To Not Be a Clone of MoMA and the V&A

Kristīne Budže

An interview with Aric Chen, curator of design and architecture for the new M+ museum for visual culture in Hong Kong


Currently one of the world's most ambitious cultural projects is the still-under-construction visual art museum M+ in Hong Kong, for which Chinese-American design critic Aric Chen has been appointed as curator of architecture and design. Chen is widely regarded as an extremely talented young professional in the design field, and also happens to be one of several former journalists who have now turned to curating (e.g., the Victoria and Albert Museum's Kieran Long). Before attaching himself to the development of the M+ museum, Chen wrote for such publications as The New York Times, Wallpaper*, GQ, Architectural Record, PIN-UP, Metropolis and Surface, in addition to being the creative director of Beijing's Design Week. Chen has put together exhibitions for Design Miami, the Design Museum Holon in Israel, several venues in Amsterdam and New York, and for the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne, in France. Aric Chen is one of a few players in the field of global design who are equally well-versed in what is happening in both the West and Asia. The following conversation with Chen – who always seems to have a self-ironic smile playing around the corners of his mouth – was held during the Downtown Design fair in Dubai.

Park view. 415 / M+, Hong Kong. © 2015, Herzog & de Meuron Basel

You were one of the speakers at this year's Greenhouse Talks, an auxiliary public lecture series to the 2015 Venice Biennale. Your colleagues from some of Europe's most elite museums listened to what you had to say with great piety, and some even had trouble hiding their envy of the M+ museum's grandiose plans...

Let's be honest; they're jealous of the Museum's budget. We have a truly generous starting capital to work with, but one must understand that this sort of money flow is not guranteed for the duration of the Museum's operational life. We're not relying on continual government and municipal funding, and we've begun to secure financial backing from private patrons and supporters.

Can you give us a number for the ensured M+ budget?

Approximately 500 million euros have been designated for the construction of the Museum's buildings. More than 200 million has been alloted for creating the Museum's collection and managing it. I'd like to emphasize this last point especially, because usually one forgets that there's a cost to administering a museum's collection.

At this point in the conversation, Ab Rogers (head of interior design at London's Royal College of Arts, as well as the son of the architect Richard Rogers, and the designer of Comme des Garçons' flagship store in Paris) asks if he can listen in. Having an expressive personality, Ab soon transitions from listener to active participant in the conversation.

Ab: I think that M+ has created a new typology for museums. The planning of even very specifically-focused museums has never before had such a long and public institutional preperatory phase – one in which the musuem's content is so carefully worked through, and only then does the construction of the building begin.

Aric: Yes, before we even get to the building of the Museum, or its “hardware”, we are consciously creating its “software”. Truly, our priority is to work out the Museum's program and its exhibition politics, and create a collection. I think that this is the right way how things should take place. China's problem is focusing too much on an institution's “hardware”, on its buildings – which are mostly seen as a tool with which to raise the value of the surrounding real estate – and focusing too little on the content of the museum. We have this famous statistic that at least one new museum opens in China every day. Buildings are erected, but soon after their opening celebrations, we see that there is no clear understanding of their contents. Too little attention and financing is given to this matter. Yes, we are building M+ from the inside out, and not the other way around.

Plaza. 415 / M+, Hong Kong. © 2015, Herzog & de Meuron Basel

What will be the content of M+?

I think it has been to our benefit that we've begun to create the Museum from a blank page. The world has many wonderful museums with fabulous histories and rich collections. That's nice, but sometimes history and traditions can become a burden that hinders the development of a museum if it ever becomes necessary to change course. These days you always have to be ready to ask many questions of yourself, as well as to doubt the correctness of what you've been doing so far, and be prepared to cardinally change things. New York's MoMA and London's V&A and Design Museum all have great collections, and we're not even thinking of cloning them in Hong Kong. That's one of our main principles – to not repeat anything that's already been done. Of course, that doesn't mean that there's nothing we can learn from these museums, but the priority of M+ is to find its own path. And one segment of this path is to place doubt on the traditional model of museum operations and any preconceptions of what a museum should be like. It is essential to remember that a museum is not just a building and a collection of objects. M+ is a museum of 20th- and 21st-century art, design, architecture and the moving image [in 2012, M+ was gifted the contemporary Chinese art collection of the Swiss art collector Uli Sigg; containing 1463 pieces, it is regarded as the best such niche-collection in the world – K.B.]. We always stress that we are not just an Asian visual arts museum. We're simply looking at the visual culture of the world from an Asian standpoint. Certainly, other museums and exhibitions the world over do have objects from the East, but they are usually looked upon as examples coming from the periphery, with Western culture staying in the center of attention. We're changing this viewpoint by placing Asian creations in the center, and looking upon Western creations from an Asian standpoint. I believe that today's world is multi-centered, and that Europe or America don't have a monopoly on an evaluation-culture that stems from their exclusive viewpoint. The Asian viewpoint on the world's visual art is just as important and interesting. This sort of emphasis on a viewpoint is nothing new; it simply hasn't been accentuated until now. For instance, MoMA doesn't just exhibit US or European art – it also presents an American view of local and world culture. The same applies to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London's Tate.

Ab: This year's Tate program has a large number of exhibitions on Asian art.

Aric: Yes, now everyone is trying to follow along with what's going on in the Asian art scene. I see this consideration as the world's recognition of Asian art, that it is being appreciated – as an acknowledgement that there are globally important things taking place here as well, and that our art is also convertible and comprehensible elsewhere in the world. Our time is one of globalization, and things going on in one part of the world influence every single local culture as well. I don't think that these days it's even possible to choose just one – either global or local. In this age, the close interaction of these two things makes up the spice of life. When attempting to protect the local, there's no point in ignoring what's going on elsewhere in the world because that is also a part of daily reality; that's why we choose to think about global things and evaluate them. Of course, global processes that we have no influence over do create a feeling of vulnerability and the wish to hang on to the local. On one hand, that's a good thing because that means we value what we have, but on the other hand, it leaves open the possibility of entering a state of self-isolation. I really hope that Hong Kong's path will be one of openness to the world while still preserving and respecting the local legacy. However, development on this sort of a scale is not solely dependent on the Museum. This is a question of state politics, and we're trying to stay out of politics.

Found Space. 415 / M+, Hong Kong. © 2015, Herzog & de Meuron Basel

Do you foresee that most of the visitors to the Museum will be local people, or the so-called “cultural tourists” from the West?

Fifteen years ago, when the first ideas about the West Kowloon Cultural District [the 40-ha master-plan was designed by the offices of Foster and Partners – K.B.] – of which the M+ museum is a part – were bandied about, it was largely thought of as a tourist attraction – a magnet with which to pull them to Hong Kong. The idea for developing a cultural district of this kind came from the tourism industry. There were even mentions of a Louvre or Guggenheim franchise in Hong Kong; but the concept gradually changed and emerged as a plan for creating our own museum with its own viewpoint on culture. And this kind of a museum is important for local inhabitants as well. This doesn't mean that Hong Kong has money enough and that we don't need any tourists; having local citizens visit the Museum gives the Museum not only an economic benefit, it also gives the city (as a whole) a new perspective on things and culture. It creates what I call “cultural ecology”, something that is crucial for any world metropolis; and Hong Kong is definitely among them.

Ab: Won't most visitors be coming from mainland China?

Aric: We forecast that a large influence on the flow of visitors will be the fast-speed train line that will connect Hong Kong with mainland China. This project foresees that it will be possible to get to Hong Kong via fast-speed train from practically every city in China. It's anticipated that several tens of thousands of people will enter the city daily. Those sound like pretty big numbers. Of course, we have no illusions that they will all hurry on over to M+. The main reason most of these people will be coming into the city is to shop. Even now, around 70% of all tourists in Hong Kong come from mainland China. These are many millions of people whose main reason for coming is to shop, and that's because the rest of China has a huge luxury-goods tax; this tax doesn't apply to Hong Kong, and so the most well-off Chinese head to Hong Kong to buy their Chanel, Prada or Louis Vuitton. We can't  completely change these people's plans, but we can offer them an additional option for how to spend their time in the city.

Ab: The purest form of consumerist culture!

Aric: We've organized several pop-up exhibitions in the city, but none of them have been in the large shopping malls; I don't, however, have anything against exhibiting art in these “temples” of consumerist culture. I never say “never” about this sort of possibility. I don't see any reason why exhibitions couldn't be held there. Nevertheless, one has to be very careful about the context created by these kinds of places, and how viewers in shopping malls could interpret the exhibitions. It is important that they are not perceived as advertisement campaigns for the shopping malls. It is essential to clearly indicate that the choice of the setting for the exhibition is the curator's idea, and not an entrepreneurial business project. The independence of the content, in regards to the setting, must be stressed. Ab – a couple of years ago you organized a big exhibition in one of Hong Kong's big shopping malls. How did that go?

Ab: It is indisputable that wherever you go may be in the world, there are many more people that go to shopping malls than to museums. I believe that should be taken advantage of. By organizing an exhibition in a shopping mall, it was possible to come into contact with those people that usually don't go to museums. In today's culture, the buying/selling aspect is vital. One can just read, for example, Rem Koolhaas' writings and ideas on this issue.

Aric: There aren't many institutions in Hong Kong and the rest of China that deal with reflecting upon culture. There's a handful of academic people, but there's a shortage of discussion taking place on a wider scale – with both the local population and the rest of the world. Also, design has a much shorter history in Asia than in the West. This lack of a well-formulated history of the field makes our (M+'s) work more complicated, but it also gives us a freer hand to create it ourselves. The world has demonized China's wish to copy everything. In my opinion, copying can be justifiably seen as being the basis of all civilization. Especially now, in the era of the internet and open code, copying can be regarded as a creative act. I don't think that these days it is all that important to bring back the traditional Chinese aesthetic. It is much more crucial to urge designers into finding solutions for issues pertinent to today's China, when everything here is changing and developing so quickly.

In a way, what's going on in China right now reminds me of America after WWII. Back then, US design was able to react to the latest industrial technologies, to the changes in people's way of life, to the change in the societal structure. The most interesting ideas are created in response to the times.

Harbour Day Scene. 415 / M+, Hong Kong. © 2015, Herzog & de Meuron Basel

What will the M+ design collection be like? It's clear that today it's not enough to have just a selection of chairs with the nicest design or the most revolutionary aesthetic...

The definition of design is becoming increasingly blurred right now. So-called “non-design” is also seen to be an essential part of the field and worthy of museum exhibition: folk design, non-canonical design, anonymous design. There's so much that is worth studying! Right now in the design field, it's fashionable to talk about everything except design in its traditional sense – as the construction of physical objects. Product design is seen as old-fashioned, but in my opinion, we have to go back to the physical manifestations of design – to real objects.

Won't that be a windfall to the decorative art of design galleries, and to the collectors of these type of objects?

No; I'm interested in hybrids of the digital world and physical objects, not simply beautiful furniture.

Ab: Yes, I've also noticed that my students are very taken with the combining of physical and non-material things, the integration of digital processes into physical objects.

Aric: It seems important to me that the young designers of today don't observe the boundaries between design and other disciplines such as art, engineering and sociology.

Ab: Yes, the converging of design and engineering is especially rampant.

Aric: Of course, a process is much more difficult to collect and exhibit than physical objects are, but we have accepted this challenge. Especially in China, because here everything is very focused on results and not the process, but I think that it is crucial to give greater attention to the process rather than the finished product. These days it is not enough to place some sort of beautiful thing in a glass box on top of a pedestal and exhibit it without explaining the history behind its creation, the reason for its creation, and the process of its creation. Design exhibitions are not a lining-up of pretty objects in the bright rooms of a gallery. M+ will most definitely not be a place of design object fetishism, as have been (and still are) some museums with longer histories. I believe that we must allow the visitor to experience design.

Ab: The greater part of today's design can be compared to computers – their physical form is only a shell that allows for the experiencing of the design that is inside them.

Aric: The 21st century is a very interesting time for design museums and design exhibitions. Great meaning can be had from the telling of a story. But one must be cognizant that there is not just one correct story in any field, including that of design. Many narratives that are all just as true can exist at one time. As a new museum, we also don't have a problem with studying complex histories and a plural present. In the history of design, there are many stories that are yet to be studied, that have not been told, or that have been left outside the field of interest of museums.

M+ will also be a museum of architecture. It seems that architecture is even harder to exhibit than design...

It truly is. Our collection currently has approximately 1000 objects representing architecture – models, sketches, visualizations, digital files, photographs, and architectural letters, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings for the Imperial Hotel project in Tokyo, Sou Fujimoto's working models for the Serpentine Galleries' summer pavilion, and MAD Architectural Offices' vision for Beijing 2050. We're not interested as much in the buildings themselves as in how architecture is reflected, for instance, in photographs or through architectural critique.

It seems fashionable right now to focus attention on how we perceive architecture, like at the recent Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican Cultural Centre...

Yes, today it's more interesting to talk about how we see buildings – how we perceive them and understand them – rather than how they are used.

Ab: Again, the process is more important than the static end result.

Lobby. 415 / M+, Hong Kong. © 2015, Herzog & de Meuron Basel

How far have you come with the construction of the M+ building?

The architectural competition has come to a close. There were six finalists: the architectural offices  SANAA from Japan and Snøhetta from Norway, as well as Renco Piano, Shigaru Ban and Zaha Hadid, and of course, the winning submission from Switzerland's Herzog & de Meuron. We were absolutely sure that we were looking for a museum building that would be not only functionally comfortable and have about 62,000 m2 of space [approximately the same size as New York's MoMA – K.B.], but one that would have a visual form that embodies the image of a museum of visual culture. This does not, however, have any connection to so-called “iconic” architecture – structures that are extravagant and very conspicuous. It was important for us that the building's image doesn't leave the Museum's content in the shade, and the submission from Herzog & de Meuron (together with TFP Farell) truly takes its cue from the Museum's contents. We're currently still discussing some project details with the architects, but they really are just details.

So M+ will open to the public in 2017?

Right now it looks like it will open in 2019.