Hong Kong opens new modern art museum under national security cloud

A senior Hong Kong cultural official said on Thursday that freedom of expression was not above a national security law imposed by China, on the eve of the opening of a contemporary art museum aimed at putting the city on the global cultural map.

Featuring contemporary artwork from leading Chinese, Asian and Western artists, the multi-billion dollar M+ is Hong Kong’s bid to match museums such as the Tate Modern in London, the MoMA in New York and the Center Pompidou in Paris.

But China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on its most liberated city last year is holding back the opening, as curators and artists struggle to find a balance between artistic expression and political censorship.

An installation of “Asian Fields” by British artist Antony Gormley is displayed during a media preview at the “M+” Museum of Visual Culture in Hong Kong. (Reuters/Tyron Siu)

Earlier this year, pro-Beijing politicians and media outlets criticized some of the works in M+ for violating national security law and inciting “hatred” against China, including a photo of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. In which the middle finger is given in Tiananmen Square of Beijing.

“The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. Not so,” Henry Tang, head of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a new cultural center that includes the M+, told reporters.

Tang insisted that all exhibitions must “comply” with national security legislation and that some works, including a disputed photo of AI, would not be displayed in his collection.

“I have no doubt that MoMA New York probably has artifacts in their archives that will not be displayed today because it would not be politically acceptable in today’s environment,” Tang said.

M+ Museum, Hong Kong M+ Museum, M+ Museum Artists A security guard walks past an image of “Bloodline – Big Family No. 17” by Zhang Xiaogang during a media preview at the “M+” Visual Culture Museum. (Reuters/Tyron Siu)

The M+ Museum’s collection includes paintings, ceramics, videos and installations by artists such as Zhang Xiaogang of China and Antony Gormley of Britain. A piece of Wang Jingwei of a man in Beijing pedaling a bicycle cart laden with two dead penguins has echoes of the 1989 Tiananmen killings. One of Ai’s installations, “Whitewash”, is also on display, featuring antique porcelain jars.

Despite this, Ai’s condition remained critical.

“The museum is clearly subject to censorship,” Ai told Reuters by telephone from Cambridge, where it is now located.

“When you have a museum that is unable to defend its integrity regarding freedom of expression, it raises a question. And certainly the museum cannot do well in the context of contemporary culture,” he said .

M+ Museum, Hong Kong M+ Museum, M+ Museum Artists People look at “1995.2” during a media preview at the “M+” Visual Culture Museum by Chinese artist Fang Lijun. (Reuters/Tyron Siu)

Casey Wong, a Hong Kong artist who moved to Taiwan to escape an intense political crackdown that jailed democracy campaigners and crushed civil society, says he needed to keep his artistic “critical blade sharp”. was forced to leave.

Two of his works have been exhibited at M+, including “Paddling Home”, an art installation of a boat with a “Micro Home”. Now hangs next to him, serving as a metaphor for their exile, he said.

“A museum can, of course, be a stage of celebration for the arts,” Wong told Reuters from Taiwan. “But it can also be a tool for the authorities to bury the art forever.”

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