Major Contemporary Art Museum Debuts in Hong Kong Amid Censorship Concerns

An interior view of a gallery in museum, with tall white ceilings, wooden floor and in the center, a work of 126 clay jars, some painted white, arranged on the floor in a grid
Ai Weiwei’s Whitewash (1995–2000), pictured here in the M+ museum’s newly opened galleries, features 126 Neolithic clay jars unearthed in China. Photo by Keith Tsuji / Getty Images

After years of delays and anticipation, Hong Kong’s M+ museum has finally opened its doors.

Perched on the city’s Victoria Harbor waterfront, the multibillion-dollar institution aims to become one of the most popular contemporary art destinations in the world, on par with the likes of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Tate Modern in London, reports Alex Greenberger for ARTNews. Its distinctive L-shaped building, designed by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, boasts 700,000 square feet of space and houses more than 8,000 works of contemporary Chinese and Asian art.

More than 76,000 people reserved tickets to the museum ahead of its November 12 opening, reports Vivian Wang for the New York Times. But looming threats of government censorship have tempered expectations for the long-awaited venue.

“The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law,” Henry Tang, head of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which includes the museum, tells James Pomfret of Reuters. “It is not.”

Major Contemporary Art Museum Debuts in Hong Kong Amid Censorship Concerns
Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, a striking building with an illuminated waterfront facade, opened to the public last week. The institution aims to transform the city into a global destination for contemporary art. Photo by Virgile Simon Bertrand / Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron

Originally slated to open in 2017, M+ was beset by budget concerns, construction delays, the Covid-19 pandemic, curator resignations and a host of other obstacles, writes Enid Tsui for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) magazine.

Recent political developments also posed problems. Last year, in the wake of widespread anti-government protests in the city, Chinese officials imposed a sweeping national security law that gives Beijing broad powers to intervene in Hong Kong’s once-independent judiciary, surveil the city’s residents, target activists who criticize the Communist Party and more. The law imposes severe restrictions that clash with the city’s historic status as a semiautonomous hub for freedom of speech, including artistic expression.

Newfound pressure from Beijing has already led M+ to change how it displays politically charged art. Earlier this year, a photograph in the museum’s collections by dissident Chinese artist Ai WeiWei attracted public criticism from pro-Beijing politicians. In September, the museum removed the work’s image from its online hub and publicly committed not to display the work in person, per ARTNews.

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Part of Ai’s Study of Perspective series (1997–2015), the black-and-white photograph depicts the artist raising his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In 1989, the square was the site of the Chinese government’s violent suppression of a student demonstration against political corruption. Authorities wounded, killed or arrested an unknown number of protesters; estimates of the death toll range from China’s official count of 200 to student leaders’ claim of up to 3,400. The massacre remains a taboo subject for the Chinese government more than 30 years later.

Censorship concerns meant that M+ kept the contents of its galleries tightly under wraps until the museum’s press opening on November 11. But M+ director Suhanya Raffel says the exhibitions on view were planned well before Beijing’s 2020 crackdown.

“We work within the laws of our city,” Raffel tells Kari Soo Lindberg and Stella Ko of Bloomberg. “We have not had to make changes to our opening exhibitions. We feel absolutely certain that the curatorial integrity is intact.”

When visitors flooded into the building on opening day, they were greeted by a major exhibition, “Revolution to Globalization,” which traces Chinese art from the 1970s to the present. The galleries feature works from the collection of a former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, who announced plans to donate his seminal trove of Chinese art to the museum in 2012.

“It is not possible for a museum to survive without the freedom of speech.”

Among the works on view are Dust (1987) by Huang Yong Ping, a Chinese-French conceptual artist and founder of the influential contemporary art group Xiamen Dada, and a painting from Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodlines series, which draws inspiration from pre-Cultural Revolution family photographs.

Museumgoers will also encounter site-specific installations, including British artist Antony Gormley’s Asian Field (a sea of 200,000 hand-crafted clay figurines 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 Whitewash (1995–2000), which consists of 126 Neolithic clay jars arranged in a grid, some coated in white paint. Though Whitewash is not as provocative as Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square, Tsui of SCMP argues that the artwork “is still an irreverent treatment of ancient artifacts, and could therefore be seen as a critical comment on Chinese history and identity.”

Speaking with Bloomberg, Ai “expressed skepticism” that M+ would be able 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 the freedom of speech.”

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