Hong Kong Museum removes Tiananmen painting

Written by Stephy Chung, CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
For the past three months, art galleries in Hong Kong have been closed to the public as part of failed efforts to reduce the load of the Omicron variant in the city. But as restrictions eased on Thursday, visitors returned to one museum to find conspicuously missing works from its collection of contemporary Chinese art.
Among the items removed from display at M+, a major new art institution, was the provocative oil painting “New Beijing” by Chinese artist Wang Xingwei. Created in 2001, the satirical work depicts bloodied emperor penguins lying on a bicycle cart – a thinly veiled allusion to the deaths of pro-democracy protesters, most of whom were students, during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre .

The painting references an image by Hong Kong photographer Liu Heung Shing, who documented the protests for The Associated Press. The penguins take the place of two injured young men that Liu had captured in the original photo.

Images released by local media outlet Hong Kong Free Press on Thursday show a different picture where Wang’s artwork previously hung. The original image of Liu and the parody of Wang belong to M+ and remain listed in the museum’s online archive.

Eight other works of art were also removed from view, including painter Wang Guangyi’s depiction of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong covered in a grid of red lines. Not all of the removed works contained explicitly political content. In a statement emailed to CNN, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, the organization that oversees M+, said the removal of the paintings was part of a routine ‘rotation’ of artworks exhibited.

“M+’s plan has always been to rotate over 200 artworks in the first year of opening,” the statement said, citing maintenance related to “artwork conditions and conservation needs “. He added that more work should be done in the coming months.

The organization did not directly state whether any of the works had been removed for political reasons, but said the exhibitions were being held “in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations”.

Hong Kong M+ Museum. Credit: Li Zhihua/China Press Service/Getty Images

The paintings are part of a treasure trove of 1,500 works of contemporary Chinese art donated to M+ by Swiss collector Uli Sigg in 2012. All of the objects were created between the 1970s and 2000s, a period in which China has undergone seismic political and societal changes.
When the museum opened in November 2021, less than 18 months after Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law effectively curbed political dissent, many observers wondered if the riskiest works in the collection – including those by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei – would see the light of day. Ahead of M+’s opening, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned officials to be “extremely careful” to ensure museum exhibits did not breach new legislation.

An infamous image of Ai Weiwei holding a middle finger toward Tiananmen Square was excluded from M+’s inaugural exhibition. But the inclusion of “New Beijing”, as well as various depictions of Mao Zedong, had left some in Hong Kong’s art world hoping that curators would enjoy some freedom when it came to showing politically sensitive works.

M+ has the largest and most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world.

M+ has the largest and most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world. Credit: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

Over the past six months, several high-profile Tiananmen-related artworks have been removed from view in Hong Kong, which was once the only place on Chinese soil where people could freely commemorate the victims of the bloody crackdown. . (A candlelight vigil in remembrance of the victims of the massacre was held annually for three decades until it was banned in 2020.)

Among them was the famous “Pillar of Shame”, a mass of writhing bodies and screaming faces that had long been on the campus of the University of Hong Kong. The sculpture was taken down in the middle of the night while the students were away during winter vacation.
Soon after, two other universities removed from their campuses replicas of the “Goddess of Democracy”, a statue first erected by students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

An image of “New Beijing” (2001) by Wang Xingwei at M+ on November 11, 2021.

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