Hong Kong’s New M+ Museum Explores Societal Issues with Down-to-Earth Exhibits

By Cheryl Ho and Melody Li

The Grand Opening of M+

Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture, the M+ Museum, located at the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), finally had its long-awaited opening on November 12, 2021. Ever since the concept of M+ was put forward in 2006, the development of M+ has experienced many twists and turns in the past 15 years. Despite abundant curatorial resources and funds, many of M+’s exhibits have been subject to controversy, and its opening date has been delayed due to COVID-19 and problems with contractors.

However, after an obstacle-laden preparation process, the high volume of visitors on its opening day – and sheer popularity as evidenced by subsequently fully reserved dates – was a strong vindication against the previous skepticism. On M+ Museum’s opening day, more than 11,000 visitors lined up to see the exhibition halls for themselves.

It can get busy in M+ even on weekdays with crowd control measures in place. Photo by Cheryl Ho.

But what exactly is contemporary visual culture and how is it manifested in M+? What is the significance of this museum to Hong Kong? Scroll down to find the answers in this article.

The building of M+ itself, designed by Herzog & de Meuron in partnership with TFP Farrells and Arup, is in itself part of the architectural theme of visual culture. Here is a sneak peek of its architecture: The facade is partially covered in tiles that are inspired by traditional Chinese architectural characteristics.

Other parts of the building consist of clean, industrial, modern lines that are at times reminiscent of the space colony in Dune – one can almost picture Timothee Chamalet looking out the window and plotting universe domination.

The clean industrial lines in M+’s architecture are almost reminiscent of the movie Dune’s style. Photo by Cheryl Ho.

Although the M+ Museum is a flagship attraction in the cultural district with a huge marketing budget, its booming artistic atmosphere is inseparable from other parts of the district. Outside the museum is a promenade prime for sunset-watching. If you’re lucky, you might even catch the mobile jazz piano/saxophone duo playing against the backdrop of a dazzling sunset along the promenade and adjacent Art Park.

Jazz performances at the promenade against a dazzling sunset. Video by Cheryl Ho. 

Even prior to the grand opening of M+, WKCD has demonstrated its range of artistic possibilities with the Art Park, the M+ Pavilion, etc., showing Hongkongers that a slow-paced land of culture and art can exist within the packed concrete jungle like Hong Kong, and serving as a warm-up for the M+ Museum.

For instance, the Freespace Jazz Fest offered live jazz shows with free entry, defying cramped city stereotypes with a spacious grassy expanse for the audience to lounge on while enjoying jazz performances. Also, the M+ Pavilion acted as a small exhibition space for a sneak peek of M+’s vast collection before the completion of the M+ main museum building.

In the future, the Hong Kong Palace Museum (which is still undergoing construction), together with M+, will stand respectively on the left and right sides of WKCD as two flagship projects.

As a behemoth of art collections, the M+ museum is expected to play a significant role in promoting Hong Kong culture. In the 2021 Policy Address in October, Chief Executive Carrie Lam pointed out that the M+ Museum and the future Hong Kong Palace Museum, as new cultural landmarks, are expected to support the development of Hong Kong into an East-meets-West metropolis for international cultural exchange. And the M+ Museum, with its six thematic exhibitions featuring Hong Kong local culture and Asian culture, has curated a rich cultural journey for Hongkongers.

Painting a Unique Picture of Hong Kong Through Local Stories

In terms of the Hong Kong visual culture, one of the six exhibitions, namely “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond”, is a must-see. The inimitable yet everyday elements of the city from the post-war decades to the present day are presented with four chapters – Here, Identities, Places, and Beyond, telling the story of art in Hong Kong in an easily relatable way.

“The exhibits are much richer than I expected, and there are many things that museums won’t give much weight to traditionally. You don’t usually have this many opportunities to see things and the culture of Hong Kong in such a way. Many of the exhibits are ordinary things that resonate with people, not something very sophisticated that you can’t even understand”, said Gary Chang, whose work Domestic Transformer is being shown in this exhibition as a one-to-one replica model. This architectural piece serves precisely to embody the connection between art and Hongkongers as well as Hong Kong society.

An M+ Staff is demonstrating how to maneuver the wall component in Gary Chang’s Domestic Transformer. Video by Melody LI.

For Gary, this design was just an architectural design experiment for his own house initially, but it intersected with a trend in Hong Kong and the world unexpectedly – compact homes in big cities, in which Hong Kong is an “authority.”

As urbanization leads to more people sharing less space, the design of sliding walls has grown to become a strong influence in Hong Kong and other places where personal space is an expensive commodity.

“My design is just one of the many ways and there is no standard method to organize one’s home, but everyone has to organize their own living in a limited space now,” Gary said.

The exhibition of this architectural model is the manifestation of M+’s concern for social issues, especially the pertinent housing problems in Hong Kong, through art.

Another art piece serving as society’s looking glass is the Time Traveller, an installation from Sara Tse. Unlike Domestic Transformer, which again reflects the exhibition’s focus on the social trend in Hong Kong. The work is a tribute to age-old sentiments that can travel through time and space in today’s rapidly changing society.

Time Traveller is all about antiques – the mahogany furniture, which is completely made-in-HK and rarely available nowadays, represents an old man’s memorial to his wife. Meanwhile, the envelopes and stamps on the dresser tell the stories of the long-distance but tight connection that people in Hong Kong and their relatives abroad maintained in the old days.

Sara Tse’s Time Traveller as exhibited in M+. Photos by Melody LI.

For Sara, even though different components of the work have their own stories and their original owners may not be native to Hong Kong, their inner emotions are all connected, which is a reflection of her experience of Hong Kong as a diverse but inclusive city.

“[In my artworks] I’m not talking purely about a place or a time, but about the general sentiment of the old days, which also keeps influencing me,” said Sara.

Sara used the word “approachable” to sum up her overall impression of the exhibitions and the entire M+ museum. One of the important reasons for her choice of word is the diverse forms and contemporaneity of its exhibits.

Through the artists’ own experiences and creations that present thought-provoking links to daily life, M+ presents an artistically infused big picture of Hong Kong or even Asian society as a whole, redefining the boundary between art and life.

“It is a good example to distinguish what is art and what is not. Our life can’t just be dull, and things should not be simply categorized. We should see the relationship between things, and M+ is just at its beginning,” said Gary.

Diverse Art Origins and Eyebrow-Raising Art Pieces

In addition to telling Hong Kong stories, internationalization is also a major feature of M+. The artists featured in the exhibitions hail from all over the world. Click on the map below for a glimpse of where the artworks come from.

As M+ is called a museum of contemporary visual culture, rather than a museum simply of art or history,  a viewer would well advised to look beyond the surface and dig deeper into the cultural undercurrents at the M+ exhibits.

Some of the artworks look innocuous enough but contain shocking revelations upon closer examination. Here are a few examples that are worth a look.

Gold and Ash

Gold and Ash by Shan Fan. Photo by Cheryl Ho.

At first glance: This piece consists of two paintings side by side, one in ash grey and one in metallic gold. It looks like contemporary techniques were used by the artist, with thickening materials added to the paint to give it texture. They look aesthetically pleasing, but it is unclear what the monotone paintings represent.

The reveal: The artist’s inspiration for this piece came when he visited Hamburg, Germany for the first time and his former impressions of grandeur and prosperity in the West were shattered by the prevalence of homelessness in Hamburg. To create this artwork, he collected the unclaimed ashes of an unknown homeless person and mixed them into the paint– which is what gave the paint its texture.

The gold and grey tones are meant to juxtapose the imagined grandeur and the dismal reality of the West in his mind. Needless to say, the paintings lend a very different impression – rather macabre – when the viewers realize that they are looking at a dead homeless person’s unclaimed ashes.

Asian Field

Photographs introducing the 300 Guangdong villagers who created the figurines for Asian Field. Photo by Cheryl Ho.

At first glance: The exhibition hall for Anthony’s Gormley’s Asian Field first greets visitors with a series of photographs that introduce the 300 Guangdong villagers who created the figurines for this art piece. Each villager’s face is paired with one of their creations, which are sometimes crude and other times surprisingly artistic.

The reveal: A densely packed sea of red clay figures stares back at viewers from the viewing point; the number of figures is so high and the sea is so vast that the sheer sight is overwhelming at first glance. The mind is incapable of processing and counting 200,000 similar-looking objects all at once and the result is breathtaking.

It raises questions as well about whether we will truly be able to individually process the immense and complex world in which we live, and whether we can truly understand the scale of certain massive genocidal events in history – numbers are much more imposing in the flesh rather than as Arabic characters on a page.

Asian Field by Antony Gormley. Photo by Cheryl Ho.

Fun Finds at the M+ Shop

The M+ Shop should usually be the last stop for visitors to M+, while many visitors may be confused or amused by the price tags on some of the items there. For instance, some plastic trays, which are commonly used in wet market stalls as a cheap container to separate fruits and vegetables, cost upwards of HK$1180 each. A red plastic garbage bin costs a whopping HK$2980 – for no apparent reason other than the artist’s label – “subject to change” – painted on it. Again, a children’s nightlight with lightbulbs on what looks like a toy car can be yours for HK$12430. It seems plausible that the price of the plastic trays is designed as interactive art.

That section of the store is frequently crowded with visitors marveling at the prices.

“The biggest plastic tray is clearly a great deal! It only costs $200 more than the $1200 tray but is twice its size,” joked a visitor, Shawn, when he saw the prices.

Some plastic trays with unbelievably high prices are displayed at the M+ Shop. Photos by Melody LI.

However, the incredibly high prices of items at the store are not unwarranted. Here is the artist’s voice – For Sara, the items at the M+ shop are there to tell more stories about her works in a more approachable and tactile form. There is a connection between the goods she puts at the store and her works in the exhibition.

“My works are fragile, so it’s hard for visitors to get up close to them, and people seem to go there only for a picture and don’t savor them carefully. That’s why I want to rely on these goods at the store, which are corresponding to the exhibits, to allow people to see them more clearly, or touch them through the plastic bags, and thus think more about how these works are related to our lives,” said Sara.

In other words, the items at the store are actually art exhibits in another form, and their high prices are set to make them harder to be bought by visitors. “If they are sold out in two seconds, I will not be able to show them to more people!” Sara joked.

Goods from Sara, which are connected to her work Time Traveller, are displayed at the M+ Shop. Photo by Melody LI.

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