HONG KONG—It’s perhaps not coincidental that mask mandates were lifted practically overnight in Hong Kong—just like that, after 945 grueling days—very close to the opening of Hong Kong Art Week. It signals a huge push by Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) to revive traffic into the city, which views itself as an art hub between East and West.
In fact, the Museum Summit held March 24 focused on boosting arrivals—many coming from mainland China, since quarantine-free border travel from there resumed last January, though still millions down from pre-pandemic levels.
Ms. Eve Tam, deputy director of Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) under the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR), was surprised by the 1.7 million online views of the summit (“Can you imagine?”), showing a strong interest in reviving museum traffic.
She sat with Eike Schmidt, director of Gallerie degli Uffizi, one of the world’s biggest western art collections, at HK Convention and Exhibition Centre, talking about the MOU between Uffizi and the government to lend more classical works to Hong Kong’s burgeoning art-viewing scene.
Of course, along with health rules easing, there is still the National Security Law, which gives China oversight control over acts of subversion or vocal dissent. Ms. Tam pointed out the unique position of Hong Kong “between” (the day’s theme) centers of art and business, “to connect worlds and provide vibrant and diverse platforms for people to interact,” adding, “We’ve always tried to comply with the Hong Kong law so whatever we do, we do not violate any laws, but we do respect free publication. Creativity and also freedom of speech is still here.”
Hong Kong’s museum and gallery scene is in a good runway position to take off again, with this year’s five-day Art Basel HK attendance at 86,000—remarkably similar to its pre-pandemic levels of 88,000 visitors in 2019.
Across the islands, there’s a lot more going on, as we see below.
West Kowloon is a sprawling art hub
Art moves very fast. Especially when Uli Sigg, collector and board member of the M+ museum in Hong Kong, is your roving guide. After announcing the six shortlisted Sigg Award artists for 2023 (Jes Fan, Miao Ying, Wang Tuo, Xie Nanxing, Trevor Yeung and Yu Ji), he was speed-walking us through the most exciting contemporary art museum in Hong Kong—the M+—which has drawn 2.9 million viewers since opening in late 2021.
The WKCD invested in the huge Xiqu Centre, which features state-of-the-art design and 1,075 seats.
Inside the Swiss-designed (Herzon & de Meuron) 65,000-sqm cultural hub, Dr. Sigg hurries us through his own curated collection of contemporary Chinese and local artists—focusing on flashpoints like the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition of 1989, which seemed to change everything, from how images could be depicted under a grim post-Maoist regime, even to how facial expressions could be painted. Flash forward to now, where artist Ai Weiwei can display fields of Chinese clay pots from the Neolithic period, a few splashed with white industrial (Western) paint, standing out not only for their whiteness, but their flaking decay amid the ancient clay’s permanence. Young Chinese artists can now render a tower of human fat (liposuction?) as a commentary on wealth and consumption, and others can braid hair into a vast Pointillist portrait. It’s a brave new world of expression, but Mr. Sigg gives us only moments to absorb it, everything everywhere all at once, before pushing on to the next room. All that matters is history—and now.
M+ is a modern, hip and most important, relevant museum space that Hong Kongers have quickly embraced as their own. Located within the sprawling West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), young patrons say they feel “seen” and “represented” here. M+ director Suhanya Raffel says, “I actually think it touches people’s hearts. During the pandemic, it was really difficult to receive this feeling of wellbeing, connection and culture. There’s really no institution like it.”
Upstairs, there’s a huge, popular Kusama exhibit (“Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now”), which heads to Bilbao in July. Downstairs features “Hong Kong: Here and Beyond,” a fascinating look at the city’s concept of physical and architectural space over the past 70 years and into the future. “Things, Spaces, Interactions” surveys evolving HK design movements—everything from the evolution of emojis to the influence of Italian design group Memphis. There’s even a trendy Beeple revolving cube (“HUMAN ONE”), and just a few nights ago, the M+ held possibly the first rave party at a Hong Kong art museum in years—just as quickly as mask mandates were lifted.
M+ is among a dozen or so exhibition and performance centers that are quickly unfolding over the 40-hectare cultural space across the WKCD peninsula. The project began in 2008 with reclaimed land state-funded to the tune of $HK30 billion (including interest). It also houses the new, hugely popular Hong Kong Palace Museum (close to one million visitors since opening in July 2022), which displays over 900 loaned Beijing treasures—a big attraction for mainland China travelers because it’s easier to fly here than travel to Beijing. Spread across the Harbour-facing WKCD are also Freespace, Arts Pavilion, Art Park, and the massive Xiqu Centre, which showcases an astonishing variety of Chinese opera (there are over 400 varieties; today’s performance is from a Cantonese troupe). By next year, there will be cheap ferries available from almost every port of Hong Kong, with the goal to create a “Cultural Commercial Business District” through a mix of private residences, F&B eateries, park spaces and lots and lots of cultural zones that will (hopefully) generate self-sustaining revenues.
HKMOA is a local treasure
The 60-year-old Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui was the country’s first public art space, with over 18,000 items in its collection. It was getting major renovations before reopening in 2019—then COVID hit, and it again faced sporadic closures. But under director Dr. Maria Mok, HKMoA found itself again a local favorite. “What’s distinctive is the way we tell stories,” says Mok. “We’re focused on finding a refreshed way to interpret tradition.” For instance, live “busking” performances are held alongside the exhibit “City Rhymes: The Melodious Notes of Calligraphy,” which reimagines the Chinese art through generative dance videos. On another floor, the exhibit of Chinese blue and white underglaze porcelain called “Eternal Enlightenment: The Virtual World of Jiajing Emperor” is set off with high-tech lighting, a room of immersive touch-friendly displays—even the free program booklet is a work of art, with pop-up Chinese vases. And don’t miss the playful table display by artist Angel Hui Hoi Kiu (“Make a Wish”), a 14-meter setting with 500 eclectic blue and white porcelain pieces, everything from Godzilla and Astro-Man to cellphones and birthday cakes.
HKMoA is an exhibit for the people, meant to be touched, enjoyed, discovered. “It’s in our DNA,” Dr. Mok says. “It’s a way of finding therapeutic power in art.” She cites a 2021 ArtNews survey that listed the institution as one of the most popular museums worldwide, even when no one was traveling—all from local audiences. It’s a museum Hong Kongers have embraced, and “we are very proud of that.”
Underscoring how important mainland China visitors are to a full recovery, the WKCD invested in the huge Xiqu Centre, which features state-of-the-art design and 1,075 seats… ostensibly all for staging an astonishing variety of Chinese operas. We watched a segment of stylized performance in the teahouse downstairs (subtitled in English and Cantonese), and it was captivating. One wonders, though, if the cultural allure will be as strong amongst Mainlanders as the allure of shopping for watches and bags.
Elsewhere, the 30,000 Palace Museum, designed to echo a Chinese lantern, is a richly curated selection of remarkable Beijing Palace treasures that is on yearly loan and does seem to be drawing record visitors.
Another measure of recovery is live pop music. This year’s HKTxWESTK Popfest at Freespace, curated by Kung Chi Sing, includes shows at small bar Livehouse, larger venue The Box, and an open-air performing space near the waterfront that can accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 for this year’s international jazz festival and upcoming big-name concerts.
Art Central at HKCEC
Though not a museum per se, Art Central (this year held inside the HK Convention & Exhibition Centre) curates mostly regional contemporary works from over 60 galleries and installations that are worth a deep dive. This annual roving exhibition with partner funding from UOB includes SoKor artist Seon-Ghi Bahk’s “An Aggregation-Space,” with its display of precisely suspended charcoal—the byproduct of burnt trees— challenging the relation between humans and nature. (A great photo opp as well.) Elsewhere, Antonio Santim’s trompe de l’oeil paintings of Asian rugs are crafted using hypodermic needles of pigment to build up the meticulous, undulating illusion. Jacky Tsai’s “Affair to the East-Window Version” plays with traditional Chinese lacquered display cases that house pop figures like Wonder Woman and ‘60s cartoons in traditional poses; Ria Chandiramani displays rotating ‘70s pop cereal boxes that reveal non-sexist counter-messages on the back; and at Whitestone Gallery, Ronald Ventura offers a survey of polished pop-explosive images and juxtapositions from the past two years.
East meets West, indeed.