Flagship gallery show raises fears for Hong Kong arts

HONG KONG • Hong Kong yesterday got its first glimpse of the collection at the heart of its new flagship gallery, with an exhibition that has highlighted fears that Beijing's influence in the city is infecting the arts.

The M+ Sigg show features 80 works by big Chinese names including Yue Minjun - known for his paintings of laughing faces - and surrealist Zhang Xiaogang.

It is billed as the first chronological exhibition on the emergence of Chinese contemporary art and gives a taste of a much wider collection that will eventually go on show at the new M+ gallery in Hong Kong.

The 60,000 sq m art venue, set to open in 2019, aims to rival Western contemporary heavyweights such as London's Tate Modern.

But the Hong Kong government- sponsored gallery has been criticised for failing to fully represent the local art scene and faces questions over its curatorial independence.

Some in the art community ask why it spent none of its HK$1.7-billion (S$220-million) acquisition budget on creations that blossomed on the streets of Hong Kong during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014.

Others question whether this week's exhibition has been pared back, pointing out that its touring title, Right Is Wrong, has been dropped. There have been queries over whether some more controversial works were excluded and whether there was pressure to tone down the narrative of Beijing's crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

M+ chief curator Doryun Chong defends the new exhibition, saying that it is a "whole, full historical survey" of Chinese modern art, one that includes works by Beijing's bete noir Ai Weiwei. He also insists M+ had not been subject to political pressure, but admits that the gallery takes a conservative approach to its collection and exhibitions.

"There might be certain institutions or curators who believe in the idea or the power of provocation, but I don't believe in that," he adds.

Some connected to M+ say self- censorship is becoming a bigger problem in the city.

"In Hong Kong, we do feel like there is a big tightening of the public sphere over the past two or three years, whether it's in publishing, in theatres, in exhibitions," said Ms Ada Wong, an arts advocate who is a member of the M+ museum committee.


Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s Family Tree is one of the works on display at the M+ Sigg art show in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The harbourfront M+ gallery venue in West Kowloon remains a sprawling construction site 20 years after it was first dreamt up.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Flagship gallery show raises fears for Hong Kong arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe