Hong-Kong, China – Its cavernous reception hall offers a glimpse of the scintillating view of Victoria Harbor. Its collection promises visitors the chance to see some of the most important works of art in the world.
M +, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects behind Tate Modern in London, is touted as Asia’s premier global visual art museum.
The museum, which was built 14 years ago and is the crown jewel of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon cultural district, opens on Friday at a politically charged time.
Even as Chinese territory tries to find its place on the world cultural map and sheds a past dominated by commercial interests, a dark cloud of censorship in the name of safeguarding national security looms on the horizon. .
“This is a major development, which has been preparing for a long time. M + has local, regional and global significance, ”said Paul Gladston, contemporary Chinese art specialist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. That said, he will have to “come to terms with finding ways to negotiate these issues in a manner familiar to the continent. It is a fact now.
In March, when M + executive director Suhanya Raffel said on a media tour that she would not back down from the controversial works, West Kowloon district chief Henry Tang was quick to point out that all exhibitions would be subject to the jurisdiction of the National Security Law, which was imposed by China in June last year.
The legislation criminalizes activities Beijing sees as subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with sentences of up to life in prison, and critics say it has “decimated” democratic freedoms from Hong Kong.
The law “limits what M + can do and gives the impression that it limits what M + can do,” Gladston told Al Jazeera. “That is problematic.”
During a private tour of the museum last week, Doryun Chong, chief curator of M +, was asked about the progress of his work since his appointment in 2013.
“The terrain has changed,” he said, “Things have changed a lot. There are a lot of expectations and scrutiny.
That same year, late American artist Andy Warhol’s largest exhibition was on tour in Asia, and while his Mao silkscreens were banned in Beijing and Shanghai, they were exhibited in Hong Kong.
This year, just months before its official opening, the museum released a statement saying that a photograph by exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei showing Ai flipping the bird in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square would not be included in any of the exhibits. inaugural.
The statement was widely viewed as a tumble by the museum’s executive director in the face of scathing attacks from pro-Beijing politicians. A description of the 1997 work, Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen, can be found on the museum’s website, but there is no image.
That’s not all.
In recent months, state-controlled media-fueled attacks on a range of artistic activities – from documentary screenings to cartoons in newspapers – have all but stifled freedom of expression that was once prized in Hong Kong.
After being called a “troublemaker” in a pro-Beijing newspaper in August, outspoken songwriter Adrian Chow, well known for his political cantopop compositions, resigned from his hard-earned seat on the development board artistic city.
“I am afraid that Hong Kong will be ushered into the Dark Ages,” Chow said, “it is inevitable that the development of art will be affected.”
‘Play without risk’
Just a few weeks ago, Danish artist Jens Galschiøt mobilized against the eviction and possible destruction of the Pillar of Shame, which commemorates the bloodshed of the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
The sculpture has been on a college campus since the day before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, after more than a century of British rule, but officials recently ordered the pillar’s removal. Information released on Friday indicated that Galschiøt was seeking legal protection to be able to return to Hong Kong to recover the work.
Now all eyes are on what will remain invisible to M +, with officials pointing out that only a small fraction of the 6,000-piece collection can be on display at any one time on the 17,000 square meters (183,000 square feet) of exhibition space.
A founding donation of more than 1,500 works of art – including some from Ai – from Uli Sigg, former Swiss Ambassador to China and private collector, forms the core of M + ‘s collection. It seems likely that some of the pieces in Sigg’s collection, banned by security law, will remain in the seven-story concrete-lined storage facility facing the museum.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers of this former East Hollywood are under increasing scrutiny. Under the guise of COVID-related crowd control rules, officials are deployed as moles to infiltrate private screenings and shut them down.
At least three new documentaries on the pro-democracy movement from 2019 have been banned from local broadcast.
Director Kiwi Chow circumvented the ban with his new film Revolution of Our Times by hosting a premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as a surprise last-minute addition to the program, then selling the rights soon after to a European distributor. . Anticipating trouble with the Hong Kong authorities, Chow destroyed all raw footage.
However, for artists whose works must circulate locally, self-censorship becomes a strategy of self-preservation.
Press cartoonist Justin Wong has admitted avoiding risky content and moving closer to safer topics, but acknowledges that even playing it safe may not be enough.
“Of course, if people are determined to overwhelm me with sin, they can make a mountain out of any Mickey Mouse I draw,” Wong said.