Hong Kong’s newest art museum is already feeling a bit of pressure.
The M+ Art Museum in Hong Kong opens this week, a 700,000 square foot temple to contemporary art. Debuting with over 8,000 works, it is one of the world’s largest and most representative collections of contemporary Chinese art. Over 76,000 tickets were already sold before their opening day.
But contemporary art is not China’s favorite thing right now.
The M+ features a great deal of art from political dissidents who were exiled by mainland China, such as Ai Weiwei. Other art features topics that are forbidden, like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s technically legal to discuss that in semiautonomous Hong Kong, but China maintains that it is not.
“The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law,” Henry Tang, the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority told reporters in a chilling statement during a media preview of the museum, which falls under his authority. “It is not.”
Uli Sigg, a Swiss art collector and the largest private collector of modern Chinese art in the world, donated a solid percentage of the museum’s artist holdings. His donation of nearly 1500 works of art, mostly protest art, is estimated to be worth $163 million.
“Contemporary art doesn’t project the image of China that official China wants to have projected,” said Sigg.
It is important to Sigg, and to Lars Nittve, M+’s first executive director, that M+ be an exercise of Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, and that it be allowed to portray the history of Hong Kong and China in potentially critical ways. It is a tenuous place to stand, as things stand so far. Publishers of political critiques have been kidnapped in recent years, and smaller art installations with less-than-patriotic themes have been forced to close. China’s new “security law,” imposed in 2020, has given the government broad power to suppress ‘subversive speech.’
Which all makes such a museum, uncensored, more vital than ever.
Photo: The M+ Museum in Hong Kong. Credit: Shutterstock