Hong Kong’s homegrown creativity—and a diverse cache of art—takes center stage at a reinvented harbor-side attraction.
It wasn’t so long ago that tourists on the Kowloon waterfront would stroll past the Hong Kong Museum of Art without being aware of its very existence. Despite its prominent location, the unremarkable tiled building was eclipsed not just by the backdrop of Victoria Harbour, but also the geometry of its immediate neighbors: namely the ski ramp–like Cultural Centre and the egg-shaped planetarium of the Space Museum. No longer. Fresh from a four-year, US$120 million revamp, Hong Kong’s oldest public art institution quietly reopened this past November behind a brand-new textured facade, with patterns in high relief recalling both Chinese brickwork and the rippling waves of the harbor it overlooks.
The fusty interiors, too, have been given a complete makeover. While the dim, low-ceilinged upstairs lobby was swapped out for a light-filled two-story foyer at ground level, government architects added five new galleries, including a glass-walled rooftop space with panoramic vistas of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong Island skyline. Equally impressive is the curatorial programing at the museum’s relaunch.
Running until March 4, the blockbuster exhibition “A Sense of Place: from Turner to Hockney” comprises 76 British landscape paintings on loan from the Tate, with works by masters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and more recent canvases like Bigger Trees near Warter, David Hockney’s largest-ever painting. It’s split between galleries on the second and fifth floors—perhaps a move to encourage exploration of the Asia-specific showcases throughout the building.
“Ordinary to Extraordinary: Stories of the Museum” (until July 29) cycles through highlights drawn from the institution’s four major collections, which cover Chinese antiquities, Chinese painting and calligraphy, modern and contemporary Hong Kong art, and pieces chronicling the China trade between the 17th and 19th centuries. One such painting from 1816, Waterfall at Aberdeen, Hong Kong, is the oldest known pictorial record of the territory. Look out for Two Swallows by the late Wu Guanzhong, considered the father of modern Chinese painting, as well as Xu Bing’s acclaimed installation Book from the Sky, in which books and scrolls are printed in a stream of meaningless text using 4,000 invented Chinese characters.
More history-inclined visitors have until November 25 to admire priceless canvases and engravings from the museum’s Chater Collection, named for the influential tycoon who gifted his extensive trove of China-trade artwork to Hong Kong upon his passing in 1926. Though the heirlooms were lost during the Japanese occupation in World War II, a quarter of those items were eventually recovered.
Meanwhile, “Hong Kong Experience, Hong Kong Experiment” (until May 3) charts the evolution of local art over the past five decades, in parallel with the emergence of a collective identity. Visitors will find ubiquitous “red-white-blue” bags made of nylon canvas, hints of post-Handover unease, and playfully subversive pieces like Wilson Shieh Ka-ho’s 2017 Hong Kong Panorama, which depicts masculine skyscrapers as women in semitransparent dresses using Chinese ink and gouache.
The much-needed upgrade of the 58-year-old institution has cemented its place in Hong Kong’s flourishing art scene. Future collaborations with Italy’s Uffizi Gallery (the first showcase is slated for September) and the British Museum will draw weekend crowds, but the 17,000-piece permanent collection, alongside commissioned works by a changing roster of local artists, gives the Hong Kong Museum of Art the ability to stand on its own.
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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Master Strokes”).