M+ Removes Controversial Paintings about Chinese History
By HG Masters
Open to the Hong Kong public for less than two months in 2021, M+ has already removed several controversial paintings from its Sigg Collection galleries before its post-Omicron-wave reopening on April 21, sparking renewed concerns about the public display of artworks addressing historical events in China.
The most direct of these artworks, the photorealist painting New Beijing (2001) by Wang Xingwei, satirically refers to censorship around the violent 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The work is based on a journalistic photograph by Liu Heung Shing capturing wounded protesters carried to the hospital on the back of a cart—with the two injured people replaced, in Wang’s painting, by human-sized penguins. The museum also retired from public view Wang Guangyi’s Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2 (1989), which dissects the propagandistic regime of official imagery and was painted during the Beijing Spring. Similar versions of this radically deconstructed portrait of Mao were among the most controversial works shown in the landmark, and police-shuttered, 1989 exhibition “China/Avant-Garde” at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, to which a portion of the Sigg Collection galleries is devoted.
In a statement shared with ArtAsiaPacific, representatives of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA), which oversees M+, said: “It has always been M+’s plan to rotate over 200 artworks in the first year after its opening,” and that “nine out of over 200 [artworks] have been rotated before reopening, in particular those which are in greater need for conservation.” Images of the artworks that were removed still remain accessible on the M+ collection website, and the artworks appear in video walk-throughs of the Sigg Collection.
While the Sigg Collection galleries were not given a major overhaul during the museum’s closure, several of the replaced paintings were substituted with noticeably less political artworks by the same artists—rather than presenting artists whose works were not initially on view, from the more than 1,500 artworks donated to M+ by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg. New Beijing was replaced by Wang Xingwei’s St. Thomas (1997), a postmodernist pastiche of European Baroque painting that features two police officers resembling artists Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys watching a crouching figure break through a wooden door—the latter a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s final installation, Étant Données (1946–66). Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2 was substituted with a painting featuring a similar overlaid grid structure and the letters “A” and “O,” Rationality in Common Behaviours (1988), which depicts an ambiguous human figure and a urinal (another Duchamp reference) rather than the infamous visage of Mao from official portraiture.
Of the nine works sent back to the storage building, another was Zhou Tiehai’s Press Conference III (1996), which addresses China’s strained cultural and diplomatic ties internationally, with the artist’s figure standing at a press conference in front of a row of flags and subtitled with the sentence “The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post Cold War era.” Zhou’s canvas was replaced by two more works on the same gallery wall by Wang Xingwei: Involvement—the Innocent Marcel (1997) and Sea (2003), both of which ironically riff on European painting and modernist art traditions. In a nearby gallery, in front of Ai Weiwei’s large installation of white-painted neolithic-era urns, Whitewash (1995–2000), Fang Lijun’s oversized, melancholic woodblock print of a drowning crying man, 1996.1B (1996) was substituted with his painting Untitled (Serie/Köpfe) (1998), showing a crowd of figures staring expectantly into the sky.
The WKCDA said that additionally four photographs by Hong Kong artist Wong Wo Bik were replaced by three others from the same period (photographs are especially light-sensitive), and Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception A) (1969/2012), a sculpture of rocks and rulers by Lee Ufan, was swapped out for Jiro Takamatsu’s Slack of Net #300 (1970), a sculpture comprising a grid of ropes. The changes in the Sigg Collection galleries were first noticed on April 21 by local media outlets Ming Pao and the Hong Kong Free Press.
The statement from WKCDA said that all decisions about the exhibitions were made by the museum’s curators, not the board of M+ or the management of WKCDA. According to Ming Pao, the newly appointed board chair, Bernard Chan, the convenor of the SAR’s leadership body, had visited the museum ahead of its reopening and stated he had noticed but had not previously been consulted about the museum’s alterations of the displays. The museum’s shift in its agenda may have been presaged in a newsletter sent to M+ members on March 28, where executive director Suhanya Raffel heralded a “new chapter for M+” under Chan’s oversight, and announced that M+ would be “an important cultural institution to promote cultural exchanges among Mainland China, Asia and beyond . . . as laid down in the National 14th Five-Year Plan”—the first public statement in which the Hong Kong museum’s curatorial program was officially aligned with China’s national strategic goals.
The opening of M+ in November 2021 had been attended by a host of concerns about the increasing climate of fear and self-censorship that cultural organizations, public institutions, universities, civil-society groups, and the media have reported in the last two years since the June 30, 2020, passage of the National Security Law (NSL). At the opening of M+, the chair of the board WKCDA, Henry Tang, who earlier, in March 2021, had invited national security officials to scrutinize the museum’s collection, said the museum would “uphold and encourage the freedom of artistic expression and creativity” while also complying with the laws of Hong Kong, including the NSL.
Public commemorations in Hong Kong of the Chinese military’s massacre of pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, have effectively been made illegal in Hong Kong since the passing of the NSL. The statue of writhing figures by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, Pillar of Shame (1996), which was erected by students on the campus of the University of Hong Kong to commemorate the violent crackdown, and other democracy-related memorials at Chinese University of Hong Kong and at Lingnan University, were purged from campuses in December 2021 while students and faculty were on holiday recess. The annual vigil in Victoria Park for those killed in Tiananmen, which ran for 30 years, has been outlawed since 2020 under the pretext of the government’s pandemic restrictions on large-scale gatherings, with those who organized attempts to convene in the park subsequently prosecuted and jailed.