SITTING smack on the shores of a bustling harbour, in the heart of an international city, looking across the water to skyscrapers, and flanked by trees and lawns: the parallels with the Sydney Opera House are manifest. Or at least they will be. Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture hasn’t actually been built yet, or even designed.
The site is a blank canvas of opportunity. When the design competition for the 60,000 sq m building is launched next month with a call for expressions of interest, it seems certain the distinguished architects of the world will scrabble for their pencils.
M+ will be the premier arts institution in the West Kowloon Cultural District precinct, but it also will house an impressive series of performing arts venues, as well as open arts spaces and open parkland. Michael Lynch, the eternally charming Austra- lian who is shepherding the massive 40ha arts precinct project to completion, says the Opera House defines Sydney Harbour and, if all goes according to plan, the M+ museum will play a ‘‘similarly talismanic role’’ on Hong Kong’s harbourfront.
Lynch is faced with the nearly blank patch of reclaimed land jutting into Hong Kong harbour every working day from his office in an adjacent skycraper. The section where M+ will be built now appears to be used as a makeshift carpark.
Yet he remains unfazed by the size of the construction project, although perhaps slightly apprehensive about the slings and arrows (and possibly far blunter objects) that will be hurled in his direction if the district, and perhaps most importantly M+, fails to live up to expectations.
A one-time director of the Sydney Opera House, Lynch knows that city residents can invest a lot of emotion in harbourfront sites. And as an arts administrator he knows the design of the M+ museum will have to be supremely functional and an art-work itself.
If all goes according to plan, one of the defining buildings of the century may well emerge from the fracas.
‘‘The idea of doing this and realising it in a relatively short time is exciting and daunting,’’ Lynch says. ‘‘These are large amounts of money and you don’t get a second chance. We’re going to be very rigorous in the way we run the competition — we expect to get the greatest degree of interest from the most diverse group of architects. We wouldn’t want to muck it up.’’
Lynch has been at the helm of the cultural district for a little more than a year. Before he signed on, the massive project was beset with delays and controversies. It is still expected to cost more than $3 billion. By the time phase one is finished in late 2017 or early 2018, a fast railway will deliver an expected 100,000 mainland Chinese visitors daily.
As the premier institution in the district’s arts venues collection, M+ will attract the most criticism or, everyone hopes, praise. It would be heartbreakingly easy to get the design wrong, or just not entirely right. There have been many examples of critics sledging recently built museums for being too grandiose, for overwhelming their contents, for distancing themselves from the residents of the city in which they have been built or for becoming tourist traps, with startling designs at odds with their surroundings.
Lynch knows how difficult it can be to calibrate the balance between design, functionality and ambience.
‘‘It’s incredibly important that it’s a fantastic building, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that it has to be able to function; it has to function in quite a different way,’’ he says. ‘‘It will need to be a fantastic building to justify its position. You’re building the building as you build the institution and build the audience.’’
He cites the newly refurbished Museum of Modern Art in New York as a building that is a work of art but also supremely functional. The Guggenheim Bilbao museum, he adds, certainly caught the world’s attention, but it’s ‘‘more defined by the outside’’ than the content.
The new extension to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney fails to live up to the promise of its superb location, Lynch says. ‘‘I think that site is one of the world’s great sites. I just don’t feel that either the new building or the old building makes the statement that’s needed to bookend the Opera House. To me, that’s one of the continual frustrations about the way Sydney goes about doing things.’’
Larger than the National Gallery of Australia, M+ will be the museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, concentrating on 20th and 21st-century art, design, architecture, film and multi-media. Lynch is sanguine about its prospects. He doesn’t expect the Chinese authorities will attempt to interfere with the museum’s exhibitions even if some artworks are politically inflammatory.
Even so, it’s unlikely that a controversial Chinese artist such as Ai Weiwei will have a hand in the design of the new M+ museum.
Locked up last year and prosecuted by the Beijing authorities for ‘‘tax evasion’’, the artist earlier collaborated with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to design the Bird’s Nest Stadium for Beijing’s Olympic Games. He has since distanced himself from the Beijing Olympics and refused to participate in the opening ceremony. He recently wrote in The Guardian noting that, after the Games, China tightened controls and ‘‘became a police state’’, adding that he could not have gone to the London Games even if he wanted to because he was not free to travel.
Ai also worked with Herzog and de Meuron to design this year’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London. Again, he couldn’t go to London to see it.
So what if Herzog and de Meuron, in collaboration with Ai, submitted an expression of interest to the competition for the design of M+? ‘‘That could be politically difficult,’’ Lynch says. ‘‘It would probably add a degree of complexity that we don’t need at this moment.’’
M+ has already chalked up one enormous victory. In June, it was announced that Swiss art collector Uli Sigg had donated 1463 Chinese contemporary artworks to M+ (among them at least one work by Ai). The Sigg collection, thought to be the largest and most significant collection of Chinese contemporary art in the world, has been conservatively valued at $HK1.3bn, or about $160 million.
Sigg, a businessman and one- time diplomat who worked in China, also sold M+ 47 works from the 1970s and 80s for $HK177m.
The purchase, which soaked up 10 per cent of the museum’s acquisition budget, was ‘‘really about showing our commitment’’, says museum director Lars Nittve, formerly of Tate Modern.
Since the early 1990s, Sigg had built up his set of artworks, Nittve says, as a coherent, museum- quality collection representing the historical development of contemporary art in China.
When he started as M+ executive director, Nittve began to think about how to build the museum’s collection from scratch. Donations were the obvious answer; donated works provided the foundation for some of the world’s best art museum collections.
Nittve knows many of the world’s biggest art collectors and he began to think about who might want to donate to a yet-to-be-built museum in Asia.
Hong Kong has a lot going for it compared with, say, China, as a repository for modern art. There is freedom of expression in Hong Kong and, since many contemporary artworks may have a political or sexual element, benefactors might prefer the lack of censorship there.
Nittve knew Sigg had always intended the collection should go back to China some day. So he started talking to him about M+, and Sigg saw the team grow and the ideas developing, and finally agreed to give most of his extraordinary collection to the museum. ‘‘It’s the dream, basically,’’ Nittve says.
Catching the excitement, other collectors have now expressed interest in donating to M+. This is not so surprising, Nittve says, because ‘‘it’s fantastic, probably the greatest project in the world’’.
Go Figure, it’s one show in two cities
AUSTRALIANS will get a preview of works from the Chinese art collection of Swiss collector Uli Sigg at an exhibition held at two venues: Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney. The SCAF will show five works from the Sigg collection, and the NPG 36, including some multiples. Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture includes painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture, photography, video and installation works from 1979 to the present. Curated by Claire Roberts, a senior lecturer in art history at the University of Adelaide, it includes a 2004 mixed-media portrait of Sigg by Ai Weiwei.
As well as that portrait, SCAF will show a work by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan titled Old People’s Home, which comprises 13 wheelchairs and sculpted hyper-real figures with similarities to old world leaders.
The NPG will display canvases by Chinese artists including Fang Lijun, one of the most gifted of China’s contemporary artists, and expressionistic Zeng Fanzhi.
The joint exhibition also includes pieces by Wang Guangyi, Yu Hong, Geng Jianyi, Zhang Peili, Zhang Xiaogang, Yin Xiuzhen and recent works by some of China’s most applauded emerging artists.
Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture is at the NPG from September 13 to February 17 and at SCAF from September 15 to December 1.