May 2, 2023

Underground art in red Hong Kong.

It was an abnormally bright day when we took the C1 exit at the Kowloon Station in Hong Kong. Following signs to the M+ museum, we walked down Nga Cheung Road, a thin sidewalk next to concave land and construction lifts. We didn’t talk much, just squinted, at the blinding light of the towering apartment buildings, all twisted and turned like a rubik’s cube. I told my friend that it felt like we were entering the Capitol in the Hunger Games, only, well, we were going to see art.

You could tell West Kowloon Cultural District was new. Besides the orange-suited construction workers, pedestrians were all museum-goers clad in typical Hong Kong fashion: platform shoes, solid silhouettes, and draped fabric. The district started building its foundation nearly a decade ago, on artificial land filled with thin earth. Urban designers layered the museum atop the Airport Express railway tunnel — which would take you into mainland China, though that gate has been closed for the past two years due to the pandemic.

The M+ museum opened in 2021 as Asia’s first global museum of virtual culture, boasting 700,000 square feet with 8,000 works of contemporary Asian Art. Jacques Herzog of Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron describes the M+ project as literally “emerging from the city’s underground.” For art to enter a city “like Hong Kong,” he says, it must come from “below.”

And what of a city “like Hong Kong”? Perhaps most directly, Herzog was referring to a city lost in transition, with so precarious a sociopolitical position it could collapse any second. Torn between British colonialism and its motherland, Hong Kong has endured decades of identity crises. The political maxim, ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ at first promised a semi-autonomous status apart from mainland China, including freedom of speech and artistic expression. As China became more powerful through its increasingly capitalist economy, though, this promise began to fracture.

When the M+ museum opened, Beijing’s iron wall of censorship fell upon them, imposing a national security law in response to brewing local protests. This means, displayed art cannot be blatantly counterrevolutionary. Soon enough, the museum censored artist Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, which pictured him raising a middle finger in front of significant institutions such as the Tiananmen Square. Local and global criticism followed, because how does art exist without freedom?

Freedom of speech is a Western ideal, yet its influence runs deep in China. Chinese university students famously raised their own “Goddess of Democracy,” modeled after the Statue of Liberty, during the pro-democracy protests of 1989. It stood 33 feet tall in the center of Tiananmen Square until the Communist Party’s army destroyed it when they stormed the square in the dead of night. We don’t know how many were killed, anywhere from hundreds to thousands. To this day, the Chinese government fails to address it.

Walking around M+ in my now last year of college, I came across a photograph of a man lying down in Tiananmen Square in subzero conditions. The label said he remained for 40 minutes until the condensation from his breath formed a thin layer of ice (Song Dong, Breathing, 1996). Unlike Ai Weiwei’s middle finger, Song Dong’s commentary was subtle, as fleeting as the click of his camera. As I hovered over the photograph, I began to understand that subtlety was not just a form of artistic expression; it was the only medium for any artwork that exposed China’s past. Lying on the ground, the artist reminded me of the sense of helplessness that permeated Beijing the summer of ‘89. My dad conveyed this much to me when he would vaguely speak of China’s dark history, and what propelled him to move us to the US not soon after.

I remember taking a photo in Tiananmen Square some time before we left Beijing. I was nine, and my mom handed us mini Chinese flags. My mom said I looked “too serious,” so I smiled and waved and chewed a bit on the plastic straw holding up the flag. In the background, Mao sported his infamous soft smile in his portrait at the center of the building. I felt uncomfortable with the godhood of Mao, but could never pinpoint why. I was young and naive, with a family who — like many other Chinese families — didn’t talk much about our ancestry.

One of M+’s many Mao exhibits showcased a Mao suit from Vivienne Tam’s Spring/Summer 1995 collection. The fabric consisted of a checkerboard of black and white Mao portraits, alternating with X-ray filters of him. It wasn’t my first time seeing Vivienne Tam’s work — us young creatives liked to call it “camp,” a word referring to anything exaggerated or amusing in an unexpected way, largely optimized by trendy fashion pieces.

There was something different about seeing it here, though, as the Mao suit stood awkwardly next to a collage of propaganda from the Cultural Revolution. Such slogans were once plastered on every school and building in China: Closely follow the great leader Chairman Mao…, all must think of Chairman Mao, all must obey Chairman Mao… All around, the exhibit had traditional depictions of Mao as the rising sun and more of Mao with pink lipstick from contemporary Chinese artists. It became evident to me then, how Mao was once, and still is, an object of worship, and how art made him less of a god. The word “camp” took on a deeper, subtler, more urgent meaning.

As the sun set, a pool of people piled in front of the third floor to take photos of the golden construction site outside, as if it were part of the museum. It seemed to be showing the promising new Hong Kong, atop its modernized land and fancy Swiss architecture. To the right of the window, another group gathered to watch a film projection — Seven Sins: 7 performances during the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. The exhibition immediately shut down when artist Xiao Lu fired a gun in protest during her installation, and the film looped back to the beginning with no further commentary. The parallel of these two groups showed the obvious — the museum lived in a contradiction of its past and future, modernization and tradition. Exiled artist Kacey Wong called M+ “a museum with part of its hands tied behind its back,” especially compared to the artistic variety of other premier art institutions like the MOMA or the Tate Modern. Like Hong Kong, the M+ museum’s existence is precarious.

And yet, it stands in West Kowloon. I found freedom the day I visited, in a way I haven’t been able to. I don’t think we can demand democracy in art when there is little in its country. It was enough for now to know that art survived in a culture set on erasing its past, that the exhibitions in M+ revealed a bit of forgotten history and answered questions I was too afraid to ask my parents.

When my friends and I left the museum, we walked outside to the Kowloon District’s promenade. Colors from the M+ Facade, a huge screen that overlooked Victoria Harbor, lit up our faces, its watery LED stripes reaching towards something. ■

Layout: Melanie Huynh

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