The man making M+ add up to somewhere special
With Lars Nittve at the helm of the West Kowloon flagship, the museum has got its bearings, a founding collection and big plans for the future
By Javier Pes. From Art Basel Hong Kong daily edition
Published online: 14 May 2014
Hong Kong. Lars Nittve has been at the helm as the executive director of M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual cultures in the making, for three and a half years. It was never going to be a straightforward job. When he arrived he was greeted by an empty stretch of reclaimed land in West Kowloon, and had neither curators nor a collection. A lot has changed: Nittve now has curators, a design for the museum building, an exhibition programme (Mobile M+), and the collection is growing rapidly.
“The museum committee, which is our board, has just decided to acquire Antony Gormley’s Asian Field,” Nittve says. The piece features around 210,000 clay figures, which the British artist made with the help of 350 collaborators from Xiangshan village, north-east of Guangzhou, in 2003. “The acquisition is half purchase, half donation by a Hong Kong collector who wishes to remain anonymous,” he says.
The acquisition in 2012 of the institution’s founding collection announced in clear terms that Hong Kong’s long-planned—and long-delayed—museum had moved up a gear. The Swiss-born collector and country’s former ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, donated 1,463 works of Chinese contemporary art. The museum bought 47 other works for $23m. Sigg’s collection includes work by Ai Weiwei, Ding Yi, Fang Lijun and Geng Jianyi, and had been valued at $163m. “There is only one Uli Sigg,” says Nittve, but he is confident that negotiations with other leading collectors in the region will also bear fruit.
The Chinese collector Guan Yi has openly stated that he wants to continue the relationship with M+, Nittve says, optimistic that more donations will follow those it announced last December. At that time Guan Yi gave 37 works of contemporary Chinese art, including all the works from “Canton Express”, the exhibition at the 2003 Venice Biennale.
M+ also has a substantial acquisition budget earmarked by the Hong Kong government of around HK$1.3bn ($170m) of which HK$300m has been spent.
Nittve is proud of another recent acquisition: the facade and interior of the Kiyotomo sushi bar in Tokyo, which was designed in 1988 by Shiro Kuramata (1934-91), a founder of the Memphis group. It is “an important milestone for M+ in collecting and studying Asian designs”, a spokesman for the institution told Hong Kong’s legislative council when the news leaked and caused a stir. “Deyan Sudjic so wanted it for the Design Museum,” Nittve says, referring to the director of the London institution. “We have always stressed we are not just an art museum, we are a museum of visual cultures.” Hence M+ is collecting examples of Hong Kong’s neon signs. The online Mobile M+ show, “Neonsigns.hk” (until 30 June), celebrates the medium of neon. “[It] is so incredibly Hong Kong,” Nittve says, citing its use in Hong Kong movies, for example.
The M+ building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and TFP Farrells, which is due to open in late 2017, will have galleries that can accommodate the diverse collection. A deceptively simple block and slab on the waterfront, it contains a surprise within—a cavernous “found space” in the basement.
Nittve gives credit to the architects for spotting the potential of what others thought was a problem: the museum sits on top of tunnels for the city’s airport rail link. The architects took a “judo kind of approach: use the energy of your opponent. What seemed a negative, they have turned into a positive.” The basement will be M+’s equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a space he knows well, having been the founding director of the Tate’s second gallery in London, housed in a former power station.
M+ will be three times the size of the Tate Modern in terms of public space. Part of the HK$23bn (US$2.9bn) West Kowloon Cultural District project, the 60,000 sq. m museum will sit on the edge of a park, so it will have space to expand “like the Met in New York”, Nittve says. The incredible simplicity of the building’s design, he says, will be “a blessing”. Spectacular views over the harbour and towards West Kowloon’s skyscrapers, will also help make visiting the building “welcoming, generous and democratic”, he hopes.
It will also be well connected to the mainland: the terminus for the high-speed rail link XRL, which will stretch from Hong Kong to Beijing, is being built “300 metres from our entrance”, he says.
Importance of Inflation
While China’s economy might be cooling, Hong Kong’s remains steady. “The Hong Kong government is quite wealthy and it has incredible reserves,” Nittve says. How public money is spent, not least on M+ and the West Kowloon Cultural District, is closely scrutinised. “It’s no secret that Hong Kong is a complicated place,” he says diplomatically. “M+ is brand new and there was nothing to benchmark against.”
Nittve says that people now better understand what M+ is aiming to do. The seven Mobile M+ pop-up projects, in particular “Inflation!”, the open-air exhibition of large-scale inflatable sculpture, which was up (and down, in stormy weather) during last year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, was a key event. The US artist Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile, 2007, a huge inflatable of a pile of excrement, was, Nittve says, Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Tate acquiring Carl Andre’s sculpture of stacked bricks, Equivalent VIII, 1966, in the 1970s. “It was the first time in Hong Kong that a wide public had a big discussion about what art can be. Can it be serious and still fun? Can it be a pile of whatever [Complex Pile] was?”
The only woman artist in “Inflation!” was Cao Fei, who created a big suckling pig, House of Treasures, 2013. When director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Nittve made a point of acquiring work by women artists. The short history of contemporary Chinese art has been an almost exclusively male affair. He thinks the time is right to “revise” that history. “The premium medium in the eyes of the West was big paintings, and it’s men that tend to make big paintings,” he says. Look beyond that traditional male-dominated domain to photography, video and performance, he says, and you can find important works by women artists. “We have to be alert in these fields.”
Sweden to Hong Kong, by way of London
Lars Nittve brings to M+ experience of creating a Modern and contemporary art museum in London. He was the founding director (1998-2001) of the Tate Modern. He then returned to his native Sweden to run the Moderna Museet (2001-10), where he had been the chief curator in the late 1980s. He moved to London, having been at the helm of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (1995-98). When the Tate Modern opened in 2000, he told The Art Newspaper he wanted it to be “on the one hand this amazing museum of Modern art and also to try to build in the ethos of a small Kunsthalle with a quick, experimental way of working”. More than 4.7 million visitors went in the first year, more than double the estimated number.
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