Editor’s Note: M+ is Hong Kong’s most eagerly anticipated art facility and Suhanya Raffel is leading the team preparing the ground for its arrival. She tells China Daily Hong Kong about the upcoming museum’s role in shaping the past and future of the city’s visual culture
Suhanya Raffel, Executive director, M+ museum, West Kowloon Cultural District (PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY)
Q: M+ has been a part of the conversation about the Hong Kong art scene for a while although the museum is yet to materialize.
A: Well, M+ is more than just a building. I would argue that it is already in the imagination of many people and that is fantastic as we have made a huge effort to be a part of the broader community both in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world.
Of course the building matters too. Not only will it be a landmark building for Hong Kong, it is also going to be one of the largest museum buildings in the world.
Q: When you say “largest”, what are the dimensions, exactly?
A: We have 65,000 square meters of museum space which includes conservation labs as well as display spaces, a learning center, three cinemas, and a media center. On one of the facades of the tower is an LED screen 65 meters high and 110 meters long, facing Victoria Harbour. That’s a very substantial scale.
Q: The giant LED screen will probably change the harborfront landscape of Kowloon.
A: Well, it will, to an extent. While Hong Kong is full of towers that shoot up into the sky, the M+ building is emphatically horizontal. The tower goes up 16 floors and is 100 meters above ground only. One of our mandates is moving image so we will use the facade as a site for making art. We see so much light in Hong Kong and a lot of it is advertising. The M+ building is going to bring a whole new kind of light on the city’s skyline.
Q: What’s the number of holdings at the last count?
A: We have around 6,000 objects and over 12,000 archives. We collect architecture, and that includes drawings, photographs and slides as well as digital archives.
Q: Do you have an opening date in mind?
A: We expect to have a completed building, we hope, by the end of next year. The museum however won’t be open to the public then as we will need at least a year to install the exhibits. This is one of the largest art museums being built in the world today and thus requires a substantial amount of time for the building to stabilize and be made ready with the collections. We should remember that M+ is about the same size as Tate Modern with its recent addition.
Q: Can we expect M+ to do for contemporary art from Asia what Guggenheim or Tate Modern have done for other regions?
A: What M+ will do is establish a museum of visual culture, which is more than art alone, with a strong Asian focus, something very unique to the region. The Centre Pompidou in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York are both museums of modern art which reflect collection interests that include design, architecture, art and film — visual culture interests that are similar to ours.
It is M+’s Asian focus that sets us apart and it is time we had a museum where the conversation amplifies Asian visual culture. M+ collection holdings are most substantial from our region which is balanced by the work of those from Europe, North and South America as well as Australia.
Q: Hong Kong has probably never had it better in terms of opportunities to see and appreciate world-class art. What’s M+ going to bring to the table?
A: Indeed, Hong Kong already has a great not-for-profit infrastructure. At the grassroots level, there are so many wonderful organizations such as Sound Pocket, Videotage, Para Site and Asia Art Archive doing important work. Hong Kong has established the second-largest art market in the world behind New York. So it is time to balance this growth in the commercial sector with museums.
We need a museum where we bring the best of the world to Hong Kong. There are artists, architects and designers from the world over whose works will be seen together with their peers here in Hong Kong at M+.
The other part of our work is to take Hong Kong art out into the world. And we do this currently with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council by co-presenting the Hong Kong Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Last time it was Samson Young and we saw an adaptation of his exhibition in Venice — Songs for Disaster Relief — displayed at M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong. I am very proud and honored to co-present Hong Kong artists at this prestigious international forum.
Q: You have a background in acquisition and collection building. Would you like to name a few M+ collection items that you are particularly proud of?
A: We acquired a very significant group of works by Marcel Duchamp, as part of our holdings of Chinese contemporary art that came to us through Uli Sigg’s collection (Sigg has donated 1500 works featuring 325 major Chinese artists from 1970s onward to M+). So many Chinese artists, including Huang Yongping, cite Duchamp as an inspirational figure although many of them never got the opportunity to see an original Duchamp. Now M+ has a Duchamp collection that’s unmatched in this part of the world.
These sit alongside works by Hong Kong makers Irene Chou, Lee Kit, Tsang Kin-wah, Wilson Shieh, Kan Tai-keung, Stanley Wong, and the architect Ho Tao who designed the Hong Kong flag. So it’s a very wide-ranging collection.
Q: Would you like to identify a milestone moment in the lead-up to the museum’s opening?
A: Our first exhibition in 2013 was called Inflation, held on the site of West Kowloon Cultural District before construction of M+ began. It was an incredible exhibition that drew over 100,000 people in a short space of time and was very controversial because it presented what Hong Kong had never seen before.
Q: What was the controversy about?
A: The show featured works that were, literally, inflatable. These were made of material like plastic sheets. Jeremy Deller’s sculpture, modeled after Stonehenge, was a thing children could jump on to and roll around on. It was a very different idea of sculpture and that immediately established M+’s mark. People had a lot to say about them.
Q: I imagine some of them were confused about the museum-worthiness of certain exhibits.
A: In our design collection, we have objects that may not be particularly expensive but are extremely worthy in terms of their social and design value. For example, the Red A brand plastic objects, like lampshades, in our collection are so quintessentially Hong Kong that people relate to them immediately.
Q: Indeed, a lot of the exhibits in M+’s Shifting Objectives exhibition were functional and familiar objects of everyday use. Would these qualify as art?
A: We do more than art. We are a museum of visual culture. And objects like the rice cooker in Shifting Objectives are a part of the visual culture of our times.
Q: People might wonder why they should visit a museum to look at a rice cooker.
A: Because of its design value and what it did to change our lives! It’s good to take time out to think about these everyday things. It challenges people’s existing point of view, provokes them to think if they agree with the idea and the reasons why they might not.
Q: Some of the items on display at M+’s Ambiguously Yours show — Leslie Cheung’s red sequined stilettos, for instance — could even be seen as borderline kitsch.
A: Kitsch isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a known and valued form that has its place in a museum, where viewers get to look at these objects from an unconventional perspective.
At the same time we also showcase the very familiar and well-known forms of art. For instance, The Weight of Lightness show featured the great masters of ink art of our time alongside a whole lot of others, offering a counterpoint to them. The idea for that show was triggered by a beautiful scroll by Paik Nam-june. It was completely blank except for a radical symbol — a square-root sign drawn in the middle of nothing, or, from another perspective, a sign suggesting endless possibilities. It summed up the spirit of the show.
Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu