The sprawling museum has been years in the making and is touted as just the thing to catapult HK into the cultural big leagues of the art world — but the mainland’s new national security law has long cast a pall over this vision
As if the prolonged global crisis faced by varied institutions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was not quite enough, unforeseen challenges continue to confront some entities, even in the world of art.
Take for example the much-touted M+ Museum in Hong Kong — the sprawling new contemporary art museum has been billed as Asia’s premier art institution, but has faced an unusual number of obstacles in the run-up to its inauguration.
These include overshooting the initial budget (already a whopping $760 million) by an undisclosed but reportedly significant amount, and a long delay of nearly half a decade in the project coming to fruition (it was originally slated to open in 2017), during which time major flux was apparent in the executives helming the development. The museum’s main contractor was fired over a financial dispute. In fact, at one point, an 80-foot-wide sinkhole had also formed on the construction site thanks to flooding.
But all these challenges could be considered insignificant that has always cast a pall over the project, but is now sharpening its threat. The looming censorship by the Chinese Communist Party has been whetted by the new national security law imposed by Beijing against dissent. In fact, Chinese officials have also already promised to scour every exhibition held here for illegal content.
Beijing imposed the new security law last summer, after a long spell of occasionally violent protests in 2019, giving the government sweeping powers to prosecute any speech deemed “subversive”. Today, nearly all the pro-democracy camp leaders are either arrested or in exile.
All of this certainly dashes the vision for M+ as a world-class institution that could make HK a new cultural heavyweight on the world atlas, built to rival London’s Modern Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
And yet, as the M+ opened last week, over 76,000 people had reserved their tickets to catch a glimpse of the 700,000 square feet building designed by the renowned architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. It is said to boast 8,000 art works and one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art.
The vision for M+ was tied the ethos of HK, given that the latter’s unique political status was crucial, giving the museum the opportunity to recount China’s history in potentially critical ways.
Many of the more than 1,500 works on display had no overt political overtones.
Perhaps this was because even before the opening, pro-Beijing figures had criticized pieces in the M+ collection as an insult to China and called for them to be banned for “spreading hatred”. In March, a photograph by dissident Ai Weiwei had mainly been singled out, of his middle finger raised before Beijing’s highly controversial Tiananmen Square — the site of the Chinese government’s 1989 massacre of peaceful protesters, and a topic that remains taboo in the mainland.
M+ eventually removed Weiwei’s photograph — titled Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997) — from its online archive, citing a legal review. It did not say if it will ever be shown.
Interestingly though, two of his other works did go up on display. So did a painting by Chinese artist Wang Xingwei, inspired by a photograph taken during the Tiananmen massacre.
Further, an exhibit focused on HK also featured a sculpture by Kacey Wong, an outspoken artist who had emigrated to Taiwan some months ago citing the political crackdown.
As reported by the New York Times, the exhibits almost “seemed to seek a delicate balance”.
More open and direct was the declaration by Henry Tang, the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which oversees M+. He told reporters during a media preview of the museum on Thursday, “The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law.”
Ultimately, it boils down to the question — will the promise of Hong Kong as a haven of free expression hold under China’s hardening grip?