The official launch of the M+ museum has been the talk of the town in Hong Kong this month—and for more than a decade, really. Now, the museum has finally opened its doors, welcoming the public amid the coronavirus pandemic, after a series of construction delays over the years. Quarantine policies will likely prevent many international tourists from visiting in person in the near term, so the museum is aiming to attract local residents during its first year by way of giving them free admission. All eyes are on this art institution to witness how it navigates the “new normal” and how it positions itself as a major cultural hub in the region.
“It is a huge feat to build an entire museum and collection of this scale from scratch, and an amazing opportunity to shape its direction,” M+ museum director Suhanya Raffel said in an interview before a press preview on Thursday.
Around a decade ago, the international art world derided Hong Kong as a “cultural desert.” This nickname stuck because critics saw the city as a place without art and culture, just commerce. The opening of the multibillion-dollar M+ museum epitomizes the city’s ambition to shake off stereotypes by creating “Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture,” according to promotional materials. Its 700,000-square-foot size makes it comparable to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The museum feels almost too large for anyone who tries to see everything at once. That’s understandable, because the space around the art allows for a proper viewing experience—and like it or not, social distancing. The museum’s grandeur means that people need to spend more than a full day to see everything.
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And M+ has gone the extra mile to help bolster that image, even enlisting the likes of MoMA director Glenn Lowry to provide commentary on the museum in press materials. “The opening of M+ is the most anticipated event in the art world this year,” Lowry’s statement reads. “I can think of few other museums whose potential is greater than M+ and that have the possibility of writing new histories of contemporary art.”
Designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in partnership with TFP Farrells and Arup, M+’s custom building takes pride of place on the Victoria Harbour waterfront in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Upon entering the museum, visitors are greeted with natural light flowing into the spacious, concrete structure of the main hall. Vertical metallic rails, wooden floors, and huge glass windows give the museum an industrial look.
Displayed on the main hall’s concrete columns are large-scale ink-on-paper calligraphic works by artist Tong Yang-Tze, which were commissioned by M+. The soft, gestural movements of the brushstrokes of the Chinese scripts breathe life into the space. Juxtaposed against these pieces are colorful digital screens displaying animations of the names of M+ museum donors. The stylized kinetic typography combines the significance of text in visual culture with technology.
The museum is built on reclaimed land, with areas in the sea filled with earth, and underneath the site are the MTR Airport Express and Tung Chung Line tunnels. Excavations around the tunnels have revealed a “found space,” which is used for hosting large-scale installations. For the opening, the curatorial team chose Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s We the People (2011–16), a sculpture made from fragmented copper plates depicting the Statue of Liberty’s right shoulder and underarm, and Chinese-French artist Chen Zhen’s Round Table – Side by Side (1997), two large wooden tables connected to each other surrounded by 28 chairs in both Eastern and Western styles.
The main hall’s gallery houses the exhibition “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond,” which displays art from 1960s to the present, including works by artists like Tsang Tsou-choi (also known as the “King of Kowloon”) and Lui Shou-kwan. The layout of this space creates an intimate way of displaying works of art, since they are arranged closely together.
The history of Hong Kong is divided into four chapters—“Here,” “Identities,” “Places,” and “Beyond.” The exhibition evokes the claustrophobic feeling the mega-city is known for and dredges up nostalgia through pop-cultural memorabilia. Various objects are juxtaposed, with varying degrees of success. Images of 1980s idols, for example, are pitted against architectural models of urban structures like skyscrapers. Although the city is a small place, the overview of its narrative risks oversimplification—visual culture is constantly evolving, due to the fast pace of the city, and capturing its fast-changing nature in full is nearly impossible.
On the second floor, the outer edge surrounding the atrium is where most of the museum’s galleries are located. One of the opening exhibitions featuring works of Chinese contemporary art, selected from the 1,510 pieces donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg to the museum, has already generated considerable buzz among the art world and the general public. From Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang to Lin Tianmao and Geng Jianyi, the avant-garde works on view raise questions about how the M+ museum strikes a balance between stimulating intellectual debates and legal compliance in light of the recent changes. These uncertainties have sparked concerns among many people, regardless of their stance on artistic censorship.
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“Our curatorial independence as a museum has enabled us to build the collection and to curate it in such a way that we can clearly tell the story of contemporary visual culture in Hong Kong, mainland China, elsewhere in Asia, and beyond,” Raffel said. “Museums must operate within a legal framework that is bespoke to our respective countries.”
Henry Tang Ying-yen, chairman of the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, also echoed these views, citing that nothing and nobody—not even a museum—is “above the law.” At the press conference, Tang emphasized that Hong Kong is an East-West center for international exchange, which embraces “core values” such as diversity, inclusivity, and openness. He explained that, “just because something is not on view at the moment doesn’t mean that it won’t be on display in the future.” Notably, protest art, which is of significant interest in the city right now, is here—but what M+ has on display mainly deals with other locales.
Still, those in search of big, striking works will find them here. On the second floor is British artist Antony Gormley’s installation Asian Field (2003), which is filled with approximately 200,000 hand-sized clay sculptures made by 300 residents from a village in Guangzhou. It overwhelms visitors, who can only stand at the edge of the work, by its sheer scale. Confronting the gaze of the figurines brings up questions about the meaning of individuality and collectivity.
Another highlight is Lee Mingwei’s participatory installation The Letter Writing Project (1998), in which visitors can write letters to whomever they choose. To do so, viewers can assume a spot at three booths, and write while sitting, kneeling, or standing. The work evokes Buddhist meditation practices and speaks to how specific cultural traditions in Asia have influenced countries globally.
“Asia is not only defined by its location but also by its ideas,” Doryun Chong, M+’s deputy director, curatorial and chief curator, said during a walkthrough.
When asked how M+ strikes a balance between the in-person experience of art at the venue and the digital engagement with those who cannot visit in person, Raffel explained, “M+ is embracing the practice of open access online, with the aim of unlocking our institutional knowledge and to invite public engagement. It’s a key element in creating new narratives and interpretations by giving the wider community a stake in what we do.”
Those who can visit in person can enjoy an open-air roof garden with a sea view, which connects to areas like the Learning Hub and the Art Park. And, for those interested in design objects and architecture, there’s a solid range of offerings, from Alan Chan’s 1984 cover design for an album by Cantopop singer Anita Mui to Japanese artist and designer Kuramata Shiro’s stunning Kiyotomo Sushi Bar (1988), which has been faithfully transported from Tokyo.
Unlike many other museums anywhere in the world, M+ seems to be at the forefront of allowing visitors to explore in-depth its media collections, which often get short shrift in favor of paintings and sculptures. At the Mediatheque, visitors can choose from over 250 videos and films to watch. They can also immerse themselves in virtual reality experiences in the Interactive Media Room, such as artist Omer Fast’s VR film, The Invisible Hand (2018).
A section of the museum called the Cabinet includes an interactive game with projections and tablet screens for audience participation, in which visitors can input their own messages in response to the works of art.
For M+ members and patrons, the M+ Lounge is not to be missed, as it features works from Hong Kong art patron William Lim’s Living Collection. Lim, the founder of the architecture firm CL3, who designed the lounge, and his wife, Lavina Lim, donated 90 works by 53 artists to M+ in 2020. Lim calls the Living Collection “a time capsule where artworks by Hong Kong artists can be preserved and assume an important role in the future history of the city.”
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, espoused a similar view at the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this week. “M+ is the much-anticipated flagship project for the local and international visual arts sector,” she said. “The museum’s scale is second to none in Asia. It houses and displays visual culture collections from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Asia and other regions.”
She continued, “Looking ahead, we have the grand opening of the Hong Kong Palace Museum scheduled for mid-2022, so along with the newly renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art, Victoria Harbour will soon be home to three spectacular world-class museum facilities, paving the way for Hong Kong to become a global landmark for visual art and culture.”