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Is the M+ Museum still a good idea?

22 November 2021

From the December 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

Decades in the making, Hong Kong’s flagship contemporary art museum is finally open. In an increasingly repressive political climate, can M+ sustain the cultural optimism it once promised?

Kacey Wong

I have followed the development of the M+ museum for a long time – 23 years – and at one time it was a source of hope, representing a better artistic future. The first version of M+ was proposed a year after the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The first chief executive of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, Tung Chee-hwa, announced plans to create the West Kowloon Cultural District, a centre for the arts that would compete with the South Bank in London and the Guggenheim Bilbao. I found this idea refreshing; I thought art and artists could finally play an important role in the development of my home city.

In 2001, the government launched a design competition for the development of the entire site and local real-estate developers raced to make their bids. When the proposals for the master plan were made public, I was horrified by what I saw. A gigantic canopy by Foster + Partners was to cover almost half of the site, there were to be several shopping centres and multiple skyscrapers dotted the development. Then I realised that this project was never really about the arts, but about using the arts to do what Hong Kong real-estate companies do best: land speculation. I wrote a 10-page letter of complaint, hoping somebody in authority might read it. I was being naïve. However, the first version of M+ ended with a public outcry about possible collusion between the government and the business sector, which led to the entire project coming to a halt and the Foster + Partners master plan being scrapped. (The practice regained the commission after coming up with a less grandiose scheme.)

After this, there were reasons to be hopeful. The vision of M+ that had been formulated in around 2005 looked as if it might be put into practice: a ‘focus on 20th- and 21st-century visual culture, broadly defined, from a Hong Kong perspective and with a global vision. With an open, flexible and forward-looking attitude, M+ aims to inspire, delight, educate and engage the public, to explore diversity and foster creativity.’ This sounded like a good strategy for an institution without a permanent collection that wanted to compete with leading museums. Art events organised by M+ started popping up in the city – a very welcome development.

Then in 2012 came the acquisition (through donation and purchase) of some 1,500 works of Chinese contemporary art from the collection of Uli Sigg – with the purchased works costing HK$177m (around £14.7m)! Many Hong Kong artists were puzzled and even angry about this at the time. Where was the ‘Hong Kong perspective’ or narrative? Was ‘global vision’ equivalent to a mainland Chinese vision? The museum argued that the M+ Sigg Collection was an important gift containing works that had been suppressed on the mainland – and that audiences from mainland China could see it in free Hong Kong. I felt disillusioned. In 2013, when M+ exhibited Paul McCarthy’s work Complex Pile – a huge inflatable mound of excrement – I took it as an omen. The political situation of Hong Kong under Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung was really heading south. Protests and sit-ins against the implementation of national education and demanding universal suffrage became known as the Umbrella Movement. As interesting artworks emerged from protest sites – which surely counted as visual culture – I called the curators at M+ to encourage them to collect the work. After initial excitement there was silence.

I left Hong Kong on 18 July this year and am now in self-imposed exile in Taiwan. I have two artworks in the M+ collection: Paddling Home (2009) and my Drift City series of photographs. My friends went to a preview of M+ and were surprised to see my work on display. They were also looking for Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, Tiananmen (1995–2010), but couldn’t find it. The Chinese Communist Party has turned Hong Kong into a police state, with the national security law threatening freedom of speech and every aspect of civil society. Many Hong Kong artists and curators are exercising self-censorship or have already left. So, is M+ still a good idea?

Kacey Wong is an artist from Hong Kong who now lives in Taiwan. 

John Jervis

In 2012, I moved to Hong Kong. My first assignment was to write a 4,000-word piece on its contemporary art scene, a task for which I was entirely ill-equipped. Even to me, however, it seemed this was a moment of prom-ise. Long promoted as a ‘gateway to China’, Hong Kong was ideally placed to capture the exploding market for Chinese art (and, more optimistically, supposed hankerings for international art on the mainland). Big guns were joining the gallery scene (Gagosian and White Cube had just arrived, Lehmann Maupin followed). Art Basel had purchased Art HK, reinventing it as Asia’s leading fair and enticing Chinese galleries to the city. Auctioneers hedged their bets, opening offices in Shanghai and Beijing, but the big money remained in Hong Kong.

For it to be anointed as the art capital of South East Asia, one thing remained. Just along the harbour from the inadequate, introverted Hong Kong Museum of Art was the embryonic West Kowloon Cultural District. Its centrepiece was to be M+, a lavishly funded ‘museum of visual culture’ opening in 2017. Tate Modern’s founding director, Lars Nittve, was in post, soon joined by its architects, Herzog & de Meuron. And M+ had just announced the acquisition of some 1,500 works of Chinese art from the 1970s onwards from the collection of Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador in Beijing, transforming it into China’s leading museum of modern art.

There were grumbles. Global ambitions meant rising rents and vigorous competition. Local pioneers of the Chinese art scene such as Schoeni and activist non-profits such as Woofer Ten closed. M+ was given control of the city’s representation at the Venice Biennale. Curatorial appointments were determinedly international. And how could Hong Kong foster a genuine creative culture if funding was diverted from education and infrastructure to a stand-alone showpiece for globalisation?

But these seemed like growing pains, as did controversies about patriotism in school cur-riculums. At the time, I was somewhat sneery about M+’s peripatetic exhibition programme, but in truth it was diverse, accessible, intelligent and fun – an idealistic attempt to engage with the city, encompassing Cantonese opera, neon signs, bamboo theatres and Paul McCarthy’s outsized inflatable turd. One of the most substantial shows, ‘Building M+’, also revealed the astute job being done to create coherent collections that could rebalance global narratives towards South East Asia.

M+ seemed inevitable, so right. But if you looked closely enough, divisions between the city and its various cultural saviours were starting to emerge. A couple of months before I left in late 2014, Hong Kong’s curatorial elite took a boating trip to extend understandings of ‘ideological, historical, mystical, and fictional interpretations’ of ‘uninhabited and unvisited islands’. That same day, tear-gas canisters were fired on Umbrella Movement protestors outside the Legislative Council for the first time. Engagement, it turned out, might require more than the art scene was able to give.

And now? Harmful compromises have been made, from the removal of Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing (2001) from the cover of a catalogue in 2016 to the recent disappearance of Ai Weiwei works from the inaugural exhibition and website. It has now become clear that last year’s national security law will apply to the arts, with the film censorship bill giving long-standing harassment of independent art production an official imprimatur. Protestations of curatorial independence are undermined by conspicuous silences and overtaken by events – most recently a promise by West Kowloon’s chief executive to co-operate with authorities on ‘how to deal with illegal work’. Yet talented curators remain, determined that M+ can serve an honourable purpose, that culture can act as a bridge, that this is more than commerce.

As an outsider, I’m not in a position to say if this balancing act is worthwhile. Cultural institutions the world over are increasingly subject to political pressures and self-doubt. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is established as the world’s third art market; donations flood into M+ and, if photographs tell true, its building will confirm Hong Kong’s status as a cultural hub, even as its aspirations to be a world city falter. One can only echo the hopes expressed last year by another self-proclaimed outsider, Uli Sigg, that, ‘Even if conditions are worse for a limited time, better days will come.’

This is an updated version of the piece published in the December 2021 issue.

John Jervis is a writer and editor, and was previously managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific in Hong Kong. 

From the December 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

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