Jane DeBevoise (JD): My name is Jane DeBevoise, and this is Asia Art Archive in America. Today we have the great pleasure of introducing two good Hong Kong friends. Although we didn’t meet you in Hong Kong, we are all based there now. Pi Li is the Uli Sigg Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the soon to be built cultural institute M+. And Lesley Ma is the curator of Ink Art there. Pi Li will talk first, and introduce M+, and then Lesley will talk about some curatorial perspectives.
Pi Li (PL): Thanks Jane for arranging this. In the next 10 or so minutes I want to talk about our team, the building and lastly our collection. Now, even though the museum won’t open until the end of 2017, we already have an M+ team. We have curators for design and architecture, education, Chinese art, ink art, Hong Kong culture and art, Asian art, international art, and we’re waiting for a curator for moving image to join us. Last year we launched our building architecture competition, which Herzog & de Meuron ultimately won. They will be the design team. At this moment I would say 99% of the architectural design has been finished.
This image shows how the new building will appear, as one looks across the Victoria Harbour to the West Kowloon side, of Hong Kong. Actually the land on which the museum will be built is artificial (it’s land fill), but the transportation will be very good. It will be accessible by express train to the airport and to Guangzhou City.
M+ is very large. Some have observed that it’s bigger than MoMA! We will have 11,000 square meters of the exhibition space, including space for collection shows and reconfigurable space for the temporary or special projects.
So that’s the space. The main idea for the architecture is a combination of a horizontal and vertical structures. We want to make the vertical structure transparent, so you can see through it, from here to the Island side or from the Island side to here. This is the main entrance.
Another aspect of the design is that we will have our storage and conservation space next to the museum. We think that if we can treat this conservation space as a third part of the museum, we can open it to the public as an education space.
The main challenge of this land is that it’s built on top of the airport express railway. And in fact the distance between the top of the airport express tunnel to ground level is about less than a meter. So the whole building will be situated on this concrete tunnel; it’s as if it’s standing on the airport express. In this way the architects are didn’t try to avoid this [impediment. Rather they embraced it], which is much like the Chinese idea of going along with trouble, not trying to avoid it. You could call this space ‘found space’, where we will be able to show big pieces.
The building is also extremely user friendly; people can get in from the Island side; they can also get in from the Kowloon side, and the vertical tower will be affectively transparent so you can see through it from both sides.
JD: Will the tower contain galleries or just offices?
PL: Just offices. The gallery will extend from the underground level B1, to the first level. We also want the tower to have an exterior moving image screen, if possible and want to ensure that this screen is used for art only, and not for other things, like advertising.
We expect the building will open to the public by the end of 2017. In the meantime we have just launched our art pavilion design competition. This pavilion will be located in the park next to the museum. In Hong Kong it’s extremely difficult to find exhibition space, so we have [decided to open] a 400 square meter pavilion for exhibition use before the museum opens. We expect the pavilion will be finished in May 2015. We will show part of the M+ collection there in the first year in three sections, so people will have an opportunity to see the collection even before we open the museum.
People always ask when will you start, but in fact we have already started! Because we want to start building a public and audience even before our opening date. We [have already and will continue to] organize many programs. One program called M+ Matters is a series of talks, education programs, public presentations, and internal workshops which cover different things related to our acquisitions, presentation, management and so on. We have also begun collaborating with other institutions in Hong Kong, including the very nice Song Dong project called ’36 Calendars’ with the Asia Art Archive. That was actually my first project after I joined M+. Also every year we have another program called Mobile M+.
Before we open the museum we use the whole city as a playground to test the possibilities of making exhibitions. For example, [last year] we organized ‘Inflation’, a public art project on the West Kowloon land adjacent to the M+ site. We also rent the space to present shows.
JD: Could you just hold this slide for a second? This was one of the more exceptional pieces in the show.
PL: Yes, it was a little bit of a PR crisis when we showed a large pile of poo on Hong Kong public land.
JD: This is by Paul McCarthy.
PL: We also curated the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was a solo show of Lee Kit’s work.
PL: We also curated the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was a solo show of Lee Kit’s work.
Now, briefly I want to talk about the collection and our collecting strategy. First of all, our chief curator is Doryun Chong who joined last November. There are four main parts of the M+ collection:
one is contemporary art, including the ink art; the others are design and architecture and moving image. Our advisory board always emphasizes that we are not a contemporary art museum. Rather we are [an institute of visual culture] focusing on the transition from the twentieth century to the twenty first century. As with most institutions that begin building a collection, we need to focus on a few fundamental things. In our case, so we are quite lucky that Dr. Uli Sigg donated his collection to us in June 2012. It was half donation and half acquisition and we received 1,561 works which we are calling the M+ Sigg collection. Besides that, I want to talk about our acquisition policy or acquisition scope. Basically it’s quite straighforward: first we begin by thinking about West Kowloon, where we are located.
We are standing here; we see the world from the Kowloon side, [from a specific Hong Kong location.] By comparison, if you want to see modern and contemporary [Western] art you can see it at MoMA, at the Centre Pompidou or the Tate. If you want to see the best of American art in a contemporary art context, you go to MoMA, or if you want to see British art, you go to the Tate. So in keeping with that idea, we are focused on a West Kowloon perspective, then a Hong Kong perspective, then we go to the Pearl River Delta, then cover China, and then Asia, and then beyond. We are more or less an international museum, but we start with a Hong Kong or Asian perspective. That’s our general acquisition mission or scope. Lesley will now explain more about how that works in practice.
Lesley Ma (LM): Thank you Pi Li. So this is a circuitry diagram, by which we want to show that our museum collection will not be a linear or chronological. For example, when we say we are focused on the twentieth to twenty-first century, we are not saying the program is going to run [in a linear fashion] from 1900s to today. That’s something that we want to break down. For instance we’re not just looking at 1960s in Chinese art but we want to look at a comparative art history as well — perspectives that crosses regions, geographies, and time periods, because as many of you know, modernism in different regions happened at different times. We want to look at the different impulses and different artistic developments in different regions in different times in a more holistic way. I do not understand circuitry myself, but [it is a helpful] way to demonstrate how [what we are trying to do] it can all be cross-connected. This illustration can tell you about regions and how they can be related. It can have different centers. We don’t want to accentuate centers versus peripheries, but rather how to look at different locations and artist migrations. This is something we really want to cover.
As Pi Li had said, we’re based in Hong Kong with a Hong Kong China perspective, but we also want to look at artistic movements, which ever way they go. We want to catch impulses that may not have been part of the narrative at other art institutions or other visual culture institutions. An example is Nam June Paik. On the left is a work in our collection from 1959 – 1960.
As Pi Li had said, we’re based in Hong Kong with a Hong Kong China perspective, but we also want to look at artistic movements, which ever way they go. We want to catch impulses that may not have been part of the narrative at other art institutions or other visual culture institutions. An example is Nam June Paik. On the left is a work in our collection from 1959 – 1960. It’s his ink scroll, demonstrating that we look at ink art quite broadly. You probably wouldn’t think of Nam Jun Paik as an ink artist, but [we are interested in looking at] how his practice and ideas are informed, and where it came from. And we want to look at this in broad way. How does it connect to his later work and how does it connect to artists sharing the same temporal space and time? We want to demonstrate that at the time he made this work he collaborating with AY-O a Japanese artist. This is a work that he made in 1960 with AY-O which we recently acquired it for our collection. [Insert image] So artistic collaborations and demonstrating how like-minded people come together in at certain times, at certain places, and at certain moments, how artistic practices cross over are interesting to us.
We’re also looking at the 1970s in New York. At that time Wucius Wong, a veteran and respected Hong Kong artist was in New York. His work has been donated to our museum. He’s a designer and a teacher as well as a curator at the Hong Kong Museum.
JD: He was the first curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which at that time (in the 1970s) was located in the City Hall building.
LM: Exactly. He learned graphic design and was also an ink painter and he was part of a movement that pushed ink into a different realm but his work also crossed over with design. He wrote some textbooks on design and principles of two-dimensional design.
JD: Which are still considered the textbooks for design. And [at almost 80 years old] he’s still very active.
LM: Yes, and has been very generous with whatever we needed. In the 1970s who else was in New York? Tehching Hsieh was, and we are very lucky to have acquired a full set of the documentation of his seminal groundbreaking, intense performance pieces.
David Diao who was also in New York in the 1970s and this is a piece of work that developed when he returned to his ancestral hometown in Sichuan. We are interested in works that came out of that idea, demonstrating the diaspora, both leaving and returning, and how ideas are formed. How do we place these four artists, who wouldn’t normally be placed together, how does one treat special cases or locations like this? This interests us.
As we develop our collection, we have held different talks on different subjects. Here’s one on “Artwork documentation” as one word. In other words, how do you think of art as work and as documentation and how do these definitions / practices move around. This talk touched on photography, on performance, and on different ways of looking and attacking this material from different perspectives, also on how would a museum of visual culture could treat it. We invited different scholars and curators to share their experience, and we usually hold these events as partly internal and partly external, meaning that after a two days of intense internal discussion, we convene a public talk, so that the interested public, students, local art schools and professors and other curators and artists can come to hear our visitors to tell us about their experience. That way we serve not only as a museum with a collection but also as an important learning location, which will hopefully develop into a new model about how museums will treat art and visual culture.
Next I would like to talk about Building M+, an exhibition which focused on the M+ collection of design and architecture developed by our curator Aric Chen. This exhibition showed the winning design model and drawing for the M+ building and the models of the runners up. All were extraordinary architects and designs but in the end Herzog & de Meuron was chosen because not only did they propose a really stunning design but also they really communicated well with us as clients.
In addition the exhibition showed other objects in the design collection including a work by Frank Lloyd Wright — his drawings for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. While this work dates from a period slightly earlier than our focus, he is an iconic architect making an iconic piece of design in an Asian region which will enrich the collection we are trying to develop at M+.
Another model in the collection is the Peak Tower which is nested in the Hong Kong collective memory. This building does not exist anymore, but the model was donated by the local architecture firm that designed it. This part of the collection [which is focused on Hong Kong architecture] will enable the public to understand urban development in Hong Kong. Other related materials in our collection include two works of Gursky’s photograph of The Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation building in Central and a photograph of Kowloon Walled City before it was demolished. Together they form a comment on how the city of Hong Kong has evolved, and they show how artists have been involved in documentating that change. Other photographs in the collection include images of Steven Holl’s design in Beijing and Cao Fei’s RMB City. I hope this gives you a sense of what’s been going on and that we will see you soon in Hong Kong.
JD: Thank you very much Lesley. Pi Li, could you maybe talk a little bit about how you are thinking about the Chinese contemporary art collection. Will it have any particular focus?
PL: We rely on the Museum advisory board to give us guidance and advice about what aspect of visual art or visual culture from the twentieth century to the twenty first century to focus on. We’ve got a quite good acquisition budget but still compared with the market, it feels like we have no money, so we have to spend carefully. As I mentioned, the Uli Sigg donation covers Chinese art from 1974 to 2010. It totals 1,561 pieces. But because our goal is to cover from the twentieth century to twenty first century, so now we are trying to build our collection back to the second world war and post-war period and forward to the young and upcoming artists. And in this process we will also keep our eyes out for earlier, modern pieces. We hope we can weave this all together to broaden the understanding of the contemporary art. That’s one way to build a collection from the Chinese art perspective, but we are also in dialogue with the others curators, and you’ll notice that there’s a little bit of overlap. Most people think that ink art should be under Chinese art, but we overlap, because we think of ink art as an international concept. We are going to cover the Japanese, Mono-ha, Gutai, even Fluxus, and Nam Jun Paik’s ink art practices. So when we talk about ink art in M+, it’s not a national concept. We have another curator, Pauline Yao, who is the Asian art curator. She covers the Chinese or Asian diaspora. So you can see, we have a more organic or more complicated of looking at these things.
The pressure we now have is to how to show the collection in 2017 when we open to the public. So we are now thinking about what we call ‘anchor artists’ because they can link the past and future and even the regional. An example of anchor artist for the diaspora is Huang Yong Ping. Another is Chen Shaoxiong and the Big Tail Elephants. If we build out the anchor artists then we can put Chinese artists a regional and international context.
Audience Member: It’s interesting because it seems like this is an almost unprecedented opportunity. Typically collections grow over time and they grow with successive directors and with successive philosophies of collection which then overlay each other and create different narratives. On the other hand it seems like you are creating a narrative in the space of five years at the same time that you are establishing or collecting these anchor artists. In this way, you’re obviously influencing the discourse because you are writing history by doing this. You’re also affirming a certain narrative which is both ahead and behind the market and the scholarly discourse. I’m curious how do you think about this process, which is weighty and has a great public purpose, and imbue it with a kind of criticality. What kinds of discussions have you had around that?
LM: I really appreciate your question because it’s something that we ask ourselves all the time; we have debates in curatorial meetings every two weeks. We bring up an artist or an artwork that we want to acquire for the collection and then everyone starts looking at it. For example, Nam June Paik, he is an indisputably important figure, but we need to look at his work from many perspectives, from his own biographical history to Asian art history, to his crossover with other art histories outside of Asia, to his work in different media and in different locations. We also look at what has been talked about before. How do we break down and away from the way he has been discussed in the past? In a way, yes, we do reinforce certain labels, such as ‘diaspora artist’ but can we think about it differently? And there’s a practical aspect. Is the work already owned by Hong Kong Museum of Art? In that case, we won’t overlap. Can we do a long-term loan or something like that, and how do we diversify ways of looking? I guess one example we can also use is ink art pieces. As Pi Li has said, we’re looking at ink art not just through the Chinese art perspective, but by artists outside of China such as the Koreans and the Japanese, and also artists in America or Europe. How do we break the conventional discourse? I think that we can look at ink, the medium, the mentality, and the aesthetic in a wider way and will not always subscribe to how the discourse has been shaped so far.
Audience Member: It sounds like there’s a creativity in terms of how you’re collecting and in understanding different perspectives, but I was wondering about the idea of the museum in relation to urban development, and do you think there are ways in which you’re trying to be as creative in terms of that relationship with the future with Hong Kong as you are with collecting strategies?
PL: I’ll try to answer this question. Basically I think one example relates to why Uli decided to donate this work to M+. Uli had long discussions with different institutions in Mainland China, but finally he committed to donate his collection to Hong Kong. Why? Because Hong Kong is a place where you can still find freedom of expression. And it also has a very good infrastructure. Another question we are asking ourselves and Hong Kong artists ask us is what role do we want to play in the Hong Kong culture. We will answer this question from the Hong Kong perspective. We’ll try to bring international artists to Hong Kong [and put Hong Kong art in an international context]. Maybe this is not the correct comparison, but perhaps you can say that the Hong Kong Heritage Museum is more like the V&A and Hong Kong Art Museum is more like Tate Britain. But we want to act more like the Tate Modern. Even though we collect Chinese art or Hong Kong art we want to generate an international perspective. Another way we relate to the urban context is through Mobile M+ and M+ Matters. Through these programs we’re trying to build up the art public in Hong Kong. Before 1997 people often took Hong Kong a transcient place. After 1997 we have a generation from Hong Kong who want to stay forever so what does art mean to them? That’s why we have a massive space and program for education. But in some ways Hong Kong is still a transient place, a shopping place, a tourist place for the people from the Mainland. And they might not be able to see an Ai Weiwei piece in Beijing but they can see one here. M+ is located next to the high-speed train station to Guangzhou which will be finished in 2016. We expect many visitors from Mainland China.
Audience Member: This is a two-part question: I was curious once the museum opens, how are you envisioning the division of gallery space between permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, and regarding your permanent collection galleries, how are you conceiving the narrative of your collection, or are you thinking about it thematically? Are you trying to make all of these connections across regions and across mediums, or is it more chronological or regional?
LM: I think that’s a question that we’re saving for our retreat in a couple months, but really it’s a question we constantly think about: how do we present this messy but well connected diagram in the physical space? I think one way might be thematically. But we also have the Sigg Collection which forms a large core of Chinese art from the 1970s to today and we need to demonstrate that. And as a museum situated in Hong Kong, we also will highlight the Hong Kong artists. But how this is actually going to be done physically, maybe this time next year we will be able address that in more detail.
JD: Well, on that note, we look forward to next year’s update. Thank you very much Lesley and Pi Li.
All images courtesy of M+.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.
Pi Li is an art critic, a curator of contemporary art. Pi was a lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing between 2001-2012 where he received a PhD in Art History and Criticism in 2009. He co-founded the UniversalStudios / Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing in 2005 to support individual creations in visual arts, design, films and music. Pi curated different exhibitions including Media City Seoul 2006, National Art Museum of Seoul, Korea (2006), The Nature of Concept: the Transforming Concept of Chinese Contemporary Art 1987-2006, Hubei Art Museum, China (2007), and Super Organism, Museum of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (2011). His articles are published on magazines such as Art Value, Flash Art and Museum. In 2012, Dr. Pi Li joined M+, Museum of Visual Culture as the Sigg Senior Curator.
Lesley Ma is the Ink Curator at M+ and Managing Editor at Para Site, Hong Kong. At M+ she is developing exhibitions and building the museum’s ink art collection and related public programming. A PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the University of California San Diego, Ma is researching postwar abstract painting in Taiwan.