Cover The M+ curatorial team. From left: Pi Li, Ikko Yokoyama, Doryun Chong, Pauline J Yao, Stella Fong and Silke Schmickl. (Photo: Alex Maeland for Tatler Hong Kong)

Ahead of the museum's grand opening on November 12, Pauline J Yao, lead curator of visual art at M+, explains why Hong Kong's new museum of visual culture is a "game changer"

Pauline J Yao is the lead curator of visual art at M+, Hong Kong’s sprawling new museum that will open to the public on November 12, but she is keen to emphasise that art is only one part of M+’s broad mission. “We are not simply an art museum,” she says. “Rather our mission encompasses a variety of disciplines and materials extending from art to design, architecture and moving image.”

Yao has curated Individuals, Networks, Expressions, one of M+’s six inaugural exhibitions. The show is an expansive look at how art has developed from the 1950s to the present day, particularly within Asia and in relation to the rise of Asia on the global stage. Below, Yao discusses what makes M+ unique and reveals some of her favourite artworks in M+’s collections.

See also: Exclusive: Inside Hong Kong's New M+ Museum—Asia's Answer To Tate Modern And MoMA

M+ is committed to telling stories from an Asian perspective, or from the perspective of Asia, and collecting and exhibiting work from around the region. Why is this so important, on both a local level and a global level?

It’s important most of all because it is something that has never been done before, at least not systematically and not by any other institution in East Asia. Most of the time, when people hear the term "art history" they immediately think of western art, and when they hear "Asian art history" they tend to associate that with classical or pre-modern time periods. We want to tell stories of art that emerge from our place in Asia and that are in dialogue with our current moment.

For local audiences, this may be the first time they are able to see artistic developments in their own region and in doing so they can better understand how Hong Kong fits into a wider context. On a global level, telling stories from a perspective in Asia is part of a larger process of re-centring—that is, moving away from Euro-American narratives and placing the identities and histories of Asia at the forefront. We are now experiencing major shifts and re-alignments in the global world order as we enter into the Pacific Century, whereby economies will be dominated by countries in the Asia-Pacific region. If we subscribe to this thinking, then telling the stories of art and culture from an Asian perspective will become increasingly important in the future too.

See also: M+ Chief Curator Doryun Chong On Hong Kong, Chinese Contemporary Art And The Museum's Opening Exhibitions

What about M+’s vision makes it a museum unlike any other?

In my view, there are two main things about M+ that set us apart. The first is that we are a museum of visual culture—that is, we are not simply an art museum, rather our mission encompasses a variety of disciplines and materials extending from art to design, architecture and moving image. Another way to say this is that our collections are extraordinarily diverse as they range from paintings, sculptures, video art and installations to furniture design, architectural models, mass-produced objects, graphic design, as well as digitally-born art, experimental video and film. Institutionally, this kind of diversity is rarely found under one roof. It is exactly this interplay of artistic practices—and having them co-exist on equal footing—which allows us to produce programs and content unlike any other museum.

The second factor has to do with our scope, namely our transnational perspective and international mindset. We build a collection that transcends and goes far beyond Hong Kong’s borders. That this truly visionary approach was endorsed and supported by the Hong Kong government from an early stage says a lot about the city’s leadership at that time and the desire for Hong Kong to have lasting impact in the region and globally.

See also: Curator Ikko Yokoyama on M+: “No Other Museum in Asia Is Building a Public Architecture Collection and Design Archive”

What are the core ideas and themes that link the works featured in the exhibition Individuals, Networks, Expressions

Individuals, Networks, Expressions is designed to introduce the development of visual art in Asia from 1950s into the present. It is an expansive story because it traverses many regions and time periods and presents different approaches to artmaking. One of the core messages has to do with showing how art is in constant conversation with its time and place. One can find artists of all different nationalities and backgrounds creating works under highly specific conditions and in response to their personal experience in localised contexts. Of the approximately 150 works in the show, no two are alike. This reveals another core idea relating to fiercely individualistic expressions that do not adhere to one medium, style or methodology. This plurality is super important, as is understanding that each artist is like a node within a vast, complex web of connections that extend from local to global and from past to present. Asia sits at the centre of this web but in this case Asia is not merely a geographical marker but rather an idea or a construct, a broad cultural space that shifts and alters depending on one’s point of view.

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Can you introduce three artworks—or, if not individual pieces, three artists—that you are especially excited to have represented in the M+ collection?

This is a tough task, but I will start with one of the earliest acquisitions we made—the full oeuvre of Taiwanese American artist Tehching Hsieh (b.1950). Hsieh is a ground-breaking figure who singlehandedly redefined the boundaries between art and everyday life with his radical, endurance-based performances. His first work, created in 1978-1979, affectionately known as Cage Piece, involves the artist confining himself in a cage inside his apartment in downtown New York City for 365 consecutive days. This deeply introspective work—which launched a series of one-year performances—asks profound questions about how to make art with one’s body, what constitutes a work of art, and how to differentiate between time spent living versus time spent making art. It is also a work that carries unexpected associations with our current moment of living under a global pandemic where prolonged periods of confinement and quarantine are sparking new ways to think about the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Filipina artist Pacita Abad (1946-2004)—a relentless traveller and global nomad whose vibrant and buoyant paintings developed from her extended contact with diverse cultures and artistic traditions. During the 1980s Abad lived in countries like Bangladesh, Mali, Sudan, Indonesia, Cambodia and Yemen, and her paintings draw upon the various vernacular styles and artistic languages she picked up from time spent with local communities there. Unlike Tehching Hsieh, who only produced six artworks in his entire lifetime, Pacita Abad was extraordinarily prolific, creating hundreds of hand-stitched canvases that she occasionally covered with paint, beads, ribbons and other found materials. Her colourful compositions exude an energetic spirit and unending passion for life.

Fast forwarding to today, American artist Avery Singer’s paintings are a fascinating mash-up of digital and analogue aesthetics that reflect on current circumstances or events through the lens of history. Based in New York, Singer creates her imagery through sketch-up and 3D modelling and transfers them to canvas layer upon layer with the help of a commercial airbrush machine. The work in our collection Robespierre (assassination), made in 2020 during the pandemic, layers two distinct forms of image making–digital and hand painted—atop one another, while interspersing references to art history, rap culture, video games and American politics. Singer’s techniques uniquely signal twentieth century aesthetics, particularly our ongoing relationship to computer generated images and screen culture, while also hinting at legacies of art history and the medium of painting.

See also: Artist Mona Hatoum: "The World Feels Increasingly Unstable"

What do you think will most surprise visitors to M+ when they visit the museum for the first time?

I suspect most visitors will be taken aback by the sheer size and scale of M+. This includes first and foremost our building which, coming in at approximately 65,000 square meters, requires significant time to navigate. Most people living in Hong Kong are not accustomed to visiting a museum of this size or with so many things on offer and they may expect to see it all in one visit. But they would be wrong! Just seeing one of our collection-based exhibitions will take two hours or more to digest and on top of that people will want to take in the architecture, visit the rooftop, or maybe stop by the shop or café. It definitely will require more than one visit to take it all in. In addition to the magnitude of M+, I think our audiences may also be pleasantly surprised by the quality of our gallery texts and our interpretive materials such as our audio-guide, small brochures and so on. These have been very carefully crafted to make visitors feel welcome and to guide them on a journey of learning.

Looking into the future, when people talk about M+ in ten years, how do you hope they will describe the museum?

This is a great question. It is always important to remember that the impact of an institution like Hong Kong will take time to absorb and sometimes the effects may not be felt for some time. I like to think that ten years from now when people look back on M+ they will describe it as a game changer, that it helped to shift the power balance in the art world away from the commercial market and thinking of art in terms of monetary value. The market will always be there, of course, and it has its role to play, but I sincerely hope that M+ can impact the ways people see art’s relationship to society.


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