Milestone and Challenge

M+. Hong Kong's new museum for visual cultures

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Last week was a special week for Hong Kong. After an almost 15-year wait, the new museum M+ was opened. More than 4,000 art-hungry people were invited to the grand opening on 11 November and one day later the striking building was literally overrun by streams of visitors who came to discover the approximately 1,500 objects exhibited in 33 rooms. In her opening speech, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam pointed out that Rome was not built in a day either, only to add that Hong Kong had meanwhile displaced London and become number two behind New York in the global contemporary art market. Comparisons were made between the new flagship of the Hong Kong museum scene and MOMA, Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou. In this festive mood Victor Lo, chairman of the M+ board, also revealed how the name M+ came about in the first place. Since the board was unable to agree on a name at the time, they wrote 'M+' as a working title on the concept drawn up in 2006 for a future institution that would deal with visual culture in Hong Kong, China and Asia and encompass the fields of visual arts, design, architecture and moving image of the 20th and 21st centuries. The concept convinced the funders, as did the unusual and programmatic name: M+. 

With the opening of the M+, an important milestone has now been reached in the transformation of Hong Kong into a global capital of culture. Embedded in a park-like 400,000 sqm area in the western part of the Kowloon peninsula, 17 larger venues, several theatres, concert halls and museums, including the Hong Kong Palace Museum and various performance venues, are being built as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District project. (In comparison, Vienna's Museumsquartier has 7 larger institutions and about 60 smaller initiatives on about 90,000 sqm). In order to properly understand the dimension of the West Kowloon Cultural District project, one must bear in mind the special situation of the so-called Greater Bay Area. Nine cities and two special administrative zones (Hong Kong and Macau) with a total population of over 71 million people form this gigantic area. After Hong Kong had largely outsourced its production to the neighbouring metropolis of Shenzhen in the course of the last decades, it was decided as early as 1998 to transform Hong Kong into a hub of contemporary culture in addition to its role as a listed financial centre and stronghold of high-end shopping. And the West Kowloon Cultural District plays a significant role in this. The city has budgeted 2.3 billion euros for it. And the M+ is one of the key players in this project.

Designed by Herzog & de Meuron and realised in cooperation with TFP Farrells and Arup, a striking building with 18 floors and 65,000 sqm of space was created between 2013 and 2021. Of this, 17,000 sqm is dedicated to exhibitions. Four of the floors, which contain the exhibition halls, form the basis of the impressive 110 m wide and 66 m high vertical façade as a compact horizontal box. The vertical part of the building houses the offices, warehouses, restaurants and the M+ Lounge. The south façade facing the island of Hong Kong provides a huge screen with 5,664 LED tubes, which will probably soon be counted among the top 5 in this city of permanent light pollution. Even the 484 m high light column of the ICC, which is located directly behind M+, will pale into insignificance.

The horizontal part of the building used for exhibitions has a roof garden that is freely accessible via a large staircase and allows spectacular views of the skyline. Generous central courtyards, which have been cut out, allow plenty of daylight to flow into the building. The exhibition areas are arranged around them. The basement houses the M+ Cinema, the Mediatheque, the smaller of two museum shops, a restaurant and the so-called 'Curator Creative Café'. On the ground floor, in addition to the central contact point for information and tickets, there is the M+ Shop, the Learning Hub, which has a lecture hall (forum) as well as rooms for workshops and seminars, the Moving Image Centre and the Main Hall Gallery, a larger exhibition area.

The Main Hall Gallery hosts the exhibition 'Hong Kong: Here and Beyond', directed by Tina Pang (Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture) and her team. Divided into the sections 'Here', 'Identities', 'Places' and 'Beyond', a sometimes clever and stimulating, sometimes visually overloaded mix of artworks, films and objects from the fields of architecture and design is presented. Among the outstanding individual pieces, 'Domestic Transformer' by architect Gary Chung stands out, who created a micro-apartment in 2007 that contains 24 different configurations of space in just 32 square metres. The exhibition contains numerous works that deal with historical and current issues in Hong Kong. For example, Tiffany Chung's installation 'flotsam and jetsam' (2015-2016) addresses the fate of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. Opposite is Kacey Wong's imposing raft, with which he drew attention to the cramped housing situation in Hong Kong in 2009 as part of his performance 'Paddling Home' in Victoria Harbour. Under the motto 'There is more than one story of Hong Kong', a wide variety of works are brought into relationship with each other. For example, large-format photographs by Michael Wolf and Andreas Gursky frame the architectural model of the award-winning Verbena Heights housing complex from 1992-1997. Elsewhere, works by Hong Kong's leading designers come together and the presentation is more reminiscent of a graphic design exhibition. If you look carefully, you will come across icons of cross-cultural design by Henry Steiner – a pioneer of corporate identity design who was born in Vienna in 1934 and has been living in Hong Kong since the early 1960s – who has played a major role in shaping Hong Kong's cultural image and is still far too unknown in Austria. The selection of 22 films made by Li Cheuk-to (Curator, HK Film and Media), Chanel Kong (Associate Curator of Moving Image), and Catherine Lau (Assistant Curator of Moving Image), which are looped across two walls under the motto 'Where Do We Look Now?', and the overview 'From 8 to 64 Bits: Hong Kong in Videogames' put together by Hugh Davies, point to an essential focus of the M+, which is currently still in preparation: the moving image. Silke Schmickl (Lead Curator, Moving Image) told us that various modules are currently being developed for the Moving Image Centre, which has 3 cinemas, and the Mediatheque from spring 2022. Films and video games have always played an important role in Hong Kong's culture, so that future exhibitions will venture far more into the interplay of moving images, architecture, design and visual arts. In this sense, the exhibition in the Main Hall Gallery points the way to where M+ could develop as a museum with a focus on visual culture. 

From the ground floor, it then goes up to the 2nd floor, which is completely dedicated to exhibitions. At present, the M+ Collection has 6,519 works, plus the M+ Library Collection and the archives with 50,400 objects. The Sigg Galleries show a small selection of the 1,510 works by around 320 artists, which, as the M+ Sigg Collection, has a special focus, as it is the world's largest and most important collection of Chinese contemporary art. In 2012, the Swiss collector and entrepreneur Uli Sigg donated a large part of his collection to the M+. Hong Kong was also chosen because there were no Chinese censorship regulations at the time and it was therefore possible to show artworks with socially critical themes. The donation contributed significantly to Hong Kong becoming the hub for contemporary art in Asia. This was recognised by numerous renowned galleries, and Art Basel ultimately chose Hong Kong as the location for its representative office in Asia. A representative selection can now be seen in nine rooms, beginning in loose chronological order with Socialist Realism and the upheavals of the 1970s and ending in 2012. In the run-up to the exhibition, there was already some heated discussion in the media about the extent to which last year's security law might have an influence on the selection of works on show. But as Uli Sigg assured in conversation with the author, the list of artists was able to get through without any cutbacks. Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art) has staged an exciting selection under the motto 'From Revolution to Globalization', which includes meanwhile classic positions such as Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Qi Zhilong, Geng Jianyi, Fang Lijun or Zeng Fanzhi, but also works by Wang Xingwei, Zhou Tiehai, Wei Guangqing, the artists of the 85 Wave or the members of the Beijing East Village group, who are known for their performances and who certainly inspire critical discussion today. Even the magnificent installation 'Whitewash' (1995-2000) made of Neolithic pottery, which was subsequently decorated by Ai Weiwei, is on display. An exchange of works is already planned for winter 2022 to present further works from the M+ Sigg Collection.

While the Focus Gallery, consisting of only one room, contains 'Crucified TVS', a current video installation in the shape of a cross by the South Korean-based artist duo Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge, Pauline Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) made the approximately 2000 sqm West Gallery available to a single work: 'Asian Field' by British artist Antony Gormley. 80,000 of the 200,000 clay figurines made in 2003 by about 300 contributors from Xiangshan village are now on display here and will inspire the many selfie junkies among the museum visitors.

Under the title 'Things, Places, Interactions', the East Galleries, consisting of 7 rooms, show a selection from the fund of applied art. The result is a mix of individual pieces whose diversity points to one of the general problems of M+'s collecting policy. In contrast to the completed collection of Uli Sigg, it is quite clear here that the rest of the M+ holdings are a rudimentary collection that is still in the process of being built up. Thus, acquisitions resulting from opportunities meet the preferences of the staff, which often changed in the past. It has fortunate acquisitions such as the archive of the utopian architectural group Archigram (1961-1974) or the Kiyotomo Sushi Bar (1988) by the Japanese interior designer Kuramata Shiro and quite a few interesting individual objects, such as a single aluminium ventilation flap used in Le Corbusier's Chandigarh project or a triangular panel from the Expo Tower in Osaka, designed by Kikutake Kiyonori in 1968-1970. It becomes amusing when an ordinary Kikkoman Soya sauce bottle by the Japanese product designer Ekuan Kenji from 1961 is placed next to the label of an Asahi beer bottle designed by Raymond Loewy in 1957. Presented in this way, however, these individual pieces are by no means design icons, but rather reminders of their own incompleteness. The challenge that Ikko Yokoyama, the lead curator in charge of Design & Architecture, will face in the future is to cast these individual fragments into a larger narrative and to close essential gaps.

Of course, Pauline Yao (Lead Curator Visual Art) und Lesley Ma (Curator of Ink Art) at the neighbouring South Galleries also have to contend with the challenge of closing gaps. But when it comes to selecting and presenting artworks, the gaps are not as noticeable as they are in the field of design and architecture. Titled 'Individuals, Networks, Expressions', this section of the collection allows a glimpse into the history of late modern and contemporary Asian art, considering classics and leading up to current works. There are some strong juxtapositions, such as the encounter between Michael Joo's glass police shields and Ian Cheng's artificial intelligence dragon-like creature called BOB, which has to be fed by visitors via an app and devours everything. The neighbouring room, which contains 'The Letter Writing Project' by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei from 1998, is very well installed. Under the title 'Turn Towards Abstraction', curator Lesly Ma presents a rich yet homogeneous arrangement of works that reinterpret the medium of ink. The room 'Sculpture and Space' may exemplify the successful constellation of artworks of different years and different origins from East and West that could become the hallmark of the M+. In addition to a spectacular view to the west, this room contains an early floor work by the Korean artist Lee Ufan from 1969, the 'Strange Bird' by the Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi from 1945/1971, the 'Glass Doors' by the Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian from 1982, the 'Centaur' by Singaporean Kim Lim from 1963 and the work 'Series D Square Tubes' by Charlotte Posenenske from 1967, which is unfortunately rather lovelessly mounted on the ceiling in a corner.

Doryun Chong (Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator) is responsible for the presentation in the Courtyard Galleries. These consist of only two rooms, but they have a lot going for them. Under the motto 'The Dream of the Museum', two classics confront each other in the first room. 'From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (Box in a Valise), series F' (1935-1941) and, as a fitting counterpart, the installation 'Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel. Plexigram I - VIII' by John Cage, which he created in 1969 after the death of his mentor in order to honour him. What is interesting about Cage's work is that it is based on the 'I Ching', the Book of Changes (Plexiglas and Hexagram = Plexigram). Both works are explained in their application through wonderfully simple animated films by Vincent Broquaire and both installations take up the ground plan of the M+ in the arrangement of their cross-like form around a central void. The works by Duchamp and Cage are extended by Yoko Ono's 'Painting to Hammer a Nail In' from 1961 and Nam June Paik's 'Root Out' from 1961. For the neighbouring room, which with its interior of bamboo is the most beautiful room of the M+, the already used cross shape was also used to cleverly bring the works into a constellation. Here, some of the food packaging decorated under the title 'OROXXO' 2017 by Gabriel Orozco meets Rirkit Tiravanija's 'We can travel to the sun when it is setting' from 2013 or the rarely shown work 'Hammer and Sickle' by Andy Warhol from 1977 is confronted with the pure white chess set 'Play It by Trust' (1966) by Yoko Ono.

The Cabinet offers a special experience that will make the hearts of all registrars and archivists beat faster. Here, around 200 artworks have been thematically grouped and mounted on 40 large hanging surfaces that can be controlled via screen or your own mobile device. The selected wall is brought to the front by means of an automated hanging system. As a clever extension to the brief information about what is shown, an interactive application that plays with associations allows a more in-depth access. This, as well as the helpful 'Ten Ways of Seeing' guide, is the responsibility of the team led by Stella Fong (Lead Curator, Learning and Interpretation).


Again and again, the rooms of the M+ open up to the outside and offer spectacular views of the Hong Kong skyline or the container harbour.This also happens in the M+ Lounge, which is located on the 11th floor and houses the 'Living Collection' of collectors William and Lavina Lim.  Here, alongside works by contemporary Hong Kong artists such as Nicole Wong, Nadim Abbas, Lee Kit, MAP Office or Heman Chong, there is also a magnificent lifebuoy by Lawrence Weiner, which contains the lines 'Put Aside or Put Away' (2007). M+ Lounge is an exclusive lounge accessible only to M+ Members and M+ Patrons, designed to facilitate the exchange of ideas about art alongside culinary delights. To a certain extent, this concept of seeing and being seen is also reflected in the large staircase leading to the roof garden, which is, however, accessible to all. Thus, it is not only the rich collections that make a visit worthwhile, but the M+ itself has been well on its way to becoming an icon of Asian visual culture since the day it opened. A visit is therefore worthwhile. If only it weren't for the current hassle of staying in a quarantine hotel for several weeks, which everyone who wants to get into Hong Kong has to take upon themselves.

West Kowloon Cultural District
38 Museum drive
Kowloon, Hong Kong

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