HONG KONG – (AP) – Hong Kong’s chic new M + Museum – Asia’s largest gallery with a billion dollar collection – opens on Friday amid controversy over politics and censorship.
M + has 17,000 square meters of exhibition space, 33 galleries and over 6,400 works in its collection, which ranges from modern and contemporary art to architecture and moving images. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the M + aims to put Asia on the world map of art and was built to rival London’s Modern Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But the museum has come under fire for censorship after it decided not to show a work by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei after pro-Beijing politicians said it was “spreading hatred against China” and against the comprehensive national security law the city could violate. On its website, M + replaced the digital image of the work with its logo.
Ai’s work, entitled “Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997),” shows Ai with a raised middle finger in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where on the 4th killed hundreds, if not thousands.
Some of his works will be on view, but not the other images from Ai’s “Study of Perspective” series with middle fingers pointing at the White House, the Swiss Parliament and the Mona Lisa, although they are still on the museum’s website too are found.
Beijing passed the national security law after massive protests against the Hong Kong government shook the Hong Kong government in 2019 and challenged China’s rule over the semi-autonomous city, which was promised Western freedoms after Britain surrendered in 1997.
The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion and was used to arrest over 120 people and silence opposition voices in the city. Including the annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre and the museum on June 4th.
Ai has criticized M + for its decision to censor its work.
“Under the current national security law, I think Hong Kong is facing very dramatic political change,” Ai said in an interview with The Associated Press from Cambridge, England. “Freedom of speech (can) no longer be exercised normally, but under strict censorship.
“So I don’t think that the museum … with this condition can still have the ambition to become one of the most progressive cultural institutions in the world.”
M + has insisted that she only act in accordance with the law.
“This is the first contemporary museum in Hong Kong so I want to make sure the message is clear so people don’t think we are above the law,” Henry Tang, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Board, said at the Opening ceremony of the museum on Thursday before the public viewing.
“This is the first principle I always emphasize, especially in the past, (since) there has been some controversy as to whether some exhibits might break the law.”
However, some believe that the removal of the artwork may be justified.
“It’s self-censorship, but maybe also survival for M +. They have to weigh what is important and what they can get away with, ”said John Batten, president of International Art Critics Hong Kong.
“And because that particular photo was such a lightning rod for criticism … maybe we should put it aside for a while.”
Batten said the opening of M + would be beneficial to the Hong Kong arts scene.
“M + is the beginning of a possibly 50 or 100 year old institution, so it should be forward-looking,” he said, adding that the excitement visitors will feel upon entering M + is similar to that of the Metropolitan Museum or the museum for modern art in New York.
The collection of works in M + also includes works by local artists such as South Ho. Ho’s photos “Not Every Daily VI” and “Not Every Daily V” captured the city of Occupy Central protests in 2014 and are part of the museum’s collection.
“As a contemporary artist, I think it’s good that the museum offers us a new channel to get to know the arts in Hong Kong, Asia and other parts of the world,” said Ho.
“This is a form of cultural investment that allows people to know that in addition to Hong Kong’s economic successes … it’s a good idea that we also have some cultural developments,” he said.
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