M +, the world’s most controversial and largest new art gallery in Asia, opens its doors

Rather than hiding the rail tunnels, he embraced them. They add a historical and archaeological dimension to a site otherwise filled with air, green spaces and a giant screen larger than the Sydney Opera House that will project art on Hong Kong Harbor.

“Architecture is always very political, but it’s not ideologically political. Architects cannot be activists, ”he says The Sydney Morning Herald and Age.

“It is an impossibility as an architect. If you are spending someone’s money, you cannot be an activist against that person at the same time. The role of the architect is to do something that attracts and entices people to use the place as long as it is an art museum.

Inside the M + building in Hong Kong. Credit:Virgil Simon Bertrand

Ultimately, says Herzog, buildings are for the people who use them. “These institutions have to be platforms for people to meet and surrender. I think this is a very important statement, ”he said. “How to make it work is something I can’t control. “

It is the responsibility of Suhanya Raffel, the Australian artistic director whose last major project, the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern, was described by former Prime Minister Paul Keating as a “gigantic parody” of “institutional vanity and cultural snobbery ”.

Raffel never hesitated to shake up the establishment.

When it opens on Friday, it will exhibit the Chinese dissident artist best known for raising a finger in Beijing.

“Yes, we are exhibiting Ai Weiwei’s work,” she said.

The backbone of the gallery is the private From revolution to globalization Uli Sigg’s collection, which covers modern Chinese art from the 1970s to 2012. Sigg’s donation to the gallery includes 26 works by Ai Weiwei. Raffel did not specify which works would be exhibited.

There are also pieces by Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Marcel Duchamp and the epic Asian field by Antony Gormley, made up of tens of thousands of clay figurines cast in a village in Guangzhou.

'The Second Situation' by Geng Jianyi, 1987 displayed inside M +

‘The Second Situation’ by Geng Jianyi, 1987 displayed inside M +

Raffel, who claims the visual culture collection will rival that of the Center Pompidou in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, advances a much thinner line between expression and sedition in Hong Kong than in these other global cities. .

In March, Hong Kong Managing Director Carrie Lam told art galleries to be “on high alert” against works of art that could endanger national security.

“We must respect the freedom of artistic expression, but I am sure the staff [at cultural institutions] are able to tell whether pieces are intended to incite hatred or destroy relations between two places and undermine national security, ”she said.

Raffel says that M + is like any institution in the world, “we are not going to break the law”.

China imposed national security laws in 2020 to end 18 months of anti-Beijing protests in the semi-autonomous region. So far, more than 80 percent of prosecutions under the laws have focused on crimes related to speech for statements such as “liberate Hong Kong”.

The situation calls for a closer level of negotiation with the government than many galleries outside of China would be comfortable with.

“We are working very carefully with the regulatory authorities to make sure that we are in compliance,” she said.

“Hong Kong has been and is changing rapidly. And like any big institution in a big city, we also think about what that means.

“Having said that, the integrity of the conservation of what we set out to do is absolutely intact, we are very proud of that. It is a very important institution to bring to the world, I don’t think we will see an institution of this magnitude again in our lifetime.

The director of M + Suhanya Raffel.

The director of M + Suhanya Raffel.Credit:Isaac Laurent

Raffel will have to manage the expectations of an increasingly assertive Beijing, whose influence now extends well beyond Hong Kong.

Badiucao transformed the faces of Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam with President Xi Jinping in 2018.

Badiucao transformed the faces of Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam with President Xi Jinping in 2018. Credit:Badiucao

In October, the Chinese Embassy in Rome called for an exhibition by Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao to stop in nearby Brescia. The Melbourne artist once taunted Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping by merging them into one. The gallery refused to cancel the exhibition but Badiucao was dismayed by what he said was a lack of support from Australian authorities despite his recent strong condemnation of Beijing’s attempts at international censorship.

In September, the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide said that a local Hong Kong band would not be able to display yellow umbrellas as part of their performance because they were a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

Politics in Hong Kong are much closer to home.


The gallery next to M + is the Hong Kong Palace Museum. When it opens in 2022, it will exhibit relics on loan from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Both institutions have been accused of being too patriotic or not patriotic enough by Hong Kong people on both sides of politics.

“The politics are real here,” Raffel’s predecessor Lars Nittve said in a 2015 interview. “It has real consequences and you have to take it very seriously. “

Herzog, who prefers Baudelaire’s subtle poetry to Brecht’s overtly political drama, says there is always room for nuance.

“I think explicitly political statements in art are boring,” he says. “And I think the more poetic side has a much more seductive effect and also a lot more effective in the long run.”

The M + building in Hong Kong

The M + building in Hong Kong Credit:Kevin Mak

Herzog has created a huge digital canvas in the middle of one of the most divided cities in the world to give this opportunity to artists.

Their freedom to express it will depend on how the M + navigates the restrictions of Hong Kong and Beijing’s new tolerance.

“This big slab is really a face that looks at the city of Hong Kong,” he explains. “It looks like a commercial sign, but in fact it’s the opposite. It is a platform for artistic messages and we found it particularly interesting, also politically interesting, to offer such a tool to the institution and to the artists who show their work.

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