Anybody who visited the Venice Biennale this year would have been remiss if they did not see the works from Hong Kong artist, Samson Young.
The 38-year-old composer and philosopher showed video works and installations in a piece called Songs for Disaster Relief. In these, Young studied the psychological, cultural and aesthetic power of pop songs originally composed in order to elicit donations for disaster relief.
Young had a Hong Kong choir perform We Are The World in a passionate whisper. In another video, Young replaces the lyrics to a Bridge Over Troubled Water with a sequence of numbers that he sings himself, in Cantonese. Both of the pieces of music sound strange yet they are also so burned into our collective unconscious that they can mobilise our emotions even without the original melody or words.
Even though the city doesn’t get its own pavilion, Hong Kong has been showing off its talented artists at the Venice Biennale for years. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council rented rooms directly opposite the Arsenale, one of the main sites for the biannual arts show. This expensive decision shows that the city’s authorities have ambitious cultural goals for Hong Kong. Since the city became part of mainland China again, it has been searching for a new identity.
The 154 years that the island city spent as a British colony have left deep traces at all levels. As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong retains certain privileges, such as a free market economy and political autonomy. But what happens after 2046, when the region loses that status and is finally made a real part of the motherland? How will Hong Kong be different from the other Chinese mega-cities on the coast?
Recent political developments indicate a pro-Chinese direction. The city has already changed significantly, in terms of basic structures and the economy, thanks to a stream of newly-wealthy Chinese arriving there. Real estate prices have risen significantly, the small shops along Nathan Road have had to give way to other stores selling gold, or big brands that cater to the huge demand from Chinese day trippers. This huge buy-out has made it feel as though Hong Kong has also sold its soul. Many locals are anxious about their identity, their culture and indeed, their “Hong Kong-ness”.
They look back nostalgically at the 1980s and 1990s when music from Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung and the films of John Woo and Wong Kar-wei dictated the pop cultural pulse of the city. Today most celebrities look toward China because that’s where the bigger business is. They don’t sing or speak in Cantonese any longer. Instead they use Mandarin.
The city’s authorities have recognised this and have been working for several years now to combat the loss of identity with targeted cultural initiatives. Instead of emphasising the culture of consumption, the city is aiming to establish sites for cultural education and artistic encounter.
The most ambitious project is the West Kowloon Cultural District, or WKCD. The project takes up an area of 40 hectares west of Victoria Harbour and has an estimated budget of €2.3 billion, which makes it one of the biggest culture projects in the world.
Here, locals will find museums, theatres, concert halls and sites for fashion, design and film under construction. Various international architects are working on the concepts. Around half of the area is reserved as a recreational park, with a long promenade along the harbour front. Tours highlighting the indigenous flora and fauna are part of a larger programme of cultural education.
The centrepiece of the WKCD project is the M+ Museum, dedicated to visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Swiss architecture firm, Herzog & de Meuron, designed it and the institute was first headed by Lars Nittve, the founding director of the Tate Modern in London. It was Nittve who managed to convince Uli Sigg, a patron of the arts and renowned collector of contemporary Chinese art, to donate a large part of his collection to the new M+.
Further donations and acquisitions have seen the Asia-focussed M+ collection grow to over 6,000 artworks, which is still fairly modest for a museum with global ambitions. The collection at the Tate Modern, for example, consists of 60,000 pieces. According to Nittve, one of the biggest challenges was gathering together such a high quality collection in such a short time. That was a mammoth task but far from the only challenge. Thanks to construction problems the museum’s opening has had to be delayed twice but it is now slated to open by the end of 2019.
By the end of 2016, Nittve himself had given up on the project. In the meantime, Sri Lankan-born Suhanya Raffel, an expert in contemporary Asian art, has been named Nittve’s successor.
Despite all this though, the WKCD project remains a mighty indicator that the Hong Kong authorities see the importance of European-style values, which make culture and education a central point of urban identity.
So it is hardly surprising that the Arts Development Council is supporting the WKCD project with all of its strength, so that Hong Kong gets to benefit from the inaugural exhibitions despite all the construction problems. An example: The Council cooperated with the M+ curators at the Venice Biennale and, with Samson Young’s impressive video works and its head curator Doryun Chong, it proved that it can hold its own on the international arts scene.