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Global Dispatches Winter 2021

Global cultural moments, as captured by ORB readers.

Silence in the Gallery: Hong Kong's Latest Art Museum

Hong Kong’s brand-new museum of visual culture is here. One would know, as the name ‘M+’ illuminates the West Kowloon waterfront in chromatic LED lights, complete with video installations of items from its collection. Even the inverted T-shape of the building recalls another prestigious modern art museum on this side of the world.

Opened in November 2021, M+ is now one of the largest contemporary art museums in Asia. Among its permanent exhibitions, Swiss art collector and former diplomat Uli Sigg’s collection has drawn the most attention. Before he made the monumental donation to M+ in 2012, it was the world’s largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art with 2,500 works by 500 artists. The sheer quantity offers what he calls an ‘encyclopaedic’ vision of China’s road from the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s to its present-day economic boom. His gift was the godsend that set M+ up to rival institutions like the Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou; yet in 2012, Sigg and the museum curators did not, and perhaps could not, envision the extent of controversy it would generate. There seemed to be space for works by the likes of Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong at the time — even if he's literally giving Tiananmen the middle finger.

Seven years later, the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong meant that the museum had to re-evaluate its parameters. It cannot risk being accused of ‘secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces’ as a public body. Curators, reluctant to be their own censors, resigned one after another in the run-up to the opening. The Ai photograph in question, 'Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square', will consequently not be displayed, and there are conceivably other pieces collected during Sigg’s time in China, North Korea, and Mongolia which will be hidden away.

As the flagship of Hong Kong’s arts project, the question remains whether a fully sanitised M+ can shake off the city’s reputation as a ‘cultural desert’ and transform it into a cultural hub. Hong Kong has done a formidable job of attracting major art deals so far with the arrival of many international galleries and fairs, but the challenge now is to interest the public. We have Sigg’s assurance in a leaked statement to M+ that if the public won’t like art, they can at least envy it: ‘Contemporary art may be critical of reality, may even put a finger in the wound ... Contemporary art is not your good friend.’

- Nat Cheung

Nothing to See Here: Art as Blank Space in Berlin

What comes of nothing? November mists curl in Berlin’s streets. A votive flickers by the brass Stolpersteine at Bartingallee 7. In the Akademie der Künste foyer, each bud vase holds an orange gerbera. Upstairs, all the

colours of white — taupe and ivory, bisque and beige — join to form Nothingtoseeness: Void/White/Silence, curated by Anke Hervol and Wulf Herzogenrath. German generously offers two words for silence: Stille and Schweigen. An oblong painted directly onto the wall by Karin Sander has the air of candlelight. Stille is closer to a reverent silence, whereas Schweigen vibrates with the possibility of speech.

Inge Mahn’s circle of plastered chairs makes a deliberate music of unpredictable notes; each white chair holds a wine glass, and a crystal orb on a rotating rod sounds each one by turn. Stillness can be warm-hearted, wry, elliptical — or loaded. The white synthetic skeleton of Katharina Fritsch’s Doktor grins a fearsome smile. Notions of purity are shadowed by the knowledge of so many silencings.

An ebullient swathe of shiny white silk billows under the force of three electric fans in Hans Haacke’s Wide White Flow. To put into words the tacit and the unsayable takes time. The pale text of Ulrike Draesner’s Be-Sprech-barkeit grows legible as the viewer walks towards it. The huff and crunch of breath and polar snow are deafening in Isaac Julien’s reenvisaged arctic trek.

Historically, a solution of lime and water was used to whitewash walls. Downstairs in the café, two patrons vigorously discuss Berlin’s reconstructed imperial palace on Unter den Linden and the now-demolished East German 'People’s Palace' it replaces; the gift shop sells keyrings of both buildings. In an interview, Sander observes that after Nothingtoseeness has closed, her luminous oblong will remain discernible beneath a new coat of paint.

A frame and a title help us to see what we cannot say. A listening silence may help silenced thoughts flourish into expression. Outside, three masts stand before the Akademie der Künste as always, but right now, no flags have been hoisted. A plaque installed by Yoko Ono entitles this absence Invisible Flags.

- Sylee Gore

Artwork by Alice Penrose


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