Art is Another Story in Hong Kong - SOAS China Institute

//Art is Another Story in Hong Kong

Art is Another Story in Hong Kong

“2021-11-12”, © Gu Dexin. – Photo: Lok Cheng, Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

By John Gittings | 18 April 2024

When the Swiss businessman, diplomat and art collector Uli Sigg donated more than 1,500 pieces of Chinese contemporary art to M+, the Hong Kong Museum of Modern Art, it was planned to stage three exhibitions from the collection by 2025. The first of these, From Revolution to Globalisation, had a strong socio-political thrust, with prominent space for the art of the 1970s and ‘80s as it emerged from the straight jacket of the Cultural Revolution, when the Stars group and other young artists produced challenging work in idea as well as form (see my previous SCI blog post). There were fears that in the current Hong Kong climate of self-censorship, since the adoption of the 2020 National Security Law, the second exhibition, M+ Sigg Collection: Another Story, would be more cautious: having now seen it, I can report that this is not so.


The curators set out to show how artists “revisited the visual legacies of socialist experience and Chinese tradition during China’s rapid development” and to foreground the “unique visual language” of contemporary Chinese art. This is not “political” art as such, but it is the work of artists who engage with life around them rather than retreat from it. Sigg’s philosophy in forming his collection was not to look for “masterpieces”, but for those that could “fill the perception gaps, narrate the underlying subtexts and open up further space for the imagination for the viewer.” He mainly avoided work that was derivative of Western concepts and that of the artistic diaspora who left China – many of them after the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989. The result continues to reflect the complexities of Chinese life in a way that is illuminating and can be disturbing. To give some idea of this exhibition for those unable to visit Hong Kong – there is no closing date at present – I have chosen five works out of many that appealed to me.

“Dream 2008, No.1”, © Jing Kewen. – Photo: Courtesy of M+ Hong Kong.

Jing Kewen, Dream 2008, No. 1. The figures are instantly recognisable as “barefoot doctors” – young people, mostly women, given basic medical training and “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. But this peaceful concept is subverted by their posture, crouching low with determined faces in the army crawl position, a pose familiar from 1970s posters of militia women guarding their territory against the class enemy (as in this example). Jing (born in 1965) found subjects for his work from old photos bought in a flea market, and this may be based on one of them. For anyone who remembers the Cultural Revolution, it is an unsettling image.

“A Grain of Sand”, © Lu Hao, M+ Hong Kong. – Photo: John Gittings.

Lu Hao, A Grain of Sand, 2003. The title references the millions of migrant workers who have serviced China’s economic take-off, with mixed personal fortunes. The inscription by Lu (born 1969) tells the story of one such labourer from a Hunanese village who has spent his life working around the country to support his family back home. In 2003 the boss for whom he was then working, “with ill intentions, withheld his wages so that after a year’s hard work, he did not earn a cent”. Such stories are not uncommon, and migrant workers are still the first to suffer from any economic downturn. The shape of the image recalls that of an inscribed “oracle bone” from the Chinese bronze age.

“Old People’s Home”, © Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, M+ Hong Kong. .'– Photo: John Gittings

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Old People’s Home, 2007. This installation occupies an entire room, silent except for the squeaking wheelchairs that perambulate at intervals. It arose from a concept discussed over time with Uli Sigg, so it is a work jointly created between patron and artists (Sun Yuan, born 1972, Peng Yu, born 1974). The elderly figures remind us of former world leaders, but they are not exactly like them, and the artists modelled their figures on impoverished residents of European cities. In an accompanying audio, Sigg explains that “these old men with their old ideas still dominate the world…. [yet] they long lost the touch to the real world”. As the curators put it, “The artists seem to offer a grotesque parody of the world order….”

“On the Wall – Haikou”, © Weng Fen, M+ Hong Kong. – Photo: John Gittings

Weng Fen, On the Wall – Haikou, chromogenic print. 2002. From a set of photos “On the Wall” showing a teenage girl perched on a wall and viewing a cityscape. Weng was born in 1961 on Hainan, China’s tropical island and fast expanding tourist resort. “These young girls are the mirrors of us”, Weng explained in 2005. “The distant cities are the by-products of modernization’s dream…. By calmly observing this ‘hyper-progress’, I can then understand that men’s desires are the basis for social problems.” The scene in this photo, with its contrasting foreground of poor housing and a vehicle scrapyard, against a background of rapid urban development, could be duplicated in many towns across China.

“La Liberté Guidant le Peuple”, © Yue Minjun, M+ Hong Kong. – Photo: John Gittings

Yue Minjun, La Liberté Guidant le Peuple, 1995.  This is one of several works by Yue (born in 1962) that appropriated the title of a famous classical painting and transposed the composition satirically. The original by Eugene Delacroix in 1830 showed Liberty as a heroic female figure crossing the barricade at the head of a band of valiant volunteers: it celebrated the overthrow of the Bourbon regime in the “glorious days” of the July revolution. The figures of Liberty herself, of her followers and of the defeated Royalist soldiers are replaced by Yue’s trademark “laughing men” in identical clothes. The curatorial label suggests that they are probably laughing “in self-mockery”, and that Yue has offered a “cynical take” on the French masterpiece. His mockery and cynicism, in this work from the 1990s, may have a more contemporary edge.


Art, at least, is flourishing in Hong Kong and exhibitions are well attended. My visit to M+ coincided with the huge biannual Art Basel show of international work at the Exhibition Centre, the more Asia-based Art Central on the waterfront, a fine exhibition of Shang and Zhou bronzes at the History Museum, the late (and in his own opinion the best) work of Wu Guanzhong at the Museum of Art, Chinese landscape painting at the Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery, the wonderful work of Cuban artist Wifredo  Lam, Picasso’s friend, at the Asia Society, and much more shown in local galleries and displayed in public spaces.


However, there are fears in the wider cultural world that creativity may be constrained by the ambiguous “red lines” set by the National Security Law  and the newly passed Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, better known as Article 23. The closure of the independent bookshop Mount Zero while I was visiting – the owner spoke of weekly inspections from various government departments – is seen as worrying.  Some theatrical and awards events have also met with difficulties or been cancelled. The financial future of the West Kowloon Cultural District which includes M+ and the Palace Museum, a vibrant area with a new theatre being completed and space for public recreation, is also uncertain. The government’s initial funding, approved back in 2008, runs out next year, and it has not responded so far to a proposal made last year for new funding arrangements.

Installation view of Another Story, 2023. – Photo: Wilson Lam, Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. He was foreign leader-writer and East Asia editor at The Guardian for many years, retiring in 2003, and covered major events in the area from the late 1970s onwards. His books include The Changing Face of China (2005), China Through the Sliding Door (1999), Real China (1996), Superpowers in Collision (with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Steele (1982), The World and China (1974), and The Role of the Chinese Army (1966). In retirement he has worked on peace history, publishing The Glorious Art of Peace (OUP, 2012 & 2018).


His current research project is into China’s perception of existential risk, particularly in the areas of pandemic, climate change and nuclear weapons.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.