Hong Kong’s New Museums: Tradition and Challenge
The atmosphere in Hong Kong is rather less vibrant than in the recent past, for reasons that do not need elaboration, but the cultural complex on the reclaimed land of West Kowloon, with two new museums, is a welcome tonic. For the benefit of those who may be returning to Hong Kong as I have recently done, after the relaxation of Covid restrictions, here is a brief review of the Palace Museum and of M+, the “Museum of Visual Culture”.
Both have impressive collections of art – splendid works of the imperial age from the Palace Museum in Beijing, and a rich diversity of modern art since the 1960s and ‘70s from the mainland and Hong Kong. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, they present a contrast in curatorial approach that is worth reflecting on.
The nine hundred exhibits on loan from Beijing and displayed on rotation in the main galleries of the Palace Museum, are of exceptional quality, artefacts in bronze, porcelain, stone, lacquer and paint which cannot fail to impress. That is the aim: as Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary till recently, explained at the opening ceremony, the museum “provides a platform for the visitors to appreciate China’s 5,000-year history and raise cultural confidence and national pride”, while the museum has the responsibility “to facilitate Hong Kong people’s national identity.”
Most of the crowd who were visiting the museum when I was there admired the beauty and intricacy of the works on display without spending much time on the explanatory history. And the fine exhibition on an upper floor of pottery from the earlier dynasties and of porcelain from the imperial kilns does not sound a similar didactic note.
Yet the main exhibition is in sharp contrast with the way that Chinese museums used to present a rather less positive picture of Manchu rule, stressing the costly extravagance of the imperial court and the labours of the ordinary people who serviced it. The image conveyed here, under the joint curatorship of the Beijing and Hong Kong museums, chimes with a more positive perception today of imperial rule and of Confucianism.
The M+ Museum presents a more challenging experience through its central exhibition — the Sigg Collection of Chinese Art since the 1970s. The opening of the museum in late 2021 was accompanied by reports of censorship of one work by Ai Weiwei – his famous “middle finger” to Chairman Mao (though other works of his are retained). But the exhibition contains a large quantity of critical work illustrating an artistic refusal to be confined in the search for truth and meaning.
With the title “From Revolution to Globalisation”, it shows how, in the heady but fragile freedom of the post-Mao late 70s and early 80s (briefly encouraged by Deng Xiaoping), young artists who had painted behind closed doors during the Cultural Revolution formed a vigorous movement that was the artistic counterpart to Beijing’s Democracy Wall. For a number of reasons, political repression, the appeal of an emerging art market, and opportunities to move abroad, their art would become less focused and more global from the late 80s onwards. The Tiananmen Square protest (which is mentioned here) was a turning point. By the 1990s, says the exhibition, “Chinese art had become a clear presence on the world stage”.
On the farthest wall of the innermost gallery, a remarkable film, in a continuous 47 minutes loop, vividly illustrates the start of this period. In 1979 The young film-maker Chi Xiaoning (池小宁) procured some film stock and – dodging the police – recorded the “unofficial exhibition” of the newly formed Stars Group (xingxing huahui 星星画会). Twenty-three young painters and sculptors, denied permission to exhibit, hung their works on the railings of the Beijing Art Gallery at the end of September, were closed down by the police, and marched to City Hall – on 1 October, China’s National Day — to protest.
Chi’s film vividly conveys the questioning atmosphere of those early post-Mao years, when in spite of periodic repression so much seemed possible. “We use our eyes to see the world…”, declared the Stars manifesto, one of several documents filmed on the walls. “The world offers unlimited possibilities to those who enquire”. The marchers to the City Hall boldly carried slogans that claimed the right to protest, demanded artistic freedom and political democracy.
The following year, the Stars were allowed inside the Gallery to stage a second show, which I had the good fortune to visit. Over a hundred thousand visitors in the space of a fortnight crammed the small ill-lit rooms that the show had been allowed. (For a full history of the Stars by two of their founders see here).
Though Chinese art has become more diverse, this exhibition shows how many artists, whether remaining in China or leaving, continued in the 1990s , and to a lesser extent beyond, to pose questions about their homeland. Much can be read into the unsettling image chosen by the museum for its publicity – Zhang Xiaogang’s ( 张晓刚) “Bloodline” (1998, one of a series) – described as “a reflection on social history through the idea of family relationships”.
Not surprisingly, a work that gained much attention from visitors was Zhang Huan’s (張洹) “To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain” (1998), a photograph showing Zhang and nine other artists from the Beijing East Village group lying naked on top of one another on a mountain top. The original performance was recorded in a video now on display – also much watched.
The museum houses a small but significant collection of Hong Kong art since the 1960s. Here too one sees how local artists have interrogated what are described as “questions of identity, history and culture”, sharpened by the return of Hong Kong to the mainland.
Holly Lee’s (黃楚喬) “The Great Pageant Show” (ca. 1997, the year of the handover) offers a portrait of a Hong Kong beauty queen posing as Queen Elizabeth II. In the background is a reproduction of a painting by the 18th century Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione.
“There is more than one story of Hong Kong”, says the museum, inviting visitors to draw or write something about the place that is close to their heart.
The architecture of M+ and of the Palace Museum really deserve a separate blog: though very different in appearance, both show an imaginative use of materials and space which visitors can explore and enjoy. Between them lies Art Park, an expression of civic Hong Kong at its best, a large grassy area where families can pitch their tents and picnic while kites are flying overhead.
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.
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