Plans include a modern art museum double the size of London's Tate Modern, the world's most visited museum.
HONG KONG - The project that museum director Lars Nittve is describing is as extravagant as the glass skyscrapers all around him.
"A building twice the size of the Tate Modern," London’s modern art museum. As he says this, he makes a sweeping hand gesture toward the harbor and a piece of land where construction has yet to begin.
At first blush, you might think Nittve is suffering from delusions of grandeur, but this is Hong Kong. Here in the Special Economic Zone at the southeastern tip of China, pie-in-the-sky ambitions are everyday fare. A project on par with the Tate Modern, that visitor magnet on the Thames (it is the most-visited modern art museum on the planet), wouldn’t be easy to achieve -- much less double the size.
And even if Nittve’s dream museum is utterly enormous at 62,000 square meters (667,362 square feet), it now has to be built.
Hong Kong recently chose the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron among the competing architects bidding for the project. As it happens, that's the same group that converted the old power station in London into the Tate Modern, which opened in 2000. Hong Kong’s M+, as the new entity is to be called, is due to open in 2017. If for no other reason, it will stand out in the crowded metropolis because the main building is to be very wide and, at only 10 stories high, very low by Hong Kong standards.
On the side that will overlook the harbor, the glass facade and protruding upper floor are to be reminiscent of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin. But there will also be a narrow tower for administrative offices on top of the museum with a LED-supported facade that will function as display space to project images of art. Flashy name, flashy building. Clearly, show is of the essence here.
Altogether, Hong Kong is spending over two billion euros on this cultural prestige offensive in the West Kowloon district, where there will be theaters for Chinese opera, music and performance along with a new city park. And of course, there will be the M+, where art, design, architecture and "moving images" will be exhibited.
What to show?
But what will the permanent collections comprise, in this first pan-Asian museum giant whose relevance could potentially rival the MoMA in New York or the Tate in London? Prices are too high to fill the collection with 20th century and contemporary art. "We can’t compete with Qatar," Nittve says. The sheikdom on the Gulf has paid as much as $250 million for a painting by Paul Cézanne.
"So we won’t be able to assemble a collection of 20th century Western art that’s wide enough to tell the story of Western modern art chronologically," the M+ director explains. "We’re therefore collecting Asian artists. As for the West, we’re concentrating on key works by artists who played an important role in the development of modern Asian art." Nittve cites, for example, "truly interesting" pieces that artists such as Robert Rauschenberg painted in China in the 1980s.
Nittve doesn’t share the concern that Hong Kong’s renowned shopaholics would be chiefly interested in top artist "brands." He doesn't think they would consider only prestige value as they might with a handbag. "Famous Western artists have considerably less name recognition here than they do in Europe," he says.
In Hong Kong, he continues, so little Western art has been exhibited that practically everything is new. "So the question is, what story do you choose to tell about these new things? That they fetch record prices, or that they embody insightful thoughts about life and society?"
A 10-minute taxi ride from West Kowloon through the harbor tunnel to Hong Kong island offers a glimpse at the kind of "art stories" the commercial galleries in Hong Kong are telling, and potentially what kind of art could be filling M+.
The Pedder Building on the street of the same name is a kind of vertical gallery district, with some of the city’s most important galleries stacked one on top of the other.
Serious art and has-been clichés
New York art dealer Larry Gagosian has a gallery in the Pedder Building where he’s showing paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) until Aug. 20. Gallery documentation about the exhibit focuses heavily on the extraordinary, albeit short, life of the American painter who was a friend of Andy Warhol’s. It romanticizes him as a street artist without saying specifically that Basquiat was chiefly responsible for bringing spray paint works into the realm of serious art. Maybe they were afraid that the word "graffiti" would depress sales. The show includes some of his first-class works, along with some clunkers like the uninteresting piece featuring the words "Chinese New Year", which appears to have been selected with a Hong Kong audience in mind.
Many of the Western commercial galleries use clumsy associations of this sort as a kind of bridge to local viewers. Until Aug. 24, New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery -- whose Hong Kong branch is also located in the Pedder building -- is showing Writings Without Borders, "a selection of Eastern and Western contemporary artists exploring notions of language."
Chinese collectors are known for their interest in artists from their own country — like Zhu Jinshi, who was recently showing at the Pearl Lam Gallery. Zhu lived in Germany in the 1980s, and his version of Western gestural abstraction inspired at least one local collector — at an art fair last May — to pay $195,000 for one of his paintings.
Zhu’s art is unquestionably more interesting than that of British brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, even if their grotesque universe is better known. Until Aug. 31, the Hong Kong branch of London’s White Cube Gallery, just around the corner from the Pedder Building, is featuring an exhibit entitled The Sum of All Evil in which the piece The End of Fun stages Ronald McDonald’s crucifixion.
The exhibition at the White Cube is an unsubstantial revival of has-been provocation art clichés from the 1990s, and also demonstrates a pitfall to which Western galleries often fall victim — taking a kind of neo-colonial attitude and using Asia as the place to unload art that nobody at home gives a damn about anymore. But Hong Kong deserves more, and its growing art scene already knows that. So there’s not much danger of Lars Nittve setting up a big Chapman Brothers room at the M+.