Coming Into Focus
Hong Kong stands on the brink of an explosion of cultural life as a range of arts-focused capital works nears fruition. Christopher De Wolf assesses the hardware and software poised to supercharge the city as a global arts hub and engage all Hongkongers w
HONG KONG STANDS ON THE BRINK OF AN EXPLOSION OF CULTURAL LIFE AS A RANGE OF ARTS-FOCUSED CAPITAL WORKS NEARS FRUITION. WE ASSESS THE HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE POISED TO SUPERCHARGE THE CITY AS A GLOBAL ARTS HUB
March in Hong Kong is punctuated by the sound of champagne corks popping as Art Basel plunges the city into a frenzy of parties and exhibitions. In just a few years, Hong Kong has been transformed into a hub for the global art market, booming with art fairs and blue-chip international galleries.
But it’s a less romantic sound that foretells the future of art in Hong Kong: construction. All across the city, work is under way on a new generation of projects that promise to deliver the world-class museums and institutions that Hong Kong has never had before. In West Kowloon, a permanent home for the M+ museum of visual culture is rising from the ground next to land slated to become a local version of Beijing’s Palace Museum. Not far away, in Tsim Sha Tsui, the fusty old Museum of Art is being revamped and expanded with 40 per cent more exhibition space. Later this year, scaffolding on the 175-year-old Central Police Station compound will be removed to unveil Tai Kwun, a cultural hub that includes a new contemporary art centre.
For a city whose art scene has until now been shaped by commercial prospects, the arrival of these new institutions is nothing short of a revolution. “Art is going to be all around you, like it or not,” says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Hong Kong. “It will finally consolidate the whole idea of Hong Kong as a cultural city or art hub.”
Leading the charge is M+, which has ambitions of being the kind of paradigmshifting institution that New York’s Museum of Modern Art was when it opened in 1929. “What it’s going to do is something that has never been done before, not in the world, not in Hong Kong,” says M+ director Suhanya Raffel, who recently moved to Hong Kong from Australia, where she was deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Queensland Art Gallery.
M+ deals in contemporary art, moving images, architecture and design, and the main idea behind it is to look at these disciplines from an Asian perspective. Raffel plans to take an active role in commissioning new work from artists—an unusual path for a museum, though one she also pursued in Australia. “[Museums] tend to want for art history to have settled,” she says. By contrast, working directly with artists demonstrates “an affirmation of and a belief in their practice,” and a recognition of the ways that museums shape the art world around them.
Beyond new commissions, M+ will also explore art and art history through a new, more Asian perspective—to “re-engage and reinterpret the canon,” says Raffel.
M+ chief curator Doryun Chong says Hong Kong’s outward perspective makes it the ideal place to do this. “M+ really has the potential to remind the Hong Kong public as well as our international audiences how deep the roots of cosmopolitanism are in Hong Kong,” says Chong. Some of the museum’s ongoing work can be seen in Ambiguously Yours, an exhibition opening in the M+ Pavilion on March 17 that explores gender in Hong Kong’s golden era of popular culture, when the city’s music, movies and fashion spread across the globe in a way similar to the dominance of Korean pop culture today.
FOR A CITY WHOSE ART SCENE HAS UNTIL NOW BEEN SHAPED BY COMMERCIAL PROSPECTS, THE ARRIVAL OF THESE NEW INSTITUTIONS IS NOTHING SHORT OF A REVOLUTION
There’s also the question of the building itself. When it opens in 2019, M+ will include 15,000 square metres of flexible exhibition spaces that are designed to blur the lines between its different disciplines. It will also be home to a cinema, mediatheque, research centre, performance spaces and a library and archives. The museum will work with artists to commission new pieces for the building, both spectacular physical objects for its public areas and site-specific performances that respond to its architecture.
“When it opens, that’s when the penny will drop,” says Raffel. She expects M+ to become the kind of place that every ordinary Hongkonger visits several times a year for various events and exhibitions. “It will become part of everyone’s lived experience.”
Across the harbour, construction has been completed on the Old Bailey Galleries in Tai Kwun—a pair of textured black boxes, also designed by Herzog & de Meuron, that appear to float above the Victorianera compound. These will form the heart of a new contemporary art centre run by Tobias Berger, who previously worked at M+ and the non-profit Para Site art space, and independent curator Xue Tan.
Tai Kwun has so far kept a tight lid on its plans for the complex, but Berger revealed some details in February when he spoke at Art Fair Philippines in Manila. The Old Bailey Galleries will include 1,500 square metres of exhibition space, and a public programme of performances, workshops, seminars, screenings and talks will make use of the compound’s restored historic spaces.
Unlike M+, the Old Bailey Galleries will not have its own collection, which Berger says gives it a certain kind of freedom. “You can be much more experimental, much more forward looking,” he says. He plans to avoid hosting travelling international exhibitions and instead focus on shows that will be locally rooted. “I’m working for Hong Kong—i’m not working for the international market or people in New York,” he says.
It will also work with Hong Kong’s small but stalwart collection of non-profit arts organisations. That will give the non-profits access to the Jockey Club’s ample financial resources to produce more ambitious shows than might otherwise be possible. “They will be paid handsomely,” says Berger.
Claire Hsu, director of the Asia Art Archive, which documents contemporary Asian art practices, is excited about the potential for the Old Bailey Galleries to engage with Hong Kong’s existing institutions. “What’s great about Tai Kwun’s programme is that collaboration with other non-profit institutions is woven into its very fabric,” she says. “It will also be a new way to experience heritage and contemporary art together.”
Entrepreneur Alan Lo, co-founder of the Central art restaurant Duddell’s, says the growth of the art market has had a positive effect on local artists, who are gaining increasing global exposure as more international collectors and gallerists visit the city.
The next step will be for Hong Konggrown galleries to project themselves abroad—the mirror image of what has happened until now, with Western galleries expanding here. “We are looking at a project in London and in a number of different cities as well,” he says, which could lead to “a whole new dialogue between cities.”
The bottom line seems to be that as major new institutions come online, the whole art scene will expand. “It’s an ecosystem—one type of thing can’t live without the other,” says Ooi. “It will work to our advantage because we can finally point people in the direction of these new museums and say, ‘See what’s being done in this part of the world.’ I’m thrilled. It’s going to be better for all of us.”
INSPIRED RENDERINGS Left: once finished, M+ will feature 60,000 square metres of exhibition space. Above: the Museum of Art in tsim Sha tsui. opposite page: the M+ building is due for completion in 2019