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Wednesday, December 16, 2020, 16:51
A big plus on the horizon
By Chitralekha Basu
Wednesday, December 16, 2020, 16:51 By Chitralekha Basu

Editor’s Note: M+ museum of visual culture has captured the imagination of the cognoscenti and reached out to the local community in Hong Kong since well before its 2021 opening date. In an exclusive interview to China Daily, museum director Suhanya Raffel shares how M+ will showcase the finest pieces of art, architecture and moving image of our times from Hong Kong and beyond while serving the local community. Excerpts:

Suhanya Raffel, museum director, M+, says Hong Kong visual culture will be presented in the wider global context at the museum. (PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY)

A new enhanced definition of museums proposed to International Council of Museums (ICOM) by the Jette Sandahl-led commission sets the agenda for museums of today – one of these goals being that a museum should “address the conflicts and challenges of the present.” Do you think it is part of a museum’s mandate to showcase a reflection of the present moment? 

At M+, we’re a museum of visual culture from mid-20th century, looking into the future. So our relationship with the world we live in is very important. For example, the exhibition we called NEONSIGNS.HK was about the city as a museum. The city’s public helped us document neon signs as they were disappearing. 

We collect neon signs as well. It’s a major conservation as well as historical documentation program, in which we consider what neon means to us today. So yes absolutely, as a museum of visual culture of today, we look at our lived environment (in what we collect and exhibit). 

It’s almost as if the pandemic happened to give the acquisition of Archigram archives by M+ a sense of context. From Peter Cook’s vision of the “Instant City” (1968) in which people and facilities are air-dropped on select locations from a balloon-transported carrier; to David Greene’s inflatable “living pods” (1969), where we get the idea of the resident as serviced nomad, living in isolation — several Archigram designs resonate with the new realities much of the world has to contend with at the moment. What’s your view?

The Archigram collective are an experimental studio. They taught many of Hong Kong's practicing architects. And their reason for being so keen to place their archive with M+ was because they have always said that if they built architecture, they would have built Hong Kong which, with its elevated walkways, matches their idea of a walking city – a vertical city that creates a sense of the future. 

Archigram resonates so well with Hong Kong and actually China and East Asia, where we find dense cities, in Japan, for example. 

Also the idea of zoom, which Archigram introduced 50 years ago, is now our living fact. 

To go back to the definition of museums proposed to ICOM which envisages an enhanced social role on behalf of museums, wishing for them to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being,” – it seems the emphasis is more on activism than heritage and art…    

What the proposal reflected was the changing role of museums in many parts of the world and the way this is perceived by the communities that we serve. Because as public institutions we have a responsibility to bring histories of art, design, the latest research and knowledge to the public as part of our civic responsibility. So those conversations are structured within that spirit. 

We all feel the need to be more sustainable and responsible in a global environment where sustainability is clearly a very important topic -- an ecological responsibility. And there're very deep conversations taking place around what it means to conserve a collection and present it in buildings that consume huge amounts of energy; how to sustain relative humidity and temperatures;  how can we be more responsible to environments that take a lot of resource to maintain at a certain level? 

So sustainability is something that we consider very seriously within the global museum environments. It’s not settled yet, but being investigated and discussed because the cultural heritage that M+ carries is for all humankind. If we don't care for it, it can disappear very quickly. So it's a nuanced, multifaceted and complex conversation. 

And that's why the definition suggested to ICOM is still being discussed. I sit on the Board of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art – it’s within the family of ICOM. And we have thought very carefully about our response to the new definition. We argued to add the word art because it's not there. Also learning, a key critical part of museum work, seems to have fallen out. As a community of professionals, we're still working to come up with a definition that is agreed to by all. 

Increasingly, social justice is also being considered a key area that museums must consider. There is also talk of decolonizing collections and disentangling from Western cultural histories. So when you’re choosing an artist who you want to collect or exhibit, do you have ideas such as gender parity and representation at the back of your mind? 

Every single object we collect earns its place in the collection and is debated and discussed through many layers, (going through) a proper museum process of internal debate, (scrutiny) by the acquisitions committee of the museum board and finally the museum board itself. That’s why even before it physically exists, M+ is already adding a very significant voice to the global space of equivalent institutions.

In relation to diversity, we are taking control of our histories and our voices. We are no longer a footnote in a western canon. Our work actually is to show that we have canons that come from here. So the discussion around diversity and decolonization is already embraced and embodied.

We also do a lot of new research in relation to gender parity. We know that women are underrepresented (in the art world). We need to do the research and bring those voices that have been overlooked to the notice of the public. For example, we work very closely with Asia Art Archive on the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Women in Art, adding names of women artists we have researched to Wikipedia, because we know that's the first stop for most people to find out (about them). 

If you look at architecture, that’s a male world. We have to advocate through university degrees and architectural practices for women practitioners to be recognized.  

Artist’s rendering of the waterside view of M+ building. The giant LED screen will be watched by people across the channel. (IMAGE COURTESY M+)

M+ chose Shirley Tse to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and also hosted a response exhibition of her Venice show at M+ Pavilion in 2020. This was work by a woman artist, curated by another woman, Christina Li. Tse’s installation, Negotiated Differences, looked architectural, challenging conventional notions about womanly sensibilities in art. How did you zero in on her?

This was the fourth time M+ was taking an artist to Venice. I said it had to be a woman (artists chosen for the previous three editions were all men). And Shirley’s work was like a premonition of the world that we're living in now – (underscoring) the need to be thoughtful about our relationships with each other in a complex world, to which her Negotiated Differences was such a fine response.  

What’s the number of holdings you have in the M+ collection at the moment?

We have 8,000 objects and 47,000 archives consisting mainly of architectural drawings and some design as well. 

Would you like to tell us about items from this already rather vast range of acquisitions that represent the spirit of Hong Kong and the likes of which would be hard to come by in any other museum? 

The way we position our international acquisitions is one of the most unique things. For example, we present the Archigram archives by bringing it in context, alongside the Hong Kong architectural archives we have, whether it’s Tao Ho or Palmer and Turner. 

Hong Kong visual culture is a significant part of our collection, whether it's neon signs or objects that are a familiar part of everyday life here, or ink paintings. It was a very important moment when Hong Kong artists beginning with Lui Shou-kwan radicalized the ink tradition by bringing in an incredible abstract language. So those holdings of ink artists, whether it's Irene Chou or Wucius Wong, are works by great Hong Kong artists who radicalized the form and took it into the world. 

We also collect moving image. For example, martial art cinema was a significant moving image form that came out of Hong Kong and then took over the world. 

Hong Kong was an inspirational base for the idea of a futuristic city. You see it in films like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) – parts of which were inspired by Wan Chai. A lot of the forms you see in contemporary computer games are inspired by Hong Kong architecture. And we will be showing some of that work as a major part of our opening display where we look at Hong Kong, here and beyond. Hong Kong artists and Hong Kong makers are central to it, but it’s also about how Hong Kong as a city has been the inspiration for visual culture. And it's the dialogue between the local and international that gives us a very unique perspective. You will never see it anywhere else. And I'm extremely proud of the work our curators have done and the research and the very fine histories that we’re presenting. It is important to have institutions of equivalence to take purchase of our stories. That's exactly what we will try to do when we open. 

How did COVID-19 affect the work of the M+ team and how did you cope with the crisis? 

Since we have been waiting for the museum building to come up, our digital work was already an established part of our museum voice. We've been making more and more of our works available online as an open data source – M+ Collections Beta. We have digital exhibitions, like NEONSIGNS.HK. Through #MPlusfromHome, we gave virtual tours of exhibitions and access to talks with artists like Shirley Tse. 

We began expanding the base of digital content shared with our audiences through a program called, “How Did You Two Meet?”, where curators pick two unrelated pieces of art from collections of M+ and try to find a connection. 

Since COVID-19, M+ Rover, our traveling studio that would earlier visit schools and community centers in Hong Kong, was moved online. And it was incredible working with schools. We reached out to over 45,455 young people. We worked together with our digital team, our learning team and with artists, to develop an online methodology and then deliver it. 

Many of these things have been so successful that it's very clear they will continue regardless of the museum’s physical presence. So I think our advantage was that because we didn't have a physical museum, we had already developed (a digital presence) and continue to commission online art projects. We began with Miao Ying’s Hardcore Digital Detox (a piece of interactive animated video satirizing internet addiction and online propaganda) and are just about to launch a third (online art) commission. So the digital work that we have been doing has been an essential part of museum work and will continue. Since the world has gone largely digital whatever we do online needs to be as thoughtful and creative as our physical material. 

It will take a very specialized skill set to curate and produce museum content that exists only in the digital realm. I imagine you have dedicated teams working towards developing that aspect of M+’s output. 

Research by McKinsey and others show that Asia, especially East Asia – China, Japan and Korea – was digitally alert much, much earlier than other parts of the world, which means that the majority of our staff, who are very young, brings such skills as part of their everyday lives to M+. This is the everyday reality for so many people and young people, especially. And this is probably the way to go.

Drawing of Walking City, 1964, from the Archigram Archives recently acquired by M+. (IMAGE COURTESY M+)


Would you like to tell us a bit about the M Plus site and its Herzog & de Meuron-created architecture? I’m interested in the role you expect M+ to play in terms of placemaking, i.e. creating a space that impacts people’s social lives…

I think it's a very important part of a museum’s purpose to address a sense of well-being for the community. A museum is used by different people according to their needs. Some people come for learning, some people for leisure and some because it's a great social environment. Other people come to participate in the cinema programs or attend symposia or to participate in the academic program. So there are a number of ways that the museum intersects with the public. 

Our learning team has created a vision of how to deliver their program and wellbeing is one of the cornerstones of that delivery, because we can be a place of refuge, a place to slow down, or a place for social activity. A group of retirees can come to M+ because it provides a place to come together and engage or use the learning center where an artist can show them the basic building blocks of how to draw a scene, and the display spaces that are meant for reflection and enjoyment. Our learning teams are working with artists and makers to drive these programs and they have already been put to use, through M+ Rover or in summer camps, during these last four years. We did not wait for the museum building to come up to do that work and will just amplify it when we're in the museum. 

The giant LED screen (65.8 meters high and 110 meters long) on one of the facades of the M+ tower will be watched by people in Central and Wan Chai without having to cross the waters…

Herzog & de Meuron have delivered an incredible piece of architecture, something that will be explored for decades to come by different generations. For many people, their first encounter with M+ will be via that screen. And that screen will be a creative space – a space where museum content is delivered. 

At the same time it will be in a space in a city that has many digital screens and a lot of light in the evening. So we thought carefully about the ecology of the nightscape of Hong Kong. We want to make an addition that is about the creative voice (of Hong Kong).

Would you like to share specific examples of how you plan to maintain the ecological balance in and around the M+ building when you open?

When you make exhibitions, for example, you build internal walls in a big space to then construct your exhibition. We have made a commitment to keep those internal walls for a minimum of three years, so we don't make and break and make, again, because that's wasteful – for the environment as well as financially. It's a challenge for curators to have to deliver their exhibitions within an already structured space, but a good one. 

Also we're trying to minimize freight shipping and look at how we can share major institutional collection exhibitions across our immediate neighborhood. When we do European shipping or US shipping into Asia, we look at maybe a group of us (museums in the region) working together to share the costs, so that the works are seen by a much greater number of people, and the ecological carbon footprint doesn't blossom into something unsustainable. 

We know that we do need to bring art to people because we are going to travel less, in the post-COVID-19 scenario. So we think about how we express that to our broader communities. It is being discussed and finessed. 

The air conditioning in our display spaces comes from the floor, not from above. That is good sustainable design in terms of energy consumption. We’re using the Hong Kong-BEAM scheme to measure sustainability and the conditions to achieve the Gold standard have been designed into the architecture of the building already.

You just mentioned partnerships with other museums in the region – the importance of which has increased by several folds since COVID-19. What’s the progress on that front?

We already have a MOU with Power Station of Art in Shanghai. We’re also looking at Tokyo, Singapore and Beijing. We have an established network with museums in these cities and are working to amplify it. 

We will probably expand the sharing around travelling exhibitions or exhibitions on loan from other museums, which will continue to happen because an important part of the museum ethos is to share our collections. 

Covid-19 has raised the big question about the economic viability of existing business models of museums. Could you give us an idea as to the funding sources you hope to tap, going forward?

This is something that is discussed at board level, to ensure that we have a diversified income base – from tickets, but also sponsorships, benefactions, museum food and beverage outlets, events and retail. It’s the broadest base so that when you cut and dice, you don't expose yourself on one side. 

Do you have concerns that a part of the museum-going crowd will be lost to the enormous amounts of content now available online?

I think the online content will drive the audiences back into the museum without question. There's a real pleasure in social activity and object-based experience. No doubt that will continue. The digital aspect of museum work complements and elevates the relationship between the two. 

By the time M+ opens people will want to have social experiences, and a new museum will serve that purpose. The museum’s programing will drive audiences as well. We can see it in the queues in front of the Hong Kong Museum of Art and we saw it at M+ Pavilion. As soon as Shirley’s show reopened, we had queues. We had to manage the crowds as we couldn’t let the space get too crowded (because of COVID-19-related restrictions).  

Would you like to mention any of your outreach programs aimed at drawing new audiences to M+?

We have done a lot of thinking about what a Hong Kong audience looks like. And we're aware that Hong Kong has not necessarily developed an informed museum-going audience. So we have been doing a lot of work by going to people in order to start building an understanding about those people coming to us when we're ready. 

We've also developed teacher training (programs). We know that the curricula in Hong Kong schools do not include art histories or design histories. We can say (to the schools), use our resource. Let the museum give you another perspective on history. This is another essential part of building an audience base in Hong Kong. 

In 10 years after the museum opens, we would like to see a regular attendance from Hong Kong people, up to five to six times a year. That is when we know that the museum is embedded into the imagination of our community. It's transformational work. It's slow-release work. It's ongoing work and it’s about our deep commitment to the city as a museum. 

More power to you on the road to achieving that goal. We’re told the opening event is going to about Marcel Duchamp in dialogue with Chinese artists. What can you tell us about that show?

The Duchamp collection we acquired will be in what we call our garden galleries. These are beautiful bamboo-lined spaces with oak floors and bamboo ceiling. It’s like a treasure box. Herzog and de Meuron thought our ink paintings should go there, little knowing that our ink collection is actually a radical ink practice. Our chief curator and deputy director, curatorial, Doryun Chong has used those bamboo-lined galleries to present Duchamp who was really interested in the idea of what a museum is. And he made his Boîte-en-valise. They were like little traveling museums – boxes within a box. We will try to de-center Duchamp, by bringing him into conversation with key artists from this part of the world who used Duchamp’s methodology as part of their toolbox to develop an avant-garde voice. And actually it's not just Chinese artists. It includes artists like Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik, as well as John Cage and so on within the context of other major Asian voices.

I can hardly wait. Are you going to open in March 2021?

No, we're still waiting for an occupation permit, but we’re definitely opening in 2021. There is no question about that because we are very, very close to the licensing coming through. 

Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu

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