Leading a group around the galleries dedicated to mainland Chinese art in Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, the art collector and former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, stopped in front of a giant canvas of four Cultural Revolution guards that also seemed to be a billboard for Chanel No.5. It was a dramatic rendition of that everyday contradiction of Chinese life, the coexistence of consumerism and communism. This is a well-worn theme in mainland art but Sigg says the painting, part of the collection he donated to M+, has become the most photographed in the museum. Maybe, he mused aloud, the painting by Wang Guangyi might prove to be “the Mona Lisa of the museum”.
This was an emblematic moment among many amusingly idiosyncratic ones during the week of 20 March, the museum’s coming out party to the international media and international visitors. It has 6,709 works, with the Sigg collection accounting for about 1,500 of them. There are 33 galleries devoted to Asian contemporary art and design in a 65,000 sq. m building that offers 17,000 sq. m of exhibition space.
M+ has spent the better part of the 21st century navigating controversies while evolving from a concept to this grand second opening to the world. It opened in November 2021 but shut in February 2022 as Hong Kong was, in effect, closed to the world because its quarantine rules were among the most extreme anywhere. Reopening to local visitors in April 2022, M+ is an exuberant space for contemporary exhibitions that somehow combines Asia’s love of video games and crassly commercial pop art with bold political statements and a moving walk-through of Hong Kong’s history of the past 50 years.
One example of this in the exhibition, Hong Kong: Here And Beyond, that somehow manages to be all things at once is Kacey Wong’s satire of the high price of housing. In a tragicomic commentary on one of the world’s wealthiest cities, where the average living space for a person is 13.5 sq. m, Wong put a house the size of a large dog kennel atop a raft powered with an outboard motor. A bottle of Penfolds’ red wine was visible on a table in the small home, again perhaps a side swipe at an administration that has paid disproportionate attention in the past decade and a half to making the city an international wine trading hub. Nearby was a video of Wong, dressed in naval attire, captaining his solo expedition as the raft bobs around Hong Kong’s harbour.
There were lots of such zany and occasionally satirical touches of breezy confidence to M+’s curation, which determinedly puts the museum’s controversial past behind it. Its major ongoing show of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who turned 94 in March, will travel this summer to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, raising M+’s profile globally. Her playful, spectacularly technicoloured work seemed to pop up everywhere in Hong Kong, including videos of the exhibition that greeted commuters stepping off the airport express as well as other galleries exhibiting during Art Basel Hong Kong last month.
Tricked out in Kusama’s trademark neon colours with gargantuan black polka dots is a stuffed object resembling a python from the age of dinosaurs, draped across one of the large halls of the museum, which is reminiscent of the turbine hall in London’s Tate Modern. A renowned British architecture critic, Edwin Heathcote, pointed out that the hall has the city’s airport express running under it, a tribute to this metropolis of ceaseless movement.
The museum has lived through many a crisis since the early 2000s, when the initial plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), home to M+, were heavily criticised as a property grab by overly powerful developers before private sector involvement was substantially cut back. Then there were controversies about the selection of the art, criticised as being too expensive and not sufficiently Hong Kong focused. Sigg’s bequest of more than 1,500 works of contemporary mainland Chinese art in 2012, the foundation of the museum’s collection, prompted concerns that Chinese art would dominate the museum. Two years ago, against the backdrop of a new national security law in Hong Kong, draconian arrests of pro-democracy politicians and the jailing of its most prominent newspaper tycoon, another war of words erupted. This concerned some of the works in the Sigg collection, which were harshly critiqued as fostering hatred of the communist government in Beijing, after M+ director Suhanya Raffel said exhibiting a famous Ai Weiwei work in the collection would be “no problem” in Hong Kong.
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The M+ Sigg Collection Exhibition: From Revolution To Globalisation walks the delicate line between being thought-provoking and landing the museum in another political storm. As a foreign correspondent in the city for six years after the handover, I often marvelled at how, under the principles which guided the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it had enjoyed freedom of expression befitting a global financial centre. That changed with the new national security law in 2020.
A collage of the headlines of these polycrises the museum endured before its doors even opened would make for a lively exhibit in itself. In the event, the exhibitions at M+ are exhilaratingly oblivious to the typhoons it has survived. It was helped by the fact that Art Basel returned to Hong Kong from 21-25 March, for the first time since 2019. Many international gallerists said the event was enhanced because Hong Kong finally had a museum of contemporary art of global ambition.
Yet while so much of the art at Art Basel Hong Kong seemed cookie-cutter commercial variations of manga and Asian art’s saccharine childlike themes, much of the art at M+ had important messages to convey. In the M+ Sigg Collection, I was astounded to see a video artwork by Zhang Peili playing in an endless loop on an old-fashioned TV set. A newscaster was monotonously reiterating the Chinese word shui, which, depending on the tone it’s spoken in, means water, sleep or who. The “meaningless monologue”, the caption observes, points to the “absurdity” of government propaganda systems. You could have knocked me over with a TV remote.
Especially after Beijing’s crackdown on protests over the past couple of years, I did not expect such candour about communism in the inaugural exhibitions. Nearby was Ai Weiwei’s installation of lines of whitewashed Chinese Neolithic earthenware pots, some with the paint having come off. The work is a commentary on autocratic regimes’ attempts to clean up history, making it something else altogether. In fact, the genesis of Hong Kong’s protests of the past decade was a protest by school-going students and their parents against a proposed curriculum change that left out dark episodes such as the Tiananmen massacre. Again, the caption leaves little doubt about the message behind the metaphor.
Some artworks even appear to tackle the sensitive subject of population control polices from the 1970s till a few years ago. Among these is an untitled work that features what look like babies swimming in a pool of blood, their heads a gory, bloody mess. This unsettling work recalls Francis Bacon’s harrowing canvases. It was hard not to think of countless foetuses aborted over the decades as their parents were forced to comply with China’s one child policy or face punishment from local authorities. Another commentary comes in the form of 200 photographs of model Chinese families–mother, father and single child. Arrayed in a square with each frame adjacent to others, the effect is to subtly heighten the abnormality of Communist China’s 50-year experiment in population control.
Last week, the US’ consul general in Hong Kong, Gregory May, argued that “despite all the recent changes”, freedom of expression in Hong Kong was qualitatively better than on the mainland. Walking though these exhibitions was to feel that this was demonstrably true. When I asked Raffel about the surprisingly questioning art on display, she said: “There have been assumptions about what we can and can’t do. It is important for you (the visitor) to come and see the curatorial integrity that was always there.”
Sri Lankan-born Raffel, the first South Asian in a major cultural role in the predominantly Chinese metropolis, symbolised the confidence of Hong Kong’s coming-out party after three years in covid-19 quarantine-induced isolation. At a public event on 20 March, she celebrated the fact that the museum has crossed 2.9 million visitors, a remarkable two-thirds of them between the ages of 18-44.
Raffel seemed a woman in a Hong Kong hurry to see M+ seize its place as Asia’s most exciting space for contemporary art. The competition, as for any large building in Hong Kong, is from its natural setting. As I stood in a hall in the Hong Kong exhibition one evening, a floor-to-ceiling window offered a view of the gigantic 40-hectare cultural district still being built around the museum. When I left the museum in the glow of sunset, tugs and boats with construction materials that resembled beaten metal artworks shimmered as they stood anchored in the hallucinatory harbour, waiting for the chance to build Hong Kong’s place in art history.
Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times London and a former travel, food and drink editor of its weekend paper.