Cover Suhanya Raffel in the Grand Stair auditorium in M+. Raffel wears Shanghai Tang gilet and her own top, trousers, boots, ring and earrings. (Photo: Alex Maeland for Tatler Hong Kong)

Nearly two decades in the making, the M+ museum in Hong Kong has ambitions to be the leading cultural institution in Asia—and one of the best in the world. It finally opens to the public on November 12

“I feel so restless,” says Suhanya Raffel, museum director of M+, the colossal new institution for art, architecture and design, and moving images that stands dramatically on the edge of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. It’s a sunny Friday in late September, exactly 49 days before the museum officially opens. “An institution without an audience is like a person without a soul,” says Raffel. “Our visitors are the last missing piece.”

On November 12, that piece will finally fall into place when M+ opens its doors to the public, giving Hongkongers a look inside a museum that has been nearly two decades in the making. Admission for all Hong Kong residents will be free for the first year. “We are hoping to attract approximately half a million people in the first six months but, once the borders reopen, I am sure that we will have many more,” says Raffel. “I hope they will understand why it took so long. All good things take time.”

The museum sits at the heart of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a 40-hectare, wedge-shaped plot of reclaimed land that juts off the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. By most measures, it is the largest development dedicated to the arts under construction anywhere in the world. It will eventually be home to 17 cultural spaces, including the Xiqu Centre for traditional Chinese theatre, which opened in January 2019, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which will primarily display antiquities from the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing and is due to open in 2022.

It is M+, though, that has been most closely watched—and some might say scrutinised. In 2003, the government proposed a plan for a cluster of four museums, one each for ink art, modern and contemporary art, moving images, and design and architecture. Three years later, it scrapped that plan in favour of a single, mammoth institution that would encompass all the above, and more.

M+ has since boldly positioned itself as Hong Kong’s answer to the Tate Modern in London, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum is described in promotional materials as “Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture”, burdening it with the pressure to represent not only its home town, but the largest continent on the planet, home to more than four billion people. Even its name, which stands for “museum and more” or “museum plus”, hints at its ambitions, suggesting it will offer more than the national art museums of the past. 

See also: Art Collectors William and Lavina Lim Donate Nearly 100 Artworks To M+

The stakes are high. And the journey to this point has not been easy: there have been construction delays, rumours of ballooning costs and a pandemic, which pushed the opening back by a year. There has also been a media storm swirling about possible political interference in the museum, with artists, politicians and pundits debating what limits—if any—are being placed on M+ by the government. But Raffel, the soft-spoken, Sri Lanka-born Australian who worked at Tate in London and several leading institutions in Australia before joining M+ in 2016, seems to have calmly steered her team through it all. She remains confident in M+—and excited. “There is no other institution of this kind and scale in Asia,” she says. “It is time for M+ to pave the way.”

Its size is certainly on par with the leading institutions of the West. The M+ building was designed by acclaimed Swiss studio Herzog & de Meuron, which also designed Tate Modern’s extension. It houses 183,000 sq ft of exhibition space, split among 33 galleries, most of them in a cavernous podium that is roughly the size of two football fields. Soaring above the galleries is a skinny, 14-storey tower, which contains offices, a research centre, storage space and more. From the side, the wide podium and slender rise make M+ look like an upside-down T. From the front, the building resembles an enormous flat- screen TV, which in a way it is—the 110-metre by 65.8-metre façade features an LED light system that can play videos and other works from the museum’s collection.

Although the museum may appear austere from the outside, inside it is bright and welcoming, full of sharp angles and surprising details. Skylights flood the central atrium with sunshine or, when clouds gather overhead, moody shadows. There are cut-outs on every floor of the podium, so at points the entrance hall is quadruple-height, allowing visitors to see from the basement up to the second storey. Subtle touches stop the vast space from feeling cold: wide concrete boards line the floor of most public areas, but all of them have been stamped with wood, imprinting each with a unique grain. Some of the walls inside and out are clad in curved terracotta tiles that echo traditional Chinese roofs or, seen from another perspective, bamboo poles. The tiles appear to change colour as the light changes, shifting from seaweed green to almost yellow.

“Herzog & de Meuron have created for us one of the most superb and extraordinary museums, which is truly a gift to Hong Kong,” says Raffel. “Visitors will surely be surprised by their experience of simply walking into the museum. I walk into our museum every day and it still excites me.”

 

 

More important than the building, though, are the items on show. M+’s mission is to collect, exhibit and study a range of art forms from the 20th and 21st centuries. Most of the objects in its roughly 6,400-item collection are made by artists, architects or designers from Asia, with almost a quarter of pieces related to Hong Kong in particular. Even when works in the collection are by artists from the West, the pieces are often linked to Asia: for example, a 2.5- by 3-metre painting by acclaimed African American artist Mark Bradford was inspired by his 2014 visit to Hong Kong, when he became obsessed with the city’s cramped apartment blocks.

It was always the plan for the museum to focus on Asia, but it feels especially important after the past two years, during which social movements around the world have called for voices outside the white, western mainstream to be amplified. “It is crucial that our voices are heard, from our place, with our people,” says Raffel. “This is very important because our stories are unique to here. The reason why I am so committed to this project is because I do not want M+ to be someone else’s footnote. We want to be the main story—and we will tell that story from our place.”

M+ is also pushing the boundaries of the traditional canon by collecting and exhibiting all forms of visual culture, spanning art, architecture and design, and moving images. The latter includes films, video art, animations and more.

See also: 10 Hollywood Movies Set in Hong Kong You Should Watch
 

This broad scope means the museum’s collection includes items as varied as a four-metre-long cow-shaped neon sign that hung outside the legendary Hong Kong restaurant Sammy’s Kitchen from the 1970s to the early 2000s; a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty by Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo, broken into 250 pieces, of which M+ owns ten; a 12-screen video work by British artist Isaac Julien that stars actress Maggie Cheung; a handful of mainland Chinese artist Fang Lijun’s colourful oil paintings of bald men; and several Nintendo Game Boys, preserved as examples of innovative product design. 

Other institutions, such as MoMA and the Pompidou, have paved the way for this interdisciplinary approach in the West, so directors of those institutions and others are watching the opening of M+ closely to see how it is received in Asia. Glenn D Lowry, the director of MoMA, says in a statement, “The opening of M+ is the most anticipated event in the art world this year. I can think of few other museums whose potential is greater than M+ and that have the possibility of writing new histories of contemporary art.” Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, is similarly enthusiastic. “It is thrilling to think that Tate Modern now has a counterpart in Hong Kong,” she says. M+ has already loaned items from its collections to several international institutions, and Raffel says that other “collaborations are well underway”, including shows that might move between museums. 

This month, curators and art lovers from around the world are going to be scrutinising M+’s six opening exhibitions. The first, Hong Kong: Here and Beyond, traces the development of the city’s visual culture from the 1960s to the present through the work of artists, architects, designers and filmmakers. Among the pieces on show are British photographer Ian Lambot’s haunting images of life inside the Kowloon Walled City before it was torn down in 1994; paintings by the late Tsang Tsou Choi, better known as the King of Kowloon, who covered walls, letter boxes and sometimes even cars with his calligraphic graffiti in the late 20th century; and an architectural model by Rocco Yim of a typical Hong Kong apartment block.

The second show, M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation, features pieces drawn from the collection of Swiss businessman and former diplomat Uli Sigg. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Sigg amassed the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world, more than 1,400 pieces of which he donated to M+ in 2012. He sold a further 47 works to the museum for a total of US$22.7 million.

See also: Meet Rocco Yim, The Architect Behind Hong Kong's Most Iconic Landmarks
 

This gift was transformative for the museum in its early days, says Doryun Chong, deputy director, curatorial, and chief curator of M+. “Back in 2012, when M+ only had a handful of curators and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority had not been around for long, part of the remit given to us was to build a permanent collection from scratch,” he says. “With Dr Uli Sigg’s contributions, we saw our collection quickly grow from zero to 1,510 works; this really provided the inspiration for our museum team to start building other parts of our collection, while the donation also brought public attention and visibility to M+.” This first exhibition of works from the M+ Sigg Collection reflects on China’s rapid urbanisation and rise as an economic superpower from the 1970s onwards.

How Asia more broadly has changed in the past 70 years is the starting point of both Things, Spaces, Interactions, an exhibition of more than 500 items of furniture, architecture, graphic arts and other design objects, and Individuals, Networks, Expressions, a show of visual art from the 1950s to the present. Meanwhile, The Dream of the Museum, another group exhibition, looks further afield, featuring artists from around the world who work with found objects.

The final opening exhibition showcases just one monumental installation, Asian Field by the British sculptor Antony Gormley, which comprises 200,000 clay figurines. Gormley made the work in collaboration with 300 residents of Xiangshan village in Guangdong province in 2003. Gormley gave everyone four instructions: each figure had to be roughly hand-sized, able to stand up, have two eyes and be made using local clay, which is famous throughout China for its deep red colour. The installation is designed to be seen from only one point, not to be walked around, so visitors gaze across a sea of tiny figures that all appear to be staring back.

The opening exhibitions have been devised by M+’s curatorial team, made up of staff from around the world: Chong; Pi Li, the Sigg senior curator and head of curatorial affairs; Stella Fong, lead curator of learning and interpretation; Silke Schmickl, lead curator of moving image; Pauline J Yao, lead curator of visual art; and Ikko Yokoyama, lead curator of design and architecture. “When I look at my own team here at M+, our diversity is something that I am extremely proud about,” says Raffel. “We have gathered experts with so many unique experiences from different parts of the world to come to Hong Kong and help shape one of the most extraordinary institutions of the 21st century.”

Raffel’s commitment to advocating for diversity in both her team and M+’s exhibitions is partly inspired by her own background. She was born in Sri Lanka and moved with her family when she was 14 to Australia, where she studied art history at the University of Sydney. After that, she climbed up the ladder at museums in the UK and Australia, becoming deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney before relocating in 2016 to Hong Kong, which she now thinks of as home. “I do consider Hong Kong home, but I feel as if I have many homes,” she says. “My own personal experience of change, movement and integrating into different cultures has only shaped me into, I hope, a richer and better person, with a more open outlook on many aspects of life. As a curator, this has motivated me to advocate for expanding curatorial knowledge and interests in the various institutions I have worked in, because I always felt that there were areas of interest that had been ignored or overlooked. I championed them.”

The scale of M+ gives Raffel the opportunity to tell more stories than ever before—and she hopes the museum will inspire others from around Asia to tell their own stories, too. “M+ will establish a footprint [that] certainly could be taken up as a challenge in other parts of Asia,” she says. “How Yogyakarta, Shanghai, Seoul or Delhi respond will be extraordinary in their own way because of the distinct conditions and identities of each of those cities. I hope that M+ will be the stone that is dropped into the pond, and that we will see its cultural impact ripple out into other parts of the world.”

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