The head of the body managing Hong Kong’s troubled arts hub in West Kowloon has vowed to handle inaugural exhibitions at its flagship museum in accordance with the national security law, as pro-Beijing newspapers step up criticism of its curatorial decisions.
Henry Tang Ying-yen, chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, made the pledge on Tuesday hours after city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor publicly expressed confidence that he could deal with the controversy well.
That came as M+ museum said it had no plans to show Ai Weiwei’s artwork Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997) at the opening exhibition - the controversial piece fuelling the latest political row.
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Three sources, who are not directly involved in the curatorial process but are familiar to plans for the opening, said they were not aware of the work being selected even before the controversy. However, it remains unclear whether any other exhibition details have been changed because of the protests.
Previously, Tang said in a statement the curators of the museum would strictly follow the law and conduct their work with professionalism and take an objective approach.
“The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority will definitely uphold the law, comply with the Basic Law, local laws and the national security law,” he said.
The M+ museum, expected to open later this year, is the centrepiece of the 40-hectare (98-acre) district, on the Victoria Harbour waterfront, which aims to make Hong Kong a leading cultural destination with world-class collections of 20th- and 21st-century visual culture. The museum, focusing on contemporary art, will complement the Chinese opera Xiqu Centre and Hong Kong Palace Museum, which is set to open in June 2022.
But over the past week, pro-Beijing politicians and newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po have formed a chorus of criticism over the value of its art pieces, with some questioning whether collections could constitute a breach of the national security law, which outlaws acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers.
Lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan launched one of the strongest attacks, calling on authorities to vet exhibits to ensure they did not contravene the sweeping law, sending a chill through the art sector.
Yung pointed to a piece by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei – a photograph titled Study in Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997) – which features a middle finger rising up against the backdrop of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing.
Lam had said while officials needed to be cautious, she was confident the cultural district’s operators were capable of distinguishing works that constituted artistic expression from ones that endangered national security.
But on Tuesday, Ta Kung Pao ran a front-page report that took another direction in criticising the museum, blasting it for spending taxpayers’ money on buying overseas works that seemed to be unrelated to Hong Kong and on pieces involving nudity.
It quoted Mathias Woo Yan-wai, co-artistic director of local art group Zuni Icosahedron, as saying he could not understand why the museum would curate a Japanese sushi bar – which it bought complete in 2015 – and he would rather have a local dai pai dong, a traditional open-air food stall.
Lam on Tuesday morning said Beijing would support Hong Kong to become a centre for international arts and cultural exchange. But she also warned that authorities would strictly and seriously handle an incident if any cultural project contravened the law, including the national security legislation.
She said she fully trusted Tang, who served as chief secretary, the city’s No 2 official, between 2007 and 2011.
“The WKCD Authority’s chairman is Henry Tang Ying-yen, a former chief secretary … and a standing committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, I fully trust him, he can handle this very well,” she said.
A source familiar with the authority’s work said the board had not talked about the political row in their meeting last week.
The insider admitted the recent criticism would put pressure on the museum’s team, but insisted board members had no role in selecting exhibits because the curators at M+ were the experts.
But the source suggested the museum, which had a responsibility to lead the city’s art development, be more transparent on curatorial decisions so as to educate the public on appreciating artworks and their procurement.
The insider noted some people could be angered if Ai’s work on Tiananmen in Beijing was singled out.
“Guiding the audience to view the works is important. How can we bring the public’s understanding from a political view and nationalist sentiment to the direction of art appreciation?” the source said.
“It’s to let people understand the development of modern China and the feelings of Chinese contemporary artists. Maybe [the museum] could list controversy surrounding the art pieces or hold public talks, it just depends on the skills of the curators.”
Art critic John Batten noted the curation of the sushi bar had been criticised in the past but he said M+ was interesting because it would have a “good collection” of architecture and design.
“Maybe they have bought a couple of things that … maybe it looks like it doesn’t fit in with the Hong Kong feeling. But I don’t think we can only collect Hong Kong things,” Batten said. “The story M+ is telling is modernism in Asia.”
He warned that any self-censorship would create a bad impression.
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said he felt the latest criticism thrown at M+ was consistent with Beijing’s tightening grip over Hong Kong.
“The current situation reflects that people [in the pro-Beijing bloc] want to show they have good political sensitivity and loyalty to secure appreciation from people who hold power.”
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