Hong Kong 2015 – The “seasoned dancer” of M+? Here’s to Lars Nittve…

Time to get back to blogging about my recent month-long research trip to Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. So much to tell you about, so I’d better get writing. During a non-stop guided excursion day to different art areas of Hong Kong including south of Hong Kong island, Aberdeen and Kowloon, I went with Kwong Lee, Ming Turner and Beccy Kennedy (members of the ‘Visualising Chinese Borders’ research network…the reason I was in Asia) to meet some of the M+ Museum team – Tina Yee-wan Pang (Curator of Hong Kong Visual Culture at M+), Doryun Chong (Chief Curator of M+), Pi Li (Senior Curator at M+) and Isabella Tam (Assistant Curator at M+). We wanted to hear about their past, present and future (vision), their sense of place in Hong Kong from national and global perspectives, and their relationship to local and more socially-engaged art practices. Tina had attended part of the third research networking lab session for the ‘Culture, Capital and Communication: Visualising Chinese Borders’ project the day before, so she was very familiar with our mutual research interests. Here are some notes from the meeting…

  • For Asia, different areas of the collection are framed in different ways, where the approach is seen as complimentary away from nation building.
  • It is a public funded museum in Hong Kong…a governmental initiative as part of the redevelopment of the West Kowloon area. M+ will operate independently of the government event though funded by them. It is a controversial project, half a dozen performing arts venues, 15-20% park land, where the museum of approximately 110,000sq ft. comparable in size to the of MoMA New York.

What makes it (from) a Hong Kong perspective?

  • It is evolutionary. There’s no one answer. It’s not fixed and we are still figuring it out. It’s publicly funded so there are pre-conceived notions of what we are doing and not doing. We’re focussing on Visual Arts, Design and Architecture and Moving Image. The collection has already done a lot in terms of fleshing out ideas in Hong Kong. The main collection in the M+ Uli Sigg Collection walking through a 40-year history of contemporary Chinese art that no one else can do. The history has become deeper in 40 years with new trends and solid artist communities.
  • Recent history and recent research makes the development of a collection very hard. There is a strong Japanese discussion…are good museums in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, South East Asia and Singapore nation bound? Their collections are often haphazard and not systematic.
  • We want it to be nation authoritative, wider representative and wider response and enough in a comparative sense.
  • Asian artists are by definition global such as Paul Chan, Isaac Julien, Anthony Gormley. In June 2012, the collection had 1510 works, where now there are over 4,300.

How do you anchor a non-profit institution like M+?

  • Hong Kong is a place that has had museums with specific areas and a mandate for each. It’s how you conceptualise it as an institution. As M+ grows, the cultural ecology grows radically from its roots of Asia Art Archive, Para Site and Osage; the increase of galleries from outside; non-profits and Art Basel. Hong Kong has turned into the hub/destination in the region. We don’t want to be the “beam??” in Hong Kong, we want there to be “multi-layers” to the scene.

There is the debate of “Hong Kongness”…

  • It is “distinctiveness” and how the ecologies relate to each other. What distinguished Hong Kong artists from others? It is commodity rather than process. It is an artist-led culture.
  • Hong Kong is a small place so still small in terms of the number of artists and those rising to the top for example, Lee Kit.
  • An exclusive area of the collection is dedicated to Ink Art as there is a whole layer of artists not exposed. We have nothing to do with socially-engaged art as such or artists post-Umbrella Movement.

What does M+ mean in the Hong Kong perspective?

  • Historically Hong Kong has open borders and commercial practices, manufacturing ti services. It is trying to reflect more accurately of how ideas have moved in and out of Hong Kong. We are actively resisting the idea of “Hong Kongness”. Move away from what people think about in Hong Kong…what already exists here and how we can add to it.
  • “The interesting thing about Hong Kong artists is they have multiple roles – we have to look at them in multiple dimensions.” (Isabella)
  • Lars’s vision is “building a museum from the inside out”…whilst trying to work out how we share a museum as it is being built. We are doing this through ‘M+ Matters’ and public forums.
  • By building it from the inside out, it is harder to formerly speculate. Our leverage is what we are all already brining to this institution. So we need to “convert others”. The project is interesting and Hong Kong is a draw. It is something very exciting historically to geographically…it is a convening of forces, economic to the political. It is about benefiting Hong Kong and adding with conviction. The importance of building symbolic and spiritual capital.
  • 50% of the budget is on staff with a current team of 45 staff. Half of this is curatorial staff with 8 learning roles within this.
  • Nationalist, more international museum in Asia. It is a shared conversation, multi-dimensional. Building finished by 2018 and open by 2019. The government is inviting in audiences by building enterprise such as Oil street, a platform for developing emerging curators and through open calls.
  • To be crass and realistic, M+ has fantastic artworks that will be naturally crowd-pleasing…research and scholarship…blockbuster shows that will be done more smartly and with more integrity…built into our DNA and thinking, it’s a pro-bono institution. Mandate clear, ethics clear, museologically run like any other space, it’s just the surroundings are different. What has taken root yet is not quite an understanding of the ecology…no understanding is appropriate as it has developed so fast.
  • Numbers are seen as obscene, when in reality all the money is going to M+ staff/one-off institution. Trying to maintain animosity to what we do…with a black and white attitude.

Funnily enough, as I was writing this blog post yesterday, I came across articles announcing M+ Director, Lars Nittve’s departure from M+ in January 2016…just as they seem to be breaking metaphorical and physical ground. In my view, this wasn’t a shock as in recent years, it is more often the case that heavyweights of the art world, like Nittve, are brought in by organisations for the early years of art gallery or museum life…as a catalyst for creative momentum and infrastructural establishment, and to bring cultural kudos…very much what the curatorial team at M+ has been brought in for…questioned by many as status over substance. In a statement on 5 October 2015, Nittve stated:

“I am proud to say that we have reached a point when we can say with certainty that we have a truly world-class museum underway, with an excellent team in place, a collection of growing significance and an extraordinary museum building under construction. But I have to accept that after five years here, there are still another four years of very hard work remaining until the opening of M+. I believe I should either commit to all those years – or accept that this is the right time to hand over to someone else. After much consideration I have decided to do the latter.” – Lars Nittve

On social media, responses and article links have shared further diverse reactions seeing it as “bad news”…Hong Kong was “vexed” by the announcement…his reason for leaving potentially due to “political interference” as talk within the arts community was about whether politics had gotten in the way of the arts hub’s administration…”why does everyone flee this project?”…the art world apparently left stunned, depressed and reeling in shock (pretty extreme reactions if you ask me…depressed? Really?)…according to gallerist Pearl Lam “It’s disastrous…Is there such an inherent problem in Hong Kong that we don’t know how to keep these cultural leaders?”…where his parting words have been cited as “Delay no more”…

Lars Nittve Twitter 3 Lars Nittve Twitter 2 Lars Nittve Twitter 1

In an article for MOMUS/Tate Etc from 29 September 2015, Nittve was one of many creatives asked to answer the question, ‘What is the museum of the future?’. He stated:

“The museum of the future not only knows it can’t predict the future, it embraces that fact. It’s prepared, through its vision, organizational culture and physical framework (which might be a building, but not necessarily), perpetually to change, adapt, and rethink absolutely everything. It’s not for the institution to dictate the direction of art and visual culture, nor how audiences should behave. Rather, the museum of the future (like the museum of the present) must be a seasoned dancer. On the one hand, it should follow the lead of the cultural practitioners and audiences who are the reasons for its existence. At the same time, good dancers are never passive. They are active, responsive, and quick on their toes, ready for the unexpected.” – Lars Nittve

Dancers also get injured, change companies, change style of dance and so much more. This was published seven days prior to the announcement of his formal departure from M+…clearly by then he already knew he was moving on…was this his goodbye message? Here’s to your next performance Nittve and to M+’s new dance…but who will choreograph its future? I look forward to seeing how this “plays” out…

View from M+ office in West Kowloon, Hong Kong...looking over the M+ Museum site where they have broken ground...
View from M+ office in West Kowloon, Hong Kong…looking over the M+ Museum site where they have broken ground…

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