Cover The M+ building sits on the edge of Victoria Harbour. (Image: © Kevin Mak and courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron)

Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+, explains why Hong Kong is the perfect home for “Asia’s first global museum”

Doryun Chong has worked at M+ for more than eight years, so is overjoyed that the museum’s colossal building is finally opening to the public on November 12. “I’m feeling all kinds of emotions,” he says. “I feel proud and relieved. I am curious to know how the broader public will interpret M+.”

Chong—who is deputy director, curatorial, and chief curator of M+—was born in Seoul and worked at various leading institutions in the US, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, before moving to Hong Kong in 2013 to work with M+. He oversees all curatorial projects at the museum, including acquisitions and exhibitions. Below, he explains how interest in Asian art has exploded over the course of his career and discusses how he and his team have structured M+’s six opening exhibitions.

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M+ is described as “Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture”. Why is Hong Kong the best place for the museum to be based? 

Hong Kong is really second to none in Asia, and arguably in the rest of the world, in terms of its cosmopolitanism. Hong Kong is defined by its long history of exchanges, including colonialism, settlement, trade, cultural conversations and diverse mixings. Therefore, anybody would be hard-pressed to think of any other city that can have all these qualities be as deeply rooted in its identity.

M+ is committed to telling stories from an Asia perspective, or from the perspective of Asia, and collecting and exhibiting work from around the region. Why is this so important, both on a local level and a global level?

The vibrancy of cultures and cultural productions that have come out of our region is truly remarkable and unquestionable. The cultural richness of our region, which broadly speaking consists of Greater China, East Asia, and South and Southeast Asia, is widely recognised all around the world. What is lacking so far is a proper collecting institution that provides access to structured research, knowledge, and public sharing on how to understand that very diversity in contemporary cultural production. M+ exists to fill that gap, to play that role on the regional as well as the global levels.

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As someone who was born in South Korea and has since worked extensively around the world, especially in the US, how have you seen international interest in art from Asia change over the course of your career?

In my 25 years as a curator, I have definitely seen significant changes. Japanese art, one of my areas of expertise, has arguably received the most attention and extended international interest in terms of art from Asia, but even then, as a younger curator I still felt that its exposure was not enough. This motivated me to produce a number of projects that highlighted the remarkable avant-garde aspects of post-war and contemporary Japanese art. The explosive interest in Korean art seen in the last decade has been very unexpected; I have been away from Korea for such a long time, so it gives me immense pride and pleasure to see post-war and contemporary Korean art be so widely and internationally well-received. I think this is part of the even larger phenomenon of K-Pop and Korean dramas, of trends or even movements that have been gradually taking over the global popular cultural landscape—I am still amazed by how quickly and extensively the rise of Korean culture has happened.

As the premier institution for Chinese contemporary art, M+ traces its trajectory and growth within the larger global landscape; how international perception in this area has changed has been very telling and edifying. When I was a younger curator, I wanted to focus a lot of my energy on contemporary Asian art, which was met with both enthusiasm and scepticism. Many people could sense a new energy, a new vocabulary coming out from China but, on the other hand, the established western art and museum world would often look upon Chinese art as aesthetically uncouth or unrefined; they considered it too loud and too gawdy from their perspective. With its beginnings dating back to the 1970s, the history of Chinese contemporary art is now almost 50 years old, and M+ has the best collection in the world to tell that astounding trajectory. Regardless of whether visitors enjoy our collection from a personal aesthetic point of view, there is no denying that Chinese contemporary art is one of the most important art-historical or cultural-historical phenomena of the last century. The reason why I can say this with such certitude is because this is how the standing of contemporary Asian art has really grown and evolved in the last twenty years. Nothing of this intensity, scale and diversity has happened in all of art history, and this is what M+ can uniquely showcase.

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M+’s six opening exhibitions are a mixture of exhibitions that are organised chronologically and exhibitions that are curated by theme. Why is it important to use both of those approaches in the museum?

Our six opening exhibitions will mark the first time we welcome the public to our new building. We have been showing different facets of our growing, evolving collection for several years already at the M+ Pavilion, but this is the first time a very large portion of the collection will be shown to the public. Therefore we wanted to organise our collection in both a pedagogically clear and approachable manner. We are showing over 1,500 works and objects created by over 700 artists and makers, which is still only a fraction of the collection but can still feel very overwhelming to the public, so we aimed to structure this wealth of content and knowledge in the most accessible ways possible. Considering the museum’s objectives to preserve heritage and tell historical narratives, we felt that a familiar chronological approach would be a no-brainer for us.

However, one of the pitfalls of presenting subjects in a deterministic manner is that it suggests that all artworks are bound to have a cause-and-effect relationship with one another, which is not necessarily true—history does not always operate in succession. By combining a chronological approach with a thematic means of organisation, we wanted to create a bird’s-eye-view of visual culture that is free of fixed meanings, but rather filled with possibilities for associations, juxtapositions, poetic clashes, and unexpected synchronisations. Through such presentations, we will be able to guide visitors through both a textbook reading and a creative reading of our exhibitions. 

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Collector Uli Sigg has donated a large proportion of his personal collection to M+, which has resulted in the M+ Sigg Collection. How important was Sigg’s donation as a starting point for building the M+ collection?

The M+ Sigg Collection is completely transformative. Back in 2012, when M+ only had a handful of curators and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority had not been around for long, part of the remit given to us was to build a permanent collection from scratch. With Dr Uli Sigg’s contributions, we saw our collection quickly grow from zero to 1,510 works; this really provided the inspiration for our museum team to start building other parts of our collection, while the donation also brought public attention and visibility to M+. I believe all the donors who came afterwards were to a large extent led by Dr Sigg’s one inspirational move—it was the spark, the catalyst that was necessary. In the history of museums in the modern era, transformative gifts of this sort have played a vital role in giving much-needed momentum to newly established institutions, and M+ is no exception in that regard.

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You joined M+ in 2013. What emotions are you feeling now that it is about to open?

I’m feeling all kinds of emotions. I feel proud and relieved, because the fruit of our labour from the past ten years of building an identity, programme and collection is finally being installed and expressed in our galleries, spaces, and print and online publications. I am confident that we have done our job well. I feel also nervous, but also elated because I am curious to know how the broader public will interpret M+. It is possible that our visitors might not like our collection or understand it immediately; people have their unique opinions, and that is the beauty of running a cultural institution.

As we step into museum’s second decade, it is a momentous reminder that public institutions will be here forever. Our team will be here for a certain amount of time, then the next group of curators will come, and they will take M+ to a new and exciting direction. It is an organism that will continuously grow and change. But being part of this very first generation that enabled the birth of this institution is not replicable. Whether we have done it right or wrong, we are proud to be the first torchbearer, to have been here from the very start.


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