Doing business with Hong Kong

During Art Basel Hong Kong (which ran 28-30 March), the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority – the body that oversees multiple HK museums, including the spectacular M+ museum – announced that it had signed 20 memoranda of understanding with 21 arts organisations around the world.

The wording on MoUs is always a bit OTT, but the purpose of these Memoranda is basically to formalise long-term relationships – in this case mainly between M+ (“Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture”) and other art institutions. Those relationships will apply especially to art loans, but might also cover joint commissions and research.

It’s all very calculated, part of buffing up Hong Kong’s international image in the face of the obvious decline in democracy (an expanded security bill was fast-tracked to come into effect on 23 March: apparently pro-democracy protests weren’t wanted at Art Basel Hong Kong) and the protracted slowdown in China’s economy (the Hang Seng Index is approaching lows not seen since the city was returned to the PRC in 1997). Disappointing auction sales suggest the art market has not been immune to these buffets. The aim of moves like the Culture Summit run and these MoU announcements is to depict Hong Kong as “the East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchange”, though there is an undercurrent of “we’re the regional art capital, so spend your money here”.

The MoU signatories included Centre Pompidou, the Tate, and locally the Qatar Museums and Sharjah Art Foundation. Sheikha Nawar Al Qassimi, VP of SAF called their MoU “an important step” which she was “thrilled” to be taking. There’s already a concrete example of collaboration – The Peacock’s Graveyard by Amar Kanwar, which premiered at Sharjah Biennial 15 last year, is currently on show at M+ as part of the Shanshui: Echoes and Signals exhibition as a co-commission.

Amar Kanwar’s The Peacock’s Graveyard (2023), currently showing at M+ and originally commissioned for SB15, is a multi-channel installation which weaves together images and sounds that meditate on the transience of existence

The elephant in the room is of course the implied censorship that comes with any institutional activity in Hong Kong these days. M+ was planned in more liberal days, but on its inauguration in 2021 the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Board – the MoU signer – declared that “the opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. It is not.” He later amplified this: “as a public museum, we have the responsibility to comply with the law and respect a society’s cultural standard”.

A donation by the Swiss benefactor Uli Sigg, a gift of some 1,463 works by 325 mainly Chinese artists, forms the basis of the M+ permanent collection. But some of them will never be shown – notably a series of photos by Ai Weiwei that have the artist raising a middle finger at key sites of power like Tiananmen Square. These apparently endanger national security and incite hatred against China. (For the sake of balance, it’s worth pointing out that several Ai Weiwei works are or have been on display at M+; and the museum authorities have said that the removal of apparently political works from the Sigg bequest by Wang Xingwei, Zhou Tiehai and Wang Guangyi are just rehang rotations, not censorship.)

Since the Middle East institutions effectively operate their own (unstated) ban on anything explicitly political or potentially offensive – with the exception of work criticising Israel over Palestine – none of this is going to be a problem. It might be more of an issue for the MoU signers from the West, though they would argue that their involvement could help to keep M+ culturally pure.

M+ is undoubtedly an important museum, already one of the most important contemporary art institutions in Asia and well on the way to must-see status for tourists. With 2.8 million visitors last year it’s already the world’s 15th most visited museum (according to the recent published Art Newspaper Visitor Figures 2023 survey) even though it only opened in 2021.

The museum is intended to rival MoMA New York, Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou for the breadth and importance of its collection, which focuses on 20th- and 21st-century visual culture – visual art, design and architecture, and moving image, with a particular focus on Hong Kong visual culture. (Incidentally, last year those target museums had visitor totals of 5.4 million, 4.7 million, and 2.6 million respectively.)

Architecturally, it’s been worth it. The design, by Herzog & de Meuron and Farrells, is basically an upside-down T; the main horizontal section floats about a pedestrianised area and houses the exhibition spaces (around 17,200m2 of the 65,000m2 total), while the slab-like tower above it has restaurants, offices, labs and suchlike facilities. It looks solid and uncompromising, which probably appealed, and a massive LED display sits on the facade to display works of art and/or advertise M+’s presence. If you’re visiting the city, you can’t miss it; and nor should you.

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