Hong Kong’s M+ Art Museum Opens Amid Censorship Concerns; Badiucao Withstands Censorship Pressure Abroad

On Friday, Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture, M+, made its debut to the public. A two-decade-long, billion-dollar project considered the crown jewel of West Kowloon, it will test the limits of how far the National Security Law will go to censor the arts: as evidenced by M+’s opening exhibits, curators and government authorities will likely censor just enough to meet national security standards, but not so much as to make a mockery of its ambition to become the global epicenter of Asian contemporary art. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s warning that the arts should foster “correct” viewpoints of history and culture has echoed abroad, as the Chinese government attempted to censor an exhibit in Italy by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao.

M+ is a museum of international stature with local roots. Its inverted T-shaped structure was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the renowned Swiss architectural firm that built London’s Tate Modern and the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium in Beijing. Its collection features an artist pool that is 76 percent Asian, and includes 136 artists from Hong Kong. The aim is to showcase Asian art, from Asian perspectives, to Asian audiences, unmediated by the contemporary art world’s dominant Western lens. Pak Yiu from Nikkei Asia introduced M+ and the unique context in which it opens:

The collection of more than 8,000 artworks and moving images is housed in 33 galleries, and includes a world-class collection of contemporary Chinese art donated by Swiss businessman and former diplomat Uli Sigg, as well as works by Zhang Wei, Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong, and British sculptor Antony Gormley. Admission to the 65,000 sq. meter space will be free for the first year, after which tickets will cost 120 Hong Kong dollars ($15) for adults.

Hailed as the region’s first museum of visual culture, and located in the heart of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, by the time it is finished M+ is expected to rival New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern. With Hong Kong still shut off from the rest of the world due to COVID restrictions, M+ will have to wait before it can welcome the millions of overseas visitors expected to flood through its doors. 

M+ opens at a unique moment in Hong Kong’s history, where not only have artists felt increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s tightening grip but caught between the ideological battle between China and the West. The art world will now be paying close attention as to whether it can live up to its international ambition and commitment to being censorship-free. [Source]

Vivian Wang from the New York Times described how M+ struggled to get off the ground

M+, Hong Kong’s sprawling new contemporary art museum, ran into problems from the start. Billed as Asia’s premier visual institution, it was four years behind schedule and an undisclosed amount over budget.

[…] The museum was supposed to open in 2017. But construction delays and other logistical problems pushed the date back to 2019, then 2020, then 2021. Several executives stepped down, including [the museum’s first director,] Mr. Nittve. The museum’s main contractor was fired over a financial dispute. In 2019, flooding opened a massive sinkhole.

Some Hong Kong artists criticized the museum’s international leadership, calling for more local representation. Lawmakers questioned the building’s price tag of $760 million.

Perhaps the most fundamental concern was whether the promise of Hong Kong as a haven of free expression could hold. [Source]

According to Henry Tang Ying-yen, board chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, there will be limits on artistic freedom at M+. At a press conference before the museum opening, he stated, “We will uphold and encourage the freedom of artistic expression and creativity. On the other hand, our dedicated curatorial team will ensure the exhibitions comply with the law, including the Basic Law, the national security law and all other laws in Hong Kong. The opening of M+ does not mean artistic expression is above the law. It is not.” Earlier in the year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to be on “full alert” against art that may endanger national security. 

Long before the museum opened, there were signs of censorship. In 2016, as a preview to the museum’s opening, M+ organized a touring exhibition of Europe titled “Right is Wrong.” The exhibition’s catalogue cover featured Wang Xingwei’s “New Beijing,” an absurdist rendition of an iconic photograph taken during the 1989 pro-democracy protests. When the same exhibition opened in Hong Kong, its title was diluted to “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art,” after M+ committee members objected to the original title, according to curator Pi Li. 

The M+ Sigg collection has attracted the most media attention. Valued at approximately 1.5 billion Hong Kong dollars and encompassing nearly 1,500 items, partly donated and partly sold to the museum, it is the world’s largest collection of Chinese contemporary art from the 1970s to the 2000s. A renowned art collector, Uli Sigg was previously Swiss ambassador to China (1995-98) and during his tenure hosted gatherings at his home in Beijing for artists affiliated with the 1989 pro-democracy movement. One of those artists was Ai Weiwei: Sigg’s collection includes two dozen of his works, two of which are on display in the museum. Stephy Chung from CNN described how one of Ai Weiwei’s works was cut from the M+ website and exhibition: 

In particular, a 1997 photograph of Ai Weiwei raising a middle finger to Tiananmen Square was embroiled in controversy earlier this year, when the image was removed from the museum’s website, where users can browse through items in its collections. (Other images from his “Study in Perspectives” series, showing him making the same gesture towards the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre, the White House and the Federal Palace of Switzerland still appear on the site).

[In the museum] Ai’s middle finger is nowhere to be seen, but two of his works do appear: an installation of his earthenware jars and a 2004 video capturing Beijing’s Chang’an Boulevard, the street running from east to west via rural villages, the capital’s business district and right through the heart of government power. [Source

Another of Ai’s works censored on the M+ website is Map of China. The sculpture, a 3D map that includes Taiwan, is a mosaic of interlocking wood pieces sourced from Qing Dynasty temples; it reads as a subtle symbol of China’s cultural and ethnic diversity

The museum is clearly under censorship,” Ai said in a recent interview with Reuters. “When you have a museum which cannot or is incapable of defending its own integrity about freedom of speech, then that raises a question. And certainly the museum cannot perform well in terms of contemporary culture.” Previously, Ai labeled M+ as one 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.” He has little faith in the museum’s future, concluding, “I don’t think the museum… with this kind of condition can still have this ambition to become one of the world’s most advanced cultural facilities.” More bluntly, “It is not possible for a museum to survive without the freedom of speech.”

Kacey Wong is another artist critical of censorship at M+. One of his two works displayed in the museum, titled “Paddling Home,” is a micro-apartment built atop a raft, a floating critique of Hong Kong’s exorbitant real estate market. Despite having his works showcased, Wong fled to Taiwan this summer amid Hong Kong’s political crackdown in order to keep his artistic “critical blade sharp.” In a video interview with DW, Wong described his view of  M+’s political compromises:

It seems to me it’s a series of systematic attacks against the arts and cultural sector. The political crackdown from Beijing is becoming more tangible. The museum authorities have let us down by giving up its autonomy and betraying the artistic profession. Why should an artwork be judged by the police?

A new platform doesn’t necessarily facilitate art development if it helps exploit freedom of art expression. Self-censorship is getting more common among artists who tend to make their work more abstract. But I believe the greater the limitation, the greater the creativity that will evolve. [Source]

The museum’s management has tried to insulate itself from the authorities as best it can. Suhanya Raffel, the director of M+ since 2016, claimed that there was no censorship or other political interference because the museum’s content was selected before the introduction of the National Security Law. “We bedded down all the opening exhibitions in 2018 and have not changed the selections since,” she added. Enid Tsui from the South China Morning Post explained how Raffel’s predecessor, Lars Nittve, also established an important governance structure that provides a certain degree of autonomy from the government: 

It is not a widely known fact that M Plus Collections Limited was incorporated in 2016 to serve as trustee of the museum collection. It, rather than the museum, owns the legal interest in the collection on behalf of the Hong Kong public, and is an additional buffer between the collection and “inappropriate de-accession”: selling or giving away an object from the collection, according to the original Legco papers. [Source]

The Associated Press noted that political survival might trump political principles when it comes to the museum’s decisions on self-censorship:

“It is self-censorship, but maybe it is survival, too, for M+. They need to balance what is important and what they can get away with,” said John Batten, president of the International Art Critics Hong Kong.

“And because this particular photograph [by Ai Weiwei] has been such a lightning rod of criticism … maybe we should just put it aside for a while.” [Source]

In the end, as Kari Soo Lindberg and Stella Ko from Bloomberg describe, despite a certain degree of censorship, M+ still succeeds in challenging perspectives through the medium of art:

“We really hope that our audiences will come in and see things together like this with an open mind, and then leave the exhibition with a fresh perspective on everything else that they encounter in the city,” [M+ curator Tina Pang] said.

That mission puts M+ in league with museums all over the world, said Paul Gladston, a professor of contemporary Chinese art at UNSW Sydney. The goal is often to raise questions, challenge perspectives and create discussion. At that, M+ has already succeeded.

“Often culture is about dealing with things obliquely. It’s vague, it’s soft-edged,” he said. “It’s not like legal contestation or political contestation, which can often be very oppositional. Culture doesn’t work very well like that, and I think that’s what the international community should try to understand better.” [Source]

Moreover, M+ may be one of the last remaining places in Hong Kong to openly challenge dominant perspectives. Some of the art exhibited would still be considered too sensitive for mainland museums. In a review for The Art Newspaper, Ilaria Maria Sala pointed out that the museum’s ability to harbor political art provides Hongkongers with a rare space to deliberate their identity in relation to China and the rest of Asia:

All this puts M+ in a bind: it is a world-class institution, whose presence in Hong Kong changes much more than just the local artistic landscape, but which must nevertheless toe the rather unclear red lines that may yet undermine it. In scale and ambition, M+ possesses all the qualities needed to take its place with other major art museums around the world, while contributing different points of departure by asserting and amplifying Asian voices and concerns.

[…] The galleries do not eschew more politically charged themes: among the Hong Kong artists represented is Kacey Wong, now living in exile in Taiwan after the enactment of the National Security law, whose floating house installation Paddling Home (2009) underline[s] the quest for home, space and identity. Works by Tiffany Chung remind the audience of the dark days spent by Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong camps, while a dreamy video installation by May Fung, She Said Why Me, also shows historic footage of protesters being tackled by police—in the 1980s. No more recent protests, or the vernacular codes they have engendered, are on show, but what is there is sure to resonate with the mood of nostalgia in contemporary Hong Kong culture. In the current climate, this celebration of Hong Kong culture and of its place in the larger Asian context is deeply validating of its importance. 

[…] In M+, Hong Kong has gained a truly magnificent museum, whose existence manages to remind the more inward-looking members of the political establishment that Hong Kong is, and has always been, a place of encounters and multiple cultural influences. Its prestige might help it to navigate these troubled times—in the hope that greater openness will not be seen as a threat, whether in Hong Kong or in China. [Source]

Some critics have also raised privacy concerns. According to The Standard, online registration for tickets to M+ requires prospective visitors to submit an unusually large amount of personal information, including their full passport name, title, phone number, and email address; according to M+’s privacy policy statement, this information will be retained “for as long as is reasonably necessary.” By contrast, registration for other local art museums, such as the Hong Kong Museum of Art, requires only a scan of one’s LeaveHomeSafe app, and the government’s annual museum pass requires only a full name and telephone number. 

Elsewhere in Hong Kong, the art scene has been less jubilant. In September, authorities raided the Hong Kong Alliance’s June 4 museum, and later blocked its online incarnation. In October, Hong Kong University ordered the removal from its campus of the famous Pillar of Shame sculpture, a memorial to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Danish artist, Jens Galschiøt, has requested legal protections from the university administration in order to salvage the sculpture and return it to Denmark without facing prosecution. Just this week, the government ordered a store to remove a statue of Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. And in October, the Hong Kong legislature passed a film censorship law which punishes violators with fines and up to three years in prison for showing films deemed a threat to national security. The law applies retroactively to films previously granted approval. 

The Chinese government has continued its arts censorship crusade abroad. In October, the Chinese embassy in Italy used veiled economic threats to attempt to pressure the Museum of Santa Giulia, in the town of Brescia, to abort its plans to host an exhibit by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao. The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless sent a chilling message to overseas organizers of exhibitions that do not meet with Beijing’s approval. Charlene Pele from the Associated Press described Badiucao’s exhibit, titled “China is (not) near — Works of a dissident artist”

The exhibition, which runs until Feb. 13, traces Badiucao’s artistic career from its start to most recent works created in response to the health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. A former assistant to the Berlin-based Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Badiucao currently works in exile from Australia.

The works range from oil paintings to installations and performance art. They include one that evokes a scandal involving tainted baby formula exported by China in 2018, another that recalls the Tiananmen Square massacre and yet another that represents the Umbrella Movement as part of the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations quelled by China.

During the exhibit’s opening days, Badiucao will sit in a torture chair and read from a diary shared with him by a resident of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected. [Source]

This is Badiucao’s first major public exhibition, after a 2018 solo show in Hong Kong was cancelled by the organizers under pressure from the Chinese government. Prior to the exhibit in Italy, Chinese police “went to intimidate [Badiucao’s] family in Shanghai” and threatened to “send officers” to the opening, according to the artist, who was “very happy and proud” that the city “had the courage to say ‘no’ to China to defend fundamental rights.” The complaint by the Chinese embassy was “an intrusion on a city’s artistic, cultural decision,” in the words of Brescia deputy mayor Laura Castelletti, who stated that it only “attracted more attention.” Elisabetta Povoledo from the New York Times described how the exhibit organizers sought to uphold freedom of expression

“We never thought for a moment about canceling the exhibit,” said Francesca Bazoli, the president of the Brescia Musei Foundation. “We believe in the role that contemporary art has as a powerful and inspiring instrument channeling themes that affirm freedom of expression,” she said. “We didn’t invite Badiucao because he was a dissident Chinese man, we invited him because he is an artist who shows us how art can be used as a critical tool. It was a cultural, not a political, operation.” [Source]

 

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