Ahead of its long-awaited reopening, after a pandemic-related closure, Hong Kong’s M+ Museum has removed three politically charged artworks by Chinese contemporary artists from an exhibition dedicated to works amassed by Swiss collector Uli Sigg, whose donation of over 1,400 works helped form the basis of M+’s permanent collection.
The three works are Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing (2001), Zhou Tiehai’s Press Conference III (1996), and Wang Guangyi’s Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2 (1989). At least one of the pieces, New Beijing, has already been replaced by a less politically incisive oil painting, according to local news outlet Hong Kong Free Press.
New Beijing depicts two injured penguins—one inflicted with what appears to be a gunshot wound—in a direct reference to an iconic image captured by photojournalist Liu Heung Shing of two student protestors being rushed to a hospital during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing.
There are no official records of the death toll of the incident, though Amnesty International estimates hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by troops dispatched by the government. Any public acknowledgments of the massacre are subject to censorship in China. In 2019, activists were denied permits for a vigil commemorating its 30th anniversary.
Zhou’s Press Conference III depicts the artist in a press conference discussing the commodification of Chinese contemporary art within the global art market, while Wang Guangyi’s 1989 painting features the late Communist leader Mao Zedong behind a red grid.
In the past three years, Beijing has clamped downed on free speech in Hong Kong, which has historically functioned as a semi-autonomous region. This status allowed the city to thrive as an international art destination, but the implementation of a controversial National Security Law in 2020 broadened the mainland government’s power to curtail any expression it deems “anti-government.”
Reports of the removal of the works fueled speculation that M+, a multibillion-dollar project billed as a cultural bridge between China and the West, would fall short of its global ambitions. Ahead of its fall 2021 opening, Hong Kong collector William Lim, who donated some 90 works to M+, told ARTnews, “I’m not too concerned that works won’t be shown. Some of this is overblown by the Western media.”
The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which operates the arts hub where M+ is located, said in a statement that the three works were removed as part of a routine rehang of the collection.
“Rotation of the remaining works will be conducted over the coming few months,” the spokesperson said. “Like other world class museums across the globe, curators will handle curatorial matters in a professional manner and all of our exhibitions are in full compliance with relevant laws and regulations.”
Several works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei are still on display. Last year, a photograph of Ai raising his middle finger at Tiananmen Square was the target of criticism from pro-Beijing politicians, who claimed it violated the 2020 National Security Law by “spreading hatred against China.” The museum removed the work, titled Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997), from view before its highly-anticipated opening, but said at the time that it was unrelated to the National Security Law.
“We will uphold and encourage freedom of artistic expression and creativity,” said Henry Tang, chair of the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, echoing a similar comment he made at the museum’s inauguration last November. “But artistic expression is not above the law. As a public museum, we have the responsibility to comply with the law and respect a society’s cultural standard.”