HONG KONG (AP) – Hong Kong’s swanky new M + Museum – Asia’s largest gallery with a billion-dollar collection – is set to open on Friday amid political and censorship controversy.
M + has 183,000 square feet (17,000 square meters) of exhibition space, 33 galleries and more than 6,400 works in its collection that range from modern and contemporary art to architecture and moving images. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, M + aims to place Asia on the world art map and was built to compete with Modern Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But the museum has been criticized for censorship, after deciding not to exhibit a work by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei after pro-Beijing politicians said she was “spreading hatred against China” and may violate the city’s national security law. On its website, M + replaced the digital image of the work with its logo.
Ai’s work, titled “Perspective Study: Tian’anmen (1997)”, depicts Ai raising a middle finger in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where a bloody People’s Liberation Army crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, killed hundreds, if not thousands.
Some of his works will be on display, but not the other images from Ai’s “Study of Perspective” series with the middle finger targeting the White House, the Swiss Parliament and the Mona Lisa, although they are still on the museum’s website. .
Beijing imposed the national security law after massive anti-government protests rocked Hong Kong in 2019, challenging China’s dominance over the semi-autonomous city that had promised Western freedoms after its transfer from Great Britain in 1997.
The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion, and has been used to arrest more than 120 people and silence opposition voices in the city. Among them, the annual vigil commemorating the Tiananmen massacre as well as the June 4 museum.
Ai criticized M + for his decision to censor his work.
“Under the current national security law, I think Hong Kong is facing a very dramatic political change,” Ai said in an interview with The Associated Press in Cambridge, England. “Thus, freedom of expression (can) no longer be exercised in a normal way, but rather under severe censorship.
“So I don’t think that the museum… with this kind of condition can still have this ambition to become one of the most advanced cultural facilities in the world.”
M + insisted that he was only acting 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 authority board of the West Kowloon Cultural District, said Thursday at the museum’s opening ceremony, ahead of the public presentation.
“This is the first principle I always insist on, especially in the past, (because) there was controversy over whether certain exhibits could be in violation of the law.”
However, some believe that the removal of the work of art may be justified.
“It’s self-censorship, but maybe it’s also survival for M +. They have to find a balance between what’s important and what they can get away with, ”said John Batten, president of International Art Critics Hong Kong.
“And because this particular photograph has been such a lightning rod of criticism… maybe we should just put it aside for a while.”
Batten said opening M + would benefit Hong Kong’s art scene.
“M + may be the start of a 50-year-old institution, so it should be looking to the future,” he said, adding that the excitement visitors will feel upon entering M + could be similar to that of the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
M + ‘s collection of works also includes those by local artists, such as South Ho. Ho’ s photos of “Not Every Daily VI” and “Not Every Daily V” captured the city’s Occupy Central protests in 2014, and make part of the museum’s collection.
“As a contemporary artist, I think it’s a good thing that the museum offers us a new channel to experience the arts of Hong Kong, Asia and other parts of the world,” Ho said.
“It’s a form of investing in culture that lets people know that besides Hong Kong’s economic achievements… it’s a good idea that we also have cultural developments,” he said.
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