December 7th, 2011

The City in an Art Museum

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Paddling Home, Kacey Wong, 2010

It’s not often that you get a chance to build a museum from scratch, but that is exactly what’s happening in Hong Kong, where a long-awaited museum of contemporary art and visual culture will soon take shape.

The 40,000-square-metre museum, known as M+ — short for Museum Plus — will be the centrepiece of the West Kowloon Cultural District, an ambitious US$3-billion project whose birth has been nothing if not troubled. After struggling for years to settle on a master development plan that pleased the public, the district lost its chief executive when British cultural administrator Graham Sheffield abruptly stepped down last winter. He blamed the resignation on ill health, but two months later, he landed a plum new job as Director Arts of the British Council. The attitude of the Hong Kong arts community towards the district can be charitably described as cynical.

Amidst all of this controversy, however, M+ seems like a beacon of hope, if only because of the talent involved in its development. The museum’s director, Swedish museologist Lars Nittve, led the creation of the Tate Modern in London. Lead curator Tobias Berger, originally from Germany, shook up the Hong Kong art scene when he became curator of the city’s premier alternative art space, Para/Site, in 2005. Later, he left for Seoul, where he worked as curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center.

Nittve and Berger’s ambitions for M+ are not modest. “Every epoch and almost every place has its museum,” says Nittve. “Asia is still waiting for a museum that reflects its time and place.” His goal, he says, is to create a museum that does for Hong Kong what MOMA did for New York in the 1940s and 50s, by placing it at the very centre of the cultural zeitgeist. “It totally rethought how you work with collections, how you work with exhibitions,” says Nittve. “People had never seen anything like it before. It was super radical. And it reflected a turning of the tables in the global balance.”

Scale model of the West Kowloon Cultural District

Berger says the time is right for Asia’s turn in the white cube – and Hong Kong is the place that can best make it happen. “Korea and Japan are much too introverted, and the thing about China, Singapore and so on is censorship,” he says. “The only free and outward-looking place is Hong Kong.”

It is also a city, like many others in Asia, where the lines between art, design and other creative media are much fuzzier than in Europe or North America, partly because the region’s art infrastructure hasn’t been developed enough to allow large numbers of fine artists to work full-time. Many contemporary artists come from outside the art world, such as Stanley Wong, who started as a graphic designer, moved into advertising and now works as a photographer and conceptual artist. “That’s impossible to do in the West,” says Nittve, because the art world has been historically resistant to anyone who emerges from more commercial fields. “The possibility to do this here comes out of an Asian experience.”

Lan Wei Lou, Stanley Wong, 2006

M+ would reflect this by focusing not only on contemporary art but on all kinds of visual culture, including pop culture and architecture, with a wide-ranging curatorial mandate that would avoid the silo effect seen in other museums. “MOMA has very high and thick walls between its different parts,” says Nittve. Berger adds, “We’re building a museum but also a platform to negotiate different art heritages. This will be the question of the next 10 to 20 years, and M+ can be the place of negotiation. It will affect the style of curating and our way of thinking.”

One difference between M+ and other comparable museums, says Berger, will be the emphasis on film and photography, “especially considering Hong Kong’s cinema tradition.” Nittve suggests that an exhibition on Hong Kong toys — the city was a toy-manufacturing hub for decades — might be a good way to pull all of the museum’s different strands together.

This raises alarm bells among some Hong Kong critics, who worry that M+ will lean too much towards crowd-pleasing programs and away from serious art research. Nittve says there is little to worry about. “At the best museums, even the biggest blockbuster exhibitions are the outcome of extensive research that moves things forward,” he says. “We will eventually have 387 full-time staff, most of them working in the back end,” and many will be researching Hong Kong and Asian art specifically. “That is something that has not been done for a long time,” says Berger.

There are also fears that M+ could end up like the Hong Kong Museum of Art, a musty institution with a well-regarded collection of Chinese ink art but an unadventurous curatorial attitude. “There is a lack of cultural self-confidence here,” says Nittve. “Hong Kong has a lack of trust in other Hong Kong people when it comes to culture. This is the biggest challenge we’re up against.” But the interest of ordinary Hong Kong people in art appears to be growing, judging by the success of events like ART HK, the charity Art Walk and the annual opens studios event at Fotan, a major art production hub. “There is a curiosity there that we can build on,” says Nittve.

M+ won’t be the only institution to do that. Three years from now, another contemporary art institution led by British curator David Eliott will open in the Victorian-era Central Police Station complex. It isn’t clear exactly what form that project will take, but Nittve and Berger say that M+ will undoubtedly benefit from its presence. “We need a Kunsthalle, and this could be it,” says Berger. At the same time, he says, M+ will forge links with institutions, art spaces and artists throughout the Pearl River Delta, something that has only rarely been done before. “Hong Kong is bigger than Hong Kong itself. We can connect to Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, like a concentric circle spreading out from Hong Kong.”

Tsim Sha Tsui | Kowloon | Hong Kong | China

Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Museum of Art from above.
Photo by Christian Junker

Rendering of the future Central Police Station

Though M+ won’t officially open until after 2017, Berger and Nittve plan to have a prototype version of the museum running as early as next year. “Mobile M+” will include a temporary pavilion on the West Kowloon site and with a series of “flamboyant” exhibitions and art projects around Hong Kong. “A museum is not the same thing as a building, so we can’t just sit around – people have been waiting 12 years for this,” says Nittve. He says the plan is to launch around six mobile projects a year.

At the same time, Nittve will be faced with the difficult task of building a permanent collection in time for the museum’s completion. It is a task that is several orders of magnitude more difficult than what he faced at the Tate, which already had a large collection and an established brand image when it opened its modern and contemporary art museum in 2000. But it can also be liberating, he says. “We can set up an organization that fits our purposes – and we can take our time doing it.” Best of all, a generous construction budget already set aside by the Hong Kong government means that he won’t need to spend time fundraising. “The money is already in the bank,” he says.

Palimpseptic, João Vasco Paiva, 2011

This article was published in the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Surface Asia.

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  1. YTSL says:

    Hi Chris —

    Strange… the photo described as “The Hong Kong Museum of Art. Photo by Mike Lee” looks like it’s a photo taken inside of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre!

    December 7th, 2011 at 1:26 pm

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Good catch! I’ve replaced it with another photo.

    December 8th, 2011 at 12:03 am