Modern,” only “more radical,” Jacques Herzog told the Guardian in October. The 16-story building’s cost was initially pegged at an astonishing 21.6 billion Hong Kong dollars ($2.8 billion)—and that price tag only increased threefold during the construction process. The museum now includes 33 galleries in addition to movie theaters and a roof garden. Some offices are located on the 11th floor, affording certain staff members spectacular views of Hong Kong.

What will be on view when M+ opens?

When M+ begins welcoming the public on November 12, its biggest exhibition will revolve around the Sigg donation. Titled “From Revolution to Globalisation,” that exhibition charts the development of China since the ’70s by way of works by Huang Yong Ping, Zhang Xiaogang, and others of note. Other shows include surveys devoted to architecture in Hong Kong and artistic networks across Asia, as well as an installation by Antony Gormley called Asian Field, for which the artist and residents in what is now Guangzhou’s Huadong Town district crafted 200,000 clay figurines.

The amount of art on view threatens to be overwhelming. Thankfully, for Hong Kongers, there’s an added plus: residents of the city will receive free entry to the museum for a year after its opening.

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