Lars Nittve interviewed by Alessio Ascari

View of M+ form the Park at WKCD – next to a tree-lined avenue along the waterfront (detail)
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron and WKCDA © Herzog & de Meuron

Alessio Ascari: In a recent public talk, you presented a graphic representation of the founding idea for M+ — a spiral with Hong Kong in the center that progressively expands to embrace China, South East Asia, Asia, and finally, the world. Can you elaborate on this idea of “dynamic glocalism?”


Lars Nittve: We are using an old model in a new context. This model has, perhaps not consciously, been used by many of the major “international” museums of modern and contemporary art, such as the Moderna Museet, Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, the Stedelijk Museum or a number of the best American museums. However, the difference between our model and theirs is that these institutions all looked at the world from where they were, which shaped the core of their collections. At M+ the core is Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta and China. We aim towards being much more comprehensive and inclusive when it comes to what is closest to “home” and more strategic and selective when we collect, say, American, Brazilian or Italian art — thinking hard about what makes sense in relation to the core. Another difference is that we are building our institution in a planned, conscious way, which may not have been the case with the older museums.


AA: You’ve been offered the opportunity to build a museum from the ground up, including its architecture. Do you think about architecture as a statement in its own right or as a mere container for the museum? What drew you to Herzog & de Meuron and TFP Farrells’ proposal, and how do you see it as an innovative example of contemporary museum design?


LN: We have an internal mantra at M+: “you shouldn’t confuse the museum with the building. The museum is a relationship between ideas and audiences — the building is perhaps our most important tool.” A museum is about excellence and access, about being uncompromising in how you show the works while also remembering that the core of the museum is the meeting between the works and the public. It should be welcoming and democratic. One also shouldn’t overlook the symbolic function of the building, which perhaps paradoxically is even more important now than ever before, because art and visual culture also can happen outside the building. In this regard, the question of how Herzog & de Meuron’s design for M+ related to the fabulous Victoria Harbor to the south and the backdrop of drab skyscrapers to the north was key. However, it was even more important that the design could solve the central challenges we posed: a museum that embraces the fluidity between the different aspects of visual culture and opens up the border between the back of house and the front of house.

Tam Wai Ping, Falling into the Mundane World, installation view “Mobile M+: Inflation!,” Hong Kong, 2013

AA: As you prepare to launch the museum, which is set to open its doors in late 2017, you have organized and planned several preliminary projects that reflect the duality of a museum which, as you said, aims to be both international and regional — such as Mobile M+, a series of nomadic exhibitions that develop in and around the city of Hong Kong, and the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, represented by young artist Lee Kit. Can you tell us more about these initiatives and, more in general, about the experience of being called to run a museum four years before its opening to the public?


LN: I received excellent training in how to run a museum without a building when I took over the Moderna Museet in late 2001. The first decision I had to make was to close the almost new museum building for two years due to problems with the building. We ran a “nomadic” museum called Moderna Museet c/o to great acclaim. This experience, as well as the pre-opening program of Tate Modern, has informed my work with M+. In principle, we are doing four things during this period: building a team, building a collection, building a building and building an audience. Various exhibition projects, as well as talks and public forums, seek to build our audience. When making the “nomadic” Mobile M+ exhibitions we try to bring different exhibition typologies to Hong Kong. Organizing Hong Kong’s participation in Venice was a slightly different decision. We simply felt that it was our duty to accept the invitation and to use our international experience and network to give the Hong Kong artist participating in the Biennale the best possible support. Finally, the fact that the organization has been set up many years before the opening of the building is a great sign of the maturity of this project.


AA: Can you speak about the process of building a team? You recently appointed the former creative director of Beijing Design Week, Aric Chen, as Curator of Design and Architecture; only a few days ago the news broke that Doryun Chong, previously Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, will fill the position of Chief Curator. Can you elaborate upon your reasons for choosing these people in particular? How big will the final team be and how will it be organized?


LN: The current curatorial team consists of thirteen curators; roughly half are from Hong Kong, while the other half is more or less split between those who hail from other parts of Asia and curators from Europe and the United States. You can have all sorts of principles and models for how the team should be built, but at the end of the day, building a team is an organic process of adding one unique individual with a specific field of expertise to another. There is no doubt that we have brought together some of the most exciting curators in the world that work in the field of Asian and global visual culture. The curatorial team will continue to grow — the first dedicated moving image curator will come on board soon, as well as a number of assistant curators. By the end of the year we’ll have eighteen curators, aiming to reach twenty-five in a year or so.

View of M+ from Hong Kong Island
Courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron and WKCDA © Herzog & de Meuron

AA: M+’s claim to be a “museum for visual culture” is particularly remarkable because, insofar as it doesn’t use the word “art,” it speaks to an open-ended and interdisciplinary approach. This proposes a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, view of cultural fields and phenomena. Does this perhaps mirror a common attitude among art professionals in Asia, who often place themselves at the threshold between different roles and practices?


LN: The categories art, design and film have turned out to be more and more unstable in global practice. Practitioners move easily between them all over the world, while most museums stick to firm categorizations. This development is even more apparent in many parts of Asia, partially because these distinctions are not a given. They are Western constructs that have not established themselves as firmly as they have in the West. Consequently, you can see the fluidity between different modes of production in places like Japan and Hong Kong where many of the most well-known artists also are acclaimed graphic designers, architects or designers. The decision is driven both by a theoretical position as well as by the actual reality of the context in which we are working.


AA: This perspective on visual culture is also a pillar of your strategy towards building the museum’s collection. In your words, “The collection is being shaped by a number of strategies defined by geography, disciplinary and cross-disciplinary boundaries, and a multiplicity of historical and contemporary narratives, all intermingling within the complexity of visual culture.” Can you elaborate on this idea of a fluid, non-linear approach, especially as it relates to imagining the collection as a narrative? And more specifically, how does the impressive collection of Chinese art donated to M+ by Dr. Uli Sigg fit into this framework?


LN: The challenge in building a collection comes when starting to think about how to display it. What stories can you, and do you, want to tell? We had some ideas from the beginning, but are now able to test real cases with a growing collection. For example, can we now create an amazing room or display that talks about the exciting years around 1980 in Beijing. Thanks to the Sigg donation, and with additional acquisitions thereafter, we’re able to represent the first Star Group exhibition and new documentation around it. We were also able to document what happened around the newly opened Maxim’s restaurant, including Pierre Cardin’s close friend Madame Song, who appeared every week in one of his creations (of which we have more than 100). We’re then able to combine this with exciting new cinema and documentary photography from the famous book China After Mao.


AA: Finally, how would you comment about Hong Kong in terms of providing an ecosystem and an audience for the museum? How do you look at the city?  And how do you think the city does, and will, look at you?


LN: The visual culture side of the larger culture scene has not been as well provided for as the performing arts, for example. This has its historical, and I dare say colonial, reasons. As a result, the Hong Kong public has not been exposed to much of 20th- or 21st-century art. But the situation has changed radically in just a few years with recent developments in the commercial sector like the Art Basel fair, international galleries and burgeoning auction houses. And it seems that the audience is there — the Art Basel fair has more visitors per day than any other art fair. Our Mobile M+ exhibition “Inflation” could potentially attract 150,000 visitors to the future site of M+, which isn’t so easy to reach. The artistic situation in some ways resembles the situation in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Artists created their work without expecting anyone to take notice and, as a consequence, developed unique, personal languages that turned out to be extremely well-received when tested in a growing context. Lee Kit’s success in Venice is a striking example of this. We look at Hong Kong as one of the few places in Asia where you can do what we do. It is an open, outward-looking and international city, with freedom of speech and rule of law — key factors for any institution with a focus on contemporary culture. How will the city look at us? No city has one perspective, but I think that when we open our doors in late 2017 Hong Kong will be proud and excited, and feel that finally, the cultural ecology in Hong Kong has come into balance.