June 19, 2024
Hong Kong leader's art museum comments prompt new censorship fears

Hong Kong leader’s art museum comments prompt new censorship fears

Written by Oscar Holland, CNNHong Kong

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has told officials to be “extra cautious” in ensuring exhibitions at a major new art museum do not breach the city’s sweeping national security law, prompting fresh fears over censorship in the territory.

Asked by pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung whether the long-awaited M+ museum risked “inciting hatred” towards China with some of its artworks, Lam told Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that she recognized concerns that the institution’s exhibits may cross an unspecified “red line.”

She added that her government respects the “freedom of artistic and cultural expression,” but said that since the enactment of the national security legislation — which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces — “all Hong Kong compatriots are required to safeguard national security.”

Lam’s comments come just days after M+ director Suhanya Raffel said she would be free to show politically sensitive works, including those by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The museum’s 8,000-item collection also contains various references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, a topic considered off-limits by galleries in mainland China, as well as satirical depictions of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Set to open to the public at the end of 2021, M+ will see 17,000 square meters (around 183,000 square feet) of exhibition space set across 33 galleries. Often touted as Asia’s answer to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Tate Modern in London, the ambitious museum is the flagship venue of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling arts quarter built on 100 acres of land reclaimed from Victoria Harbour.

But the introduction of the national security law, a response to the pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in 2019, has raised concerns about the possibility of censorship — or self-censorship — at the museum.

While the legislation does not explicitly address political art, the city’s artists and curators have nonetheless expressed fears that pro-democracy, or anti-China, works may fall foul of its vague parameters.
For M+, this has raised questions over some of the 1,500 items donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg. Considered one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art, Sigg’s items include a number of works by Ai, such as a 1997 photograph showing the artist holding up a middle finger to Tiananmen Square.
The collection also includes several images from the 1989 crackdown by Hong Kong-born photographer Liu Heung Shing, including wounded demonstrators being rushed to a hospital and a couple hiding beneath a bridge as tanks roll above them.

Process of ‘cultural politicization’

The museum is yet to reveal which of the collection’s artworks will be on public display upon its opening later this year. But at a press conference marking the building’s completion last week, director Raffel said that there would be “no problem” displaying Ai’s work or pieces alluding to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In a statement provided to CNN on Thursday, the publicly funded museum elaborated on its position, saying that it would “comply with the laws of Hong Kong,” while “maintaining the highest level of professional integrity.”

“(The museum’s) exhibition and collection development is based on research and academic rigor,” the statement read. “Like any museum, it is the role of M+ to ensure that our collections and exhibitions are presented in a relevant and appropriate manner to stimulate discussion, research, learning, knowledge and pleasure.”

Thus far, Hong Kong’s national security law has primarily been used against opposition activists and pro-democracy figures, such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai. But it has also coincided with the virtual disappearance of protest art, as well as the growing use of carefully-worded disclaimers by cultural venue attempting to distance themselves from potential wrongdoing.

For artist Kacey Wong, once a regular fixture at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, the legislation’s ambiguous wording leaves it open to abuse by authorities.

“(Carrie Lam’s) so-called ‘red line’ is so flexible that it’s open for the government or its agents to use it to prosecute anybody they don’t like,” Wong said in a phone interview.

“Hong Kong is going through this cultural politicization process right now,” he added. “It’s kind of like what Ai Weiwei (said), that ‘everything is art, everything is politics.'”

Just this week, the screening of a documentary about the Hong Kong protests, “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” was reportedly pulled by a local movie theater. The decision followed a front-page editorial in one of the city’s pro-Beijing newspapers, Ta Kung Pao, decrying the use of public arts funding for cultural organizations it deemed in violation of the national security law.

According to Wong, these latest controversies collectively point to a wider squeeze on artistic expression.

“All these events are linked together,” he said, adding: “So it’s not just (about) Uli Sigg’s collection — it’s almost a purge within the government systems of arts and culture.”

Top image caption: M+ museum in Hong Kong