“Yes, It’s A Museum, But It’s More Than You Would Expect From A Normal Museum”
Due to open in 2017, Hong Kong’s highly anticipated M+ Museum is the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project. Years in the making, the WKCD has much at stake as Hong Kong authorities aim to foster the cultural side of a city known almost exclusively for business. Intent on ensuring the success of the M+ Museum project, organizers enlisted the help of experienced museum director Lars Nittve to take the reins as executive director. With no physical museum to run — a design competition is currently being judged — nor a collection of works to show, Nittve has a challenging job ahead to say the least.
Recently, Jing Daily contributor Grace Rong Li sat down with Nittve to learn more about his background, his plans for M+, and the particular obstacles faced when building a museum from the ground up.
Jing Daily (JD): How did your relationship with museums start?
Lars Nittve (LN): I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. I didn’t grow up in a family that always went to museums or exhibitions. Music was more important in my family; my father was an engineer and inventor, so it was not extremely cultural. But I went to a school that was focused on music, sort of an elite school for musically talented kids. I don’t know how I managed to get in, but I did.
When I grew up in the sixties, the Moderna Museet — the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, which opened in ’58 — was already something that everybody talked about all the time. There were lots of scandals and lots of excitement around it.
JD: It was directed by [Karl Gunnar Vougt] Pontus Hultén (1924-2006), right?
LN: Right. So I think that even though my parents weren’t really into art, they went there because it was something you did. So I have quite early experiences, especially of the Moderna Museet; I remember exhibitions like Movement in Art, from 1961, or ’63, very well.
Also I remember the exhibition “SHE – A Cathedral ”very well. The exhibition, from 1966, was a collaboration between Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. It was this enormous female sculpture which was laying on the floor in one of the big halls in the museum, and you walked in between the legs of that sculpture…These memories are quite important for me, relating to the museum and to the museum as a place.
I think I’ve always had a good relationship to the openness and liveliness and friendliness of the Moderna Museet of that time, as one of the ideals I had for the museum: a place where you can feel that you’re welcome, and you belong there, even if you’re a thirteen-year-old kid and you have no background in art. You feel that: yes, this is for me, I am welcome here!
JD: So it formed the foundation of your thinking on how museums should be?
LN: To be honest, this is the first time I think about this, but I think you’re right. If I look at some of the things that I’ve been trying to achieve with the museums I’ve been running, I think this is really one, central thing: that you, as a visitor, whatever your background is, you should feel that this is for you. It’s not just done for “the others,” this is for you, and you are welcome, whatever your background, knowledge, age, and so forth. It’s not all aspects of a museum, but it’s an important one.
JD: Let’s start with the name of your new museum in Hong Kong: “M+”. How did this name come about? What does “+” imply here?
LN: I think the name came up early on in the thinking process about this museum, I think in 2006. It’s sort of a working title or a denomination that was used by something called the Museum Advisory Group, which was a group of people in Hong Kong who basically were asked by [the] government to think through what this museum should be, whether to build many different museums or just one, and so forth. And they came up with a report in the end of 2006, in which they use it as a sort of working title, “M+.”
What they’re trying to say is, that, yes, it’s a museum, but it is more than you would expect from a normal museum. It’s not just an art museum. Their suggestion was that we should really try to also expand the idea of the museum from the Western models. So it’s “museum and more,” simply.
JD: So that’s how you would define the identity of the museum?
LN: Yes, and it fits our present thinking of what the museum should be. I think it’s a good title; it’s simple, it’s sort of open-ended, it’s not too defining.
JD: Can you elaborate a little bit on what is “more”? You say “museum and more…”
LN: Let me try to talk you through some of the fundamentals of the museum. One thing is that this is not just an art museum, it’s a museum of visual culture. That means that we will be collecting and exhibiting, for example, design of different types. We will be showing architecture; we haven’t decided exactly how we will collect it, but we will work with architecture exhibitions, to some extent.
[We will also be showing] moving image, which is a very broad category. It could be video art or Hong Kong cinema, but it can also be animated design or digital games, video games, or computer games, so it’s a quite open category. This also means that, when relevant, we will include aspects of what is normally named popular culture.
I think the ambition is not to do it the MoMA way, because of course you can easily say that MoMA has done that since 1929, more or less. Or at least since the fifties. What we’re aiming at is a much higher degree of integration between the different art forms or aspects of visual culture. And also to expand outside visual culture and into performance and sound art, in collaboration with other sides of West Kowloon and the other performing arts venues.
This has to do with two things: one is that we’re all pretty clear that the concept of art has changed categorically, has changed character over time. It’s become much more like an umbrella concept than, say, literature. Thirty, forty years ago, literature, art, music, and theater were like categories of the same type. These days, I think that what we call art can easily include what you would call theater, music, or literature as performance art, sound art, or text art. And of course, this has been going on since Marcel Duchamp, but it has really escalated in the last thirty years.
I think that many of the most interesting things that have been happening in art in the last decades has been happening in the border areas between what you call art and what you call something else. You may call it design, architecture, cinema, photography, or fashion…these movements in the border areas have become creatively very, very important. I think that also, in Asia, this kind of fluidity across the categories have another special meaning in general. Because, of course, these categories like design or art don’t come from nature; they are cultural constructs. They don’t have the same tradition and same history as they do in Europe, for example.
And therefore you have, in Japan, or anywhere, much more fluidity between these categories. In Hong Kong, this is even more obvious. There is an art development council, for example, that gives a lot of prices or awards, and Stanley Wong has been named the artist of the year. But [when I was at the awards ceremony], someone standing next to me thought he was being named the designer of the year, because he’s well-known as a designer, but also as an artist. And he can easily move between these categories without any problem. This is very Hong Kong; if you look at some of the most celebrated artists in Hong Kong, they are often quite celebrated in different areas, at least architecture and art, or design and art, or advertising and art, and so forth. This kind of fluidity is very hard to achieve anywhere else in Europe, or in the world. If you’re not Andy Warhol, it’s almost impossible to gain any trust if you come out of advertising, for example.
JD: I guess in Hong Kong that’s partly because you have to survive — so in some way, design gives you a skill where you can make a living.
LN: No, I don’t think that’s it. Of course, that is often the reason, but it’s hard to survive in Finland as an artist as well, or in Norway, or in most places. But if an artist survived by being a designer and then tried to develop trust as an artist, it would be very difficult. They would be seen as compromised, and not trustworthy, basically. So they would try to survive as bus drivers or mailmen or something that is completely different. I thought that first, but there are so many places where it’s hard to survive as an artist, and artists support themselves in other jobs.
JD: So you think it has something to do with the system and the values in the West? Like Rothko openly declared art is superior to design?
LN: Sure. Absolutely. I think it definitely has to do with things like still-existing perceptions of high and low, of commercial and non-commercial, why you do things. An artist does something because they want to express themselves, so an artist has sort of an honest reason to do what they’re doing, while if you’re in advertising, you have a client, and you do it for money. But here, these borders between categories are not given in the same way, and they don’t have those long traditions, and therefore you have this fluidity.
So I think there are several reasons why things are happening in parallel. It happens as a shift, a conceptual shift. That happens globally, but it also happens much more because you have this fluidity.
Check back next week for part two of our interview with Lars Nittve, in which we discuss the differences between operating a museum in Hong Kong and one in the West, the advantages of Hong Kong’s cultural scene over mainland China, and dealing with the Hong Kong local government.