East Contemporary

Construction of the M+ Museum in Hong Kong is now officially complete, what will the future bring?

Even though the exhibition halls are still empty, the completion of the M+ Museum is such a special event that I wanted to write a few words about it. Originally scheduled to open sometime around 2015 or so, the project is half of a decade behind schedule, and it is a half of a decade in which many things changed in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong became more interconnected with the Chinese motherland than ever before, be it through infrastructural projects physically linking one to the other (rail, bridge), as well as through political projects like the anti sedition law that ensures Hong Kong does not veer away from the “correct” patriotic thoughts and actions.

If Hong Kong is moving on a trajectory to become one of many Chinese mega cities – or simply swallowed up withing the larger Pearl River Delta also known as Greater Bay Area – it may be worth looking at M+ from an overall Chinese perspective. What do I mean by that? The M+ Museum (part of the West Kowloon Cultural District development project) is a project initiated by the Hong Kong government, which is very unusual in the Chinese context.

When we look at China, state funded contemporary art museums and projects are close to non-existent and the majority of the museum infrastructure in the country has been built by the private sector, very often as a “cherry” on luxury real estate development “cakes” or as a high-end showrooms for one of the new private mega-art-collections by members of the billionaire social strata that emerged in the country in the last decades.

In the M+ Project, Hong Kong government (Hong Kong citizens) is paying for the architectural “shell”. Given the close and friendly relation between government and real estate developers in Hong Kong, this comes as no surprise, and it roughly follows the model in which a leisure cultural district is used to lift the value of surrounding residential and commercial real estate for sale. The contents of the museum are provided by Uli Sigg, a Swiss citizen and diplomat, who started collecting Chinese art at a point in time when the new wealthy Chinese collector strata did not exist at all, or was still too busy on making their first billion dollars. The Sigg collection is therefore of great historical value and my intuition tells me that the early days of Chinese contemporary art will remain at the core of the collection, while the present and future will be something that is less prominently represented in this collection.

What will be the result of this complex marriage, where a private collection of Chinese contemporary art documenting the turbulent social developments of the rise of China – is married with a government-run museum – that will now have the right to interpret and shape the meaning and messages of artworks from this collection? I may be wrong, but I think it is maybe the first time something like this is attempted at this scale in China. It would be of course very interesting to know the exact details of the agreement between Sigg and the Hong Kong/Chinese government. I could even imagine, that the agreement is a compromise arising from a situation where a large collection of Chinese art in foreign hands – stored on Chinese territory – was deemed to be of “national importance” by the Chinese government, and therefore Sigg was prevented from removing these artworks owned by him from the territory. Providing the collection as a “loan” to M+ is then a marriage out of convenience, that somehow reconciles Chinese national interests with the ownership rights of Sigg towards his purchases and storage costs. The additional “bonus” is that the control of the narrative constructed by the collection and its artworks stays firmly under control of the Hong Kong/Chinese government.

Given the historical focus of the collection, I think that M+ could follow the trajectory of dusty government-run museums in Mainland China, with little innovation and empty halls. However, it is too expensive to keep this prime real estate collecting dust, so I am guessing there is also a pull towards a “K11-ification” of M+. (K11 is an “art” shopping mall in Hong Kong, a quite successful project run by real-estate tycoon heir Adrian Cheng.) Will M+ become another K11 art shopping mall? Or will it try to compete with the K11 concept? How will this fit with its “institutional” standing and the archival and collection-keeping functions that come with it? Will this be the first-ever art shopping mall directly operated by the Hong Kong/Chinese government used for patriotic education of a young generation of art lovers from across China? When one listens to chief curator Pi Li´s statements about visitor segmentation and all inclusiveness (more about that later in another blog), one gets a feeling that this will end up as a site where busloads of Chinese countryside tourists are educated about recent art history, sipping their Starbucks (Luckin, Costa..) coffees at the same time, while their kids are playing in some colorful cartoon “art” installation nearby. Of course this is all sounds a bit nightmarish, but it is scary to think about this combination of commercial interests and patriotic ideology. The extreme slowness with which the M+ project has been moving until now hints at the dinosaur-like nature of it, which might be related to China/Hong Kong government navigating a large and heavy ship with unfamiliar cargo. M+ may, and I sincerely hope so, end up as a truly innovative project, and only time will tell. In any case, the completion of the M+ building gives hope that we could receive an answer to all these questions within a couple of years, at least by the end of this decade.

Photo source: Herzog & de Meuron Facebook page

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