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West Kowloon Cultural District

UPDATE – Doing things differently: museum buys artists’ future works as well as their past oeuvre of digital art – which is freely available online

Deal by Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture to prepay for work Korea-based duo have not even conceived yet is unheard of, and has raised eyebrows, but its director says no other artists working online can boast their longevity and relevance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 10:29am

Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture sets out to be a museum unlike any other.

Beyond its unusual, multidisciplinary focus on all things Asian and visual and its tortuous construction saga, Hong Kong’s future cultural landmark in the West Kowloon Cultural District has made some pretty controversial acquisitions. In 2015, it bought a complete sushi bar in Tokyo. This week, it announced the acquisition of all existing and future works by a South Korean duo who make art, mostly online, that is freely accessibly on their own website.

80 years of Southeast Asian art and design in new Hong Kong show

The mysterious Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), founded in 1999 by Young-hae Chang and Marc Voge, are best known for their short, text-only animations that resemble flashing billboards accompanied by punchy soundtracks. The words directly address the audience on a range of contemporary issues in a tone that is at times sombre but mostly irreverent and tongue-in-cheek (as you can tell from titles such as this, on a work from 2003).

Recognised as pioneers of internet art, they have been included in a number of major museum exhibitions around the world, and the Tate’s Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee bought three of their works in 2011.

But there is nothing like the M+ deal.

According to a statement from the museum on Monday, it has acquired the duo’s complete body of work (for an undisclosed sum) and the rights to any future pieces they produce “for as long as they continue to make new work and present projects internationally”.

An example of animation by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries

The Struggle Continues

The 500-plus pieces acquired for the M+ permanent collection include animations published on the YHCHI website, www.yhchang.com, gallery installations, lecture performances, drafts and previously unpublished works. The entire archive will be updated twice a year.

It is unheard of for a museum to prepay for the entire future output of artists, and for artists to hand over the rights to work not yet conceived – an arrangement comparable to the employer-employee relationship by which a company owns for life the work produced by staff.

It is not as if M+ has commissioned work from the duo – and thus knows what to expect – which makes this an extraordinary display of confidence in YHCHI, says David Elliott, a curator and art historian. Elliott says he is puzzled by the move, and while he is reserving judgment until he understands the full context of the decision, he doubts it is in the museum’s interest to be seen to be giving these artists special treatment.

Digital culture is integral to the M+ collection, the museum’s executive director, Suhanya Raffel, says. “No other artists working online can boast the longevity and continued relevance of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, making them undeniably worthy of this high-profile position in the M+ Collections,” she says.

We’re lucky dogs
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries

Doryun Chong, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, says: “Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries’ groundbreaking oeuvre is an excellent fit for M+, a new museum of contemporary visual culture located in Asia, where the largest number of [internet users] resides, and where most innovations for the future are born. We are extremely proud to be investing in the life’s work of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, the trailblazer of internet art.”

The artists, who never agree to be photographed or give face-to-face interviews, said: “We’re lucky dogs.”

As far as M+ is aware, no other museum has ever bought the existing and future works by internet artists, and here's how Raffel justifies the unusual move.

YHCHI are some of the most pioneering artists of our time. They led the charge during the nascent stages of internet art, and they remain critical figures in current contemporary art practice today, both online and offline. They embody M+’s mission of being a global, multidisciplinary museum of 20th and 21st century visual culture, rooted in Asia. Their art explores contemporary life from the particular position of South Korea, as well as from a globally fluid and informed viewpoint.

The artists are exemplars of interdisciplinary practice, leveraging M+’s core interests of design, visual art, and the moving image, but also literature and music. Once M+ is open, scholars from different academic disciplines can come to M+ to undertake extensive study into their work, which will be presented online, on mobile devices, in public spaces, in exhibitions, in the mediatheque, in cinemas and beyond. As for the artists, it means having all their work cared for in perpetuity, with dedicated M+ curators and conservators forever invested in the collection’s ongoing documentation, preservation, display, and interpretation.

“To be clear, the artists are not required to make or provide M+ with a minimum number of additional works,” she adds. Each artwork on the artists' website has between three to five editions and no edition has sold out at this time. The artists can sell the remaining individual editions, but cannot sell their entire body of work to another collector. Going forward, each new work will have two artist proofs, one for the artists and one for M+,” Raffel says.

“So yes, they will be working for M+ to update our collection in an ongoing way, but our relationship does not restrict them from undertaking other projects and commissions. In fact, we hope that by raising their international profile even higher, their practice will go from strength to strength. Our collection will continue to benefit from each and every opportunity they receive, and each new project they take on,” she says.

As for the pricing, the total figure M+ paid is based on individual past sales. The collection will cease to be updated if and when YHCHI change their name, or work independently, Raffel says.

There will no doubt be lots of questions about this latest addition to its collection, but given last week’s news about the museum’s construction, buying digital rather than physical art makes a lot of sense.

YHCHI will present their “final ever” artist talk, possibly in person on August 31 from 7-9pm at the JC Cube Auditorium, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, 10 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong.