Skip to main content

Hong Kong’s M+ Museum Vows to Uphold Independence

Hong Kong is a city divided by geography, politics and culture. Could the new cultural district go some way towards mending the rift?

Hong Kong is a city with a clear cultural and geographical boundary. There’s the tiny and densely populated Hong Kong Island, home to the majority of expats, swanky hotels, banks and hedge funds, fancy international restaurants and art galleries. Across the harbour is the ‘dark side’ of Kowloon: culturally more Chinese, with bustling markets and steaming dai pai dongs.

And it’s a city that is more politically divided than ever. Frustration and resentment swirls — particularly among Hong Kong’s youth — over the government’s anti-democracy stance. Uncertainty over Hong Kong’s future has lingered since the emergence of Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, which raised many questions but answered none. This year, this anxiety is only underlined as the city state reaches the halfway point between the British handover in 1997 and China’s reclaiming of Hong Kong in 2047.

A museum can’t hope to solve these problems, but it might help, reckons Aric Chen, lead curator for design and architecture at M+, Hong Kong’s new museum for visual culture, encompassing 20th and 21st century art, design and architecture, and moving images from Hong Kong, China and beyond. Due to open in 2019, M+ is expected to draw two million visitors a year. Located within the West Kowloon Cultural District on the harbour front, the giant laptop-shaped museum was designed by Herzog & de Meuron to dramatically change the Kowloon horizon.

After the recent bookseller scandal, will the government-funded museum dare to show artworks that are critical of China? Curatorial independence is of utmost importance, insists Chen, who worked as the creative director of Beijing Design Week and as an independent curator and critic in New York. “We’re not a political institution, we’re a cultural institution. We’re driven by our content and whatever side of the political spectrum that falls so be it, but it’s the content first,” he insists.

Indeed, curatorial independence was the reason why the museum’s biggest donor, Swiss uber-collector Dr Uli Sigg, was drawn to give over 1,400-plus of his collection of contemporary Chinese art to M+. “After negotiations in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, I decided to give [my collection] to Hong Kong. It offered a highly professional environment and a much higher degree of freedom for exhibitions,” he says. “My contribution is to build this encyclopaedic collection always with the intent to bring it back to China so that the Chinese people can see their own art one day, which they now largely ignore,” he adds. (To read our interview with Dr Sigg, click here.)

Last Spring, a ‘teaser’ for M+ went on show at ArtisTree, a cultural venue on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island. The selection from Sigg’s collection included works by Ai Weiwei and other controversial Chinese artists such as Wang Keping, Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, recalls Chen. “There was some nervousness before the show as you would expect,” he admits. “There was a little extra scrutiny but truthfully, nothing was changed. [The M+ Sigg exhibition] was a good test, and we passed. But we must remain vigilant.”

The M+ Museum is part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a new cultural district with a complex of theatres, performance spaces, two kilometres of waterfront promenade, 23 hectares of open public space and the enormous M+ Museum. Visually it will transform Hong Kong’s ‘dark side’. Culturally, it may diffuse China-Hong Kong tensions. “We’re not promoting Chinese identity or Hong Kong identity or Asian identity per se— we’re a museum about ideas, which often transcend borders,” says Chen, adding that he hopes it will help unify people.

M+ has just launched a show in a pavilion opposite the construction site that Chen curated. Called ‘Shifting Objectives’, it provides a glimpse of future exhibitions at the M+. “Shifting Objectives gives a preview of what our future exhibitions... will be, with a focus on the changing roles and meanings of culture in the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Duncan Pescod, chief executive officer of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

Highlights range from important works by Japanese studio nendo; Hong Kong designer and artist Stanley Wong; Chinese designer Li Naihan; the Swedish group Front; and British designer Jasper Morrison; the Sony Aibo; the first releases of the emoji designed by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT Docomo; and items recently acquired at Huaqiangbei, the electronics district of Shenzhen.

The journey has not been without hurdles. “This kind of cultural institution is a relatively new concept here in terms of providing a public good that’s best accomplished outside the conventional government system,” says Chen. “We’ve been set up with this in mind, but old habits die hard, and it takes time to build trust. We’ve had a lot of delays but now everything is on track and the building is taking shape.

“We hope we are building something that all Hong Kongers can be proud of,” he adds. “We hear a lot about Hong Kong values and we are staying true to Hong Kong values: openness, curiosity — a culture that enriches the way we see the world.”