The exclusive soirée of the new M+ museum in December was all the more special because of the Hong Kong government’s “zero-COVID” strategy. With frequent flight bans and draconian quarantine rules, big-name international artists simply wouldn’t come here unless they had a compelling reason to do so.
As the city rolled toward the third year of its isolation, patrons of the new museum of visual culture were overjoyed when Zhang Xiaogang arrived from Beijing to give a talk at the members’ lounge, and they had a lot to ask the 63-year-old best-known for his paintings of Cultural Revolution-era family portraits.
To some, the dark past those works allude to is another country. “Is our generation of artists even capable of making great art when life has become so good?” asked a young woman whose Mandarin suggested she had grown up in mainland China.
But an older woman, whose Cantonese suggested she was a local Hong Konger, saw uncomfortable echoes in her home city of Mao Zedong’s brutal purging of opposition voices around half a century ago. “What advice do you have for the people of Hong Kong as we face our very own Cultural Revolution today?” she asked Zhang.
Those two questions give a taste of how polarized the former British colony has become as it enters a new phase in its relationship with the rest of the country. (Zhang’s answers leaned towards the diplomatic rather than informative.)
The awkward marriage between one of the most open and capitalist of societies with a Communist authoritarian state was never going to be easy. Nearly a quarter-century after Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China, ideological clashes and differences in culture have come to a head and, after the 2019 mass protests, China is reining in the only boisterous democracy under its control.
The past two years have seen thousands of political arrests, Beijing-mandated electoral reforms, closure of media outlets, and an exodus of local families to Western countries.
The old aphorism, “hard times make good art,” gives little comfort to art practitioners when the magnitude of changes, carried out with revolutionary zeal, is robbing Hong Kong of its long-held freedom from ideological interference in the arts.
Today, anything deemed critical of China and the government can be censored in the name of protecting “national security.”
There was much hue and cry over M+ when it opened last November. Right-wing politicians and bloggers not only called for the censorship of works deemed to be disrespectful to China, such as anything by Chinese Communist Party nemesis Ai Weiwei, but also “unethical” works containing nudity and references to homosexuality to appeal to the social conservatism of their supporters.
The pressure is such that the publicly funded museum, with a government-appointed board, agreed to take down many images from its website, including works such as Chen Lingyang’s Twelve Flower Months (1999–2000), a photographic series focusing on menstruation.
All over Hong Kong, there is much closer scrutiny over public funding for the arts—previously administered via what can be described as a laissez-faire approach, which has been credited for the vibrancy and diversity of the cultural sector in this city of 7.5 million. Now, every film and video is subject to censorship by the film board, including those shown in commercial art galleries.
Many artists have skipped town, taking their talents to more liberal environments now that the creative freedoms they used to enjoy are no more. And there are proposals for a new government bureau to look after cultural affairs, which raises fear of further controls and the diversion of funding to where Beijing wants it: projects promoting nationalism and Hong Kong’s integration into a new “Greater Bay Area” comprising its immediate neighbors on the mainland.
The name smacks of puerile one-upmanship as Sino-American rivalry gathers pace, but one can look at GBA—or the idea of increased interaction between Hong Kong and Shenzhen and Guangdong provinces—for a way out of the zero-sum thinking that condemns the future of Hong Kong’s art scene to Socialist Realism hell.
Now, Hong Kong is seeking real investment in an ambitious scheme to turn it into a nationally designated site of art and cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. A glance out of the M+ lounge window where Zhang gave his talk reveals the many construction projects that are giving shape to the West Kowloon Cultural District, a 40-hectare harbourfront plot containing M+, the Xiqu Chinese opera house, the soon-to-open Hong Kong Palace Museum and the future Lyric Theater and Concert Hall.
It is hoped that, after the pandemic, all these venues will one day be filled with mainland and international visitors.
Regardless of how much of the official plan is realizable given the simultaneous throttling of freedoms, it is at least an acknowledgement that Hong Kong can be fertile grounds for the arts after the city was condemned a “cultural desert” for too many decades, especially when it was under British rule.
That sobriquet never fitted anyway, even during the colonial days, and in the past decade or so, Hong Kong’s combination of a vibrant art market, its high level of personal freedoms, proximity to China and high quality of life had seen it increasingly become a haven for artists and curators from all over the world.
That is changing, for sure, but if one were to stay—and most people don’t have a choice —one can take heart in the fact that the scales haven’t yet entirely tipped the other way.
The M+ opening exhibitions show no sign of self-censorship, with Weiwei’s Whitewash (1995–2000) being one of the centerpieces in the contemporary Chinese art galleries and Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing (2001), a work referencing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, also on display.
So far, artists who have protested, posted anti-government messages in social media, and shown themselves firmly on the side of the “yellow” end of the political spectrum—as opposed to conservative, pro-government “blues”—have continued to receive new commissions for government-run projects. (Though whether any of the more outspoken artists such as Kacey Wong, self-exiled in Taiwan, are on some official blacklist is unsure.)
And most importantly, there is an outpouring of fervent artistic expression that is seen and appreciated. Apart from M+, where there have been long queues before the latest COVID-19 shutdown, more galleries are giving the spotlight to local artists as the borders are tightly controlled, and they are busier than they’ve ever been before.
The new National Security Law has wiped out the possibility of showing anything that makes overt reference to the protest movement, but we are seeing a lot of works that deal with local histories and identities. For example, artist Sara Tse has been working on a project based on her abandoned former primary school, scheduled to be knocked down for redevelopment. Using ceramics, she captures the brittle nature of a city famously described by journalist Richard Hughes as “a borrowed place on borrowed time,” while allowing for the transference and propagation of ideals.
The wish to immortalize a home in transition has led to a surge in interest in landscape painting among young artists such as Stephen Wong and Kwong Wing-kwan, though Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules and flight bans are also a major reason why artists are spending more time looking at the verdant hiker’s paradise that they live in.
And, much as in any cultural center that is truly alive, what Hong Kong most values in itself is revealed in the sheer diversity of its art scene. This ranges from artists such as Zheng Bo, Angela Su, and Lau Wai, whose multimedia works reflect on climate change and our relationship with technology, to young Chinese ink artists experimenting with a traditional artform, to artists who are experimenting with NFTs—the global phenomenon that has taken off in a big way in Hong Kong. FOMO (fear of missing out) and financial speculation lie behind most decisions to buy NFTs, but some artists are also interested in how the immutability of the blockchain contract behind an NFT can help preserve Hong Kong’s art and give protection against censorship.
One doesn’t have to defend official policies to remain hopeful about Hong Kong’s art scene going forward. The arrival of M+ is undoubtedly a major boost, while the three-year-old Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Art and the two-year-old Center for Heritage, Arts and Textile continue to bring world-class international exhibitions and artists to the city. (For example, Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has just put up with three weeks of uncomfortable hotel quarantine to make new works and plan for a summer show at Tai Kwun.) And both Christie’s and Phillips, the auction houses, have just announced new headquarters in the city and plans for year-round sales as they remain committed to Hong Kong as their Asia headquarters.
There are even those who believe that “Greater Bay Area” networking by artists and curators can potentially disrupt and complicate a top-down hegemonic narrative about Chinese identity and culture.
As the art historian and educator Frank Vigneron explained in his 2018 book Hong Kong Soft Power, the city’s strength lies in it being a site of contests between different ideologies and cultures.
Now, its isolation is felt keenly because of the pandemic. But one day, we may again see this as a place where East and West can resume meaningful dialogue.
Zhang, who is one of China’s best-known artists, seems to think so.
He put up with hotel quarantine in Beijing on his return from Hong Kong, not just to meet M+ museum patrons. He had another reason for coming here in December: to visit his new studio. When travel restrictions are lifted, he is setting up a second home in Hong Kong.