M+ museum adds Tiananmen images to its collection

Director insists Kowloon West museum bought photos and local satirical pieces because of artistic value, not controversial subject matter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 4:56pm

Politically sensitive works including photographs taken during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and local satirical art pieces have been added to the growing collection of M+.

The visual culture museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District will continue to stage exhibitions at temporary sites leading up to the museum's scheduled opening in 2017. It hopes to break ground on the project later this year.

Amid fears over rising costs, construction costs will be capped at HK$5 billion.

The M+ collection has grown to 3,253 objects. In addition to works by artist-activist Ai Weiwei, including the photograph Tiananmen, in which a middle finger is raised in the famous square, M+ also owns Liu Heung-shing's photography series China After Mao, which depicts changes on the mainland from year to year since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

Among 29 prints it has bought and 67 acquired by donation, two depict Beijing in 1989. In Couple Hiding Under the Bridge, a couple hide from patrolling tanks crossing a bridge above. Rushing Students to Hospital shows bleeding students being rushed to hospital on bicycles.

"Freedom of expression is an important factor," the museum's executive director, Lars Nittve, said of the politically sensitive works, insisting that the museum acquired those works because of their artistic value rather than the controversial subject matter.

Nittve said he appreciated the respect shown by the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which did not interfere in any acquisition.

And Nittve was not worried about attacks from pro-Beijing lawmakers.

"Provocative is not necessarily better than other art. Contemporary culture has never been universally popular," he said.

A pair of iron gates featuring some of the last examples of street calligraphy by the late "King of Kowloon" Tsang Tsou-choi has also found its way to M+.

The Urban Renewal Authority had been protecting the gates, which were found in an area of Kwun Tong due for redevelopment.

Nittve said the team would continue to expand and was looking at forming a sponsorship team to seek private funding.

It is understood that the museum has spent less than HK$200 million out of the HK$1.7 billion collection budget on purchasing art. The cost of the building will be capped at HK$5 billion. "It will not be allowed to cost more," Nittve said.

Last June, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the estimated cost of M+ would be HK$4.9 billion, as opposed to the previous estimate of HK$3.3 billion, due to a surge in construction costs. Lam also denied the budget for the entire arts hub would more than double from the original HK$21.6 billion to HK$47 billion.

Nittve said there was steady growth in the architecture collection, part of which was shown at the recent architecture exhibition Building M+, which attracted 20,000 visitors in about one month. But he admitted the moving image collection was lagging, largely because the museum could not find a curator for this area.

Among gifts to the museum, Swiss collector Uli Sigg has donated 1,463 Chinese contemporary art works valued at HK$1.3 billion to the museum. Last month mainland collector Guan Yi donated 37 works spanning 1979 to 2005.

The museum also acquired 47 works from Sigg for HK$177 million in 2012.

Nittve revealed Museum Committee and Interim Acquisition Committee member David Pong Chun-yee has donated a series of works by local artist Wilson Shieh, who is known for his satirical paintings of Hong Kong culture and politics in Chinese gongbi style. Shieh's colour pencil drawings, including Eight Modern China Political Leaders in School and The Twenty-Eight British Hong Kong Governors, are now in the M+ collection.

Fellow museum committee member Lo Kai-yin also promised a design donation. But it was not a must for the board or museum committee members to make art donations, Nittve said.