M+ Museum Removes Three Artworks, Raising Censorship Fears

April 22nd, 2022

Stoking apprehension related to Beijing’s gradual clampdown on artistic freedoms, Hong Kong’s M+ museum of contemporary art has removed from view three politically themed works by artists whose views do not align with those of the mainland government, report Ming Pau and Artnet News. Stripped from the institution’s walls were Wang Xingwei’s 2001 painting New Beijing, depicting two heart-shot penguins widely believed to represent the pair of injured Tiananmen Square protesters shown in a 1989 photo by Liu Heung Shing; Zhou Tiehai’s 1996 Press Conference III, referring to the Cold War; and Wang Guangyi’s 1989 Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2, which deploys the grid as a distancing lens through which to consider the Communist leader.

The paintings, part of the large trove of works donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg and forming the core of the museum’s collection, were apparently removed during the recent Covid-related shuttering of M+ that followed mere months after its November 2021 inauguration. Though they may at present still be viewed on the institution’s website, their absence from the gallery’s walls elevated fears that the steadily increasing enforcement in Hong Kong of China’s national security law will have a chilling effect on the arts. The Kowloon Cultural District Authority, under whose aegis M+ operates, framed the works’ departure in the context of a rehang, asserting in a statement, “It has always been M+’s plan to rotate over two hundred artworks in the first year after its opening.” The official account noted that “nine out of over two hundred have been rotated before reopening, in particular those which are in greater need for conservation.”

Concerns regarding the motivations behind the paintings’ removal are hardly unfounded. The museum last year scrubbed from its website Ai Weiwei’s iconic Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen, 1997, showing at close range the artist’s middle finger raised Tiananmen Square, as well as an image of Ai’s 2003 Map of China, a sculpture comprising wood salvaged from Quing-dynasty temples and celebrating the country’s ethnic diversity. Appearing to bow to pressure from Hong Kong chief Carrie Lam, the museum additionally announced that it would not show the former work in its opening exhibition. At the time of writing, other works by Ai remain on display at M+.