Hong Kong's Sweeping Cultural Prestige Offensive

Plans include a modern art museum double the size of London's Tate Modern, the world's most visited museum.

Original design for the West Kowloon Cultural District
Original design for the West Kowloon Cultural District
Tim Ackermann

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+.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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