Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+, has a grand vision for the West Kowloon museum of visual culture
From your average curator’s point of view, the fact that your future workplace has already put on an exhibition featuring a giant suckling pig with red-lit eyes, a full-scale inflatable replica of Stonehenge and a cockroach the size of a building might prove a little daunting – just how do you follow something like that?
For Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s contemporary museum of visual culture, this is the task that lies ahead. The museum’s “Inflation” exhibition last year, which featured all of the above creations and more, caused quite a stir in the city, and Chong needs to build on the momentum to ensure the successful opening of M+, due in 2017.
“There aren’t many museums in the world that have set a purview as broadly and as openly as this one,” says Chong, who joined M+ last year. “We are not an art museum. We’re a visual-culture museum, where art is only one part of it. Design, architecture, cinema and other kinds of moving image are all parts of visual culture. That makes M+ unique. Nothing on this scale has been attempted in this part of the world before.”
With an art-collection budget of HK$1.7 billion, Chong and his team of curators have an impressive war chest with which to turn M+ into the diamond of the government’s much-delayed arts hub.
Born in South Korea and educated in the United States, Chong studied art history at the University of California, Berkeley, but had no real intention to work at a museum. “I didn’t plan to be a curator. I thought I was going to teach at university. But then I found a part-time position at the Asian Art Museum. I wanted to learn what it was like to actually work with objects rather than just write and teach about them,” he says.
It wasn’t long before bigger industry players came calling for his services, starting with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. “I got a phone call from the chief curator of painting and sculpture [at MoMA], Ann Temkin, who asked: ‘Are you interested in coming in and talking to me? My team of curators is hiring.’ So I said ‘sure’ and it happened very easily and quickly.”
He admits that working at such a famous institution comes with its perks. “If you are a MoMA curator, almost anywhere in the world, people will immediately give you attention and there was great power in that,” he says.
He added another feather to his cap when he won the ICI (Independent Curators International) Gerrit Lansing Independent Vision Award in 2010, which recognises curators who have shown exceptional creativity and prescience in their exhibition-making, research and related writing.
Coming to Hong Kong and working for a museum from the ground up is highly ambitious and challenging, he says. “[It is easy to] just coast along in a comfortable situation. Here we have a different situation, where there is a created need. There is a desire for something that doesn’t exist. What you are doing is filling a huge gap, but also creating a need that may not have even been imagined,” Chong says.
While in New York he was working for an established institution, M+ is giving him much more space to flex his creative muscles. “We’re not only creating a museum, we’re creating a whole culture, a consciousness for the necessity and the absolute critical relevance of building a cultural institution. There are so many deeper layers of things here: creating a culture, a general public consciousness and understanding. It’s like educating in so many dimensions and on so many different levels, which I didn’t need to do in New York,” he says.
Hong Kong has been criticised for being nonchalant about art at best, a cultural desert at worst. Chong, however, disagrees. “Culture can simply mean an expressive pattern of behaviour of existence,” he says. “If you understand culture in that way, I think Hong Kong is full of unique culture.”
He dismisses the idea that culture should be restricted to beautiful paintings and ballets, and argues that museum culture doesn’t suddenly appear overnight. “It’s not like the first-generation museums in the West were built and then everyone was flocking to them,” he says. “Almost exactly 100 years ago, it was the general belief among Americans, as well as Europeans, that America had no culture and no taste for modern art. But we have just celebrated the centennial of New York’s shocking encounter with modern art, which happened in 1913.”
He adds that M+ is not a profit-making business and rejects the notion that real success can be measured quantitatively. “Our true success should be the high level of intellectual stimulation, curiosity and knowledge the museum generates,” he says.
The museum sparked a good deal of controversy with its first acquisition decision – 47 works by Swiss collector Uli Sigg. The collection, valued at HK$177 million – along with Sigg’s donation of 1,463 Chinese contemporary art works, valued at HK$1.3 billion by Sotheby’s – did not go down well in some quarters.
“It is a bit of a struggle in that there seems to be so much suspicion and lack of trust about why M+ hires so many foreigners, or that we’re not spending the money correctly,” Chong says. “This is a challenge because we have to repeat our firm belief in our own mandate. Our acquisition policy, for instance, is all public information.”
Chong thinks people have a natural tendency to be unreceptive towards modern art. “Many people have already decided to just be critical and suspicious without trying to listen or understand. I am of the belief that the public cannot just sit back and be armchair critics,” he says.
“The public can rest assured that I myself, other curators, and the executive director [Lars Nittve] have very deep historical knowledge. So when there is a very important work of art, or historical or visual-cultural object, that we want to bring into the collection, it is not just because we like it. It is based on many years of study, historical knowledge [and awareness] of various contemporary trends and tendencies in cultural expression around the world. We consider all these to determine whether every single object is worthy of preservation and display, and being shared with the public.”
He disagrees with the idea that art should merely be pleasing to the eyes and senses. “Art should make you curious and then make you think about our reality in different ways. It should be a catalyst that hopefully changes your thinking,” he says.
STUDIES IN SHOWSTOPPING
Doryun Chong lists some of his favourite works of art.
The Raft of the Medusa (pictured) by Théodore Géricault (1818-19)
The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes by Huang Yongping (1987)
Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Félix González-Torres (1987-90)
The Statue of Liberty by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1886)