Artists worry government will try to control culture at new M+ museum

Lawmaker Chan Kam-lam's warning to keep politics out of art raises concerns over display of provocative collection given to M+ museum

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 4:37am

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Chan Kam-lam came under fire yesterday after he warned the West Kowloon museum not to confuse art with politics.

Chan's remarks raised questions as to whether the pro-Beijing camp was putting political pressure on M+, the arts hub's 20th to 21st century visual culture museum.

The museum acquired 1,510 Chinese contemporary artworks produced between 1979 and 2009 from Swiss collector Uli Sigg - some of which are considered politically provocative.

Chan said at a meeting of a joint Legislative Council subcommittee monitoring the arts project that freedom came with conditions.

"I believe that [West Kowloon is] very clear that works that are indecent, vulgar, political and insulting are not works of art," the legislator from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said.

"We do not intend any political interference. But I hope [West Kowloon] will always remember that art is art. Culture is culture."

Sigg donated 1,463 works by 350 artists valued at HK$1.3 billion. M+ also paid HK$177 million for another 47 of his works. The collection, created after China began its economic reforms 35 years ago, includes dissident artist Ai Weiwei's photography works Tiananmen (1997) and White House (1995), as well as works from avant-garde group The Stars that staged the first Stars Art Exhibition in 1979.

Artist Chow Chun-fai agreed that the pro-government camp had been more vocal on cultural issues lately. He was worried that such a move was "their attempt to control culture, as culture influences ideologies".

"The Sigg collection still causes debate, but one reason that it ended up in Hong Kong is because our freedom of speech can accommodate these works that are somewhat politically provocative," Chow, a member of concern group Hong Kong Culture Monitor, said.

Artist Wilson Shieh, whose current retrospective exhibition at Osage features some of his political works, said Chan's comments represented "a way of thinking which is a result of poor arts education in Hong Kong".

Veteran artist Lui Chun-kwong, who previously taught in Chinese University's fine art department, said art was inseparable from anything in society. Artists might create political works in response to incidents, such as Pablo Picasso's Guernica, painted after the bombing of the Spanish town in 1937.

The Home Affairs Bureau said an additional HK$50 million given to museums for local art acquisition was to strengthen their strategies. It said the Museum of Art and M+ were in close contact to avoid any clashing of roles.