Hong Kong M+ Museum Opening Amid Censorship Controversy
As I write this article, Hong Kong’s M+ museum is scheduled to open in one day. M+ is Asia’s first museum of contemporary art, built to rival the Tate Modern and Metropolitan Museum of Art. On Friday November 12th, the museum will open, displaying 1,500 works from its collections of 6,413 to the public for the first time.
Two months ago, the museum was struck by a controversy regarding its choice not to display Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997) which features the artist raising a middle finger at Bejing’s Tiananmen Square, in its online collection. Tiananmen was the site of a massacre by the People’s Liberation Army against peaceful pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, resulting in thousands of deaths, injuries and arrests, as well as a massive government cover-up. This photograph was one of several pieces criticized by pro-Beijing politicians and media as inciting hatred against China, a violation of national security law.
A screenshot featuring Ai Weiwei's work on the M+ website with a Study of Perspective: Tian'anmen replaced with a grey image unavailable square. Courtesy of Avigayil Margolis.
Other pieces from the Study in Perspective series remain visible in the online collection even though they are not on display in the museum, so Tiananmen’s absence is glaring. Ai’s 2003 Map of China which features wood from Qing Dynasty temples and celebrates China’s cultural diversity has also been removed from the online collections. However, Whitewash (1995-2000), containing 126 Chinese Neolithic jars painted over by Ai is still being displayed during the museum’s opening and likely serves as a major draw due to the artist’s international fame. Ai Weiwei has always been a highly political artist who criticized the Chinese government. In 2011 he was arrested and detained for 81 days, after which the government continued to watch him and restrict his movement by taking away his passport until 2015 when he was finally able to leave and moved to Berlin, Germany. His documentary Cockroach (2020) films the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, empathizing with the youth fighting against an authoritarian government. His vocal support of the protests may be one reason his art is being specifically highlighted by politicians and media. "China faces a massive problem if the youth of Hong Kong continues to protest," Ai said in a 2019 interview with the Hong Kong Free Press. "It is a challenge that alarms the rest of the world as to what kind of society China is. If they don’t stop the protests, the democratic voice will get louder and there will be better conditions for freedom. But how can they stop them? Hong Kong is not just another Chinese city. If that were the case, the military would have moved in and crushed it immediately. There would not be any media coverage or international attention. This already happens all the time in China. Hong Kong is different." Looking back to protests against his own secret detention, during which artists posted his picture and name throughout the city to demand his release, Ai describes Hong Kong’s protests as "the most beautiful. They are so peaceful, rational, and those taking part are so young."
An activist holds a doll, toy handcuffs and drawing of the detained Ai Weiwei in front of a police officers during a Hong Kong protest demanding his release. Photo: Laurent Fievet/AFP The museum’s decision to remove the controversial pieces raises serious questions about censorship in the museum field and what our role is as museum professionals. "This is the first contemporary museum in Hong Kong, so therefore, I want to ensure that the message is clear so that people don’t think that we are above the law," Henry Tang, the head of the West Kowloon Cultural District which includes M+ said at the museum’s opening ceremony. But does the argument of just following the law really hold weight when the law is unjust? M+ director Suhanya Raffel had earlier said that the museum would have no problem showing works by dissident artists. This has held true in some regards, with local artist South Ho’s photographs of the city’s 2014 Occupy Central protests and Kacey Wong’s Paddling Home installation which represents his exile from Hong Kong to Taiwan to due his democracy activism both featured in the museum. M+’s agreement to remove the criticized artworks may have prevented a harder government crackdown which targeted more art or prevented the museum from opening to the public entirely. On the other hand, there is an inevitable dishonesty to only allowing government approved dissidence. Ai Weiwei has criticized the museum for capitulating to censorship. "When you have a museum which cannot or is incapable of defending its own integrity about freedom of speech, then that raises a question. And certainly the museum cannot perform well in terms of contemporary culture," he told Reuters during a phone interview. This raises the question of where a museum’s obligations to support freedom of speech end. Can a museum choose to break the law of the country where it is situated? Is it worthwhile for a museum to sacrifice a few high attention controversial pieces to allow itself to stay open and display a multitude of other important artworks? There are no easy answers to this question of course. As museum professionals, we must work to maintain our own ethics and integrity, but we are still members of our countries and societies, subject to the laws and punishments that accompany them. Living in Canada with our rights to free speech and a fair trial, it is easy to say that we would defy any government censorship laws that targeted our museums. But how many of us would really risk jail time for our work? And should we even be expected to?