The renowned Australian arts administrator Mr. Michael Lynch (*1950) joined the Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) as its CEO in July 2011. Heading the contentious project for two years now, Mr. Lynch is eager to “make it happen” than “just talking about it”. Determined and high-spirited, Mr. Lynch is eager to concretize the project and to develop it into a world-class cultural hub, both for the people of Hong Kong and the world.
The 40 hectares cultural district located at the waterfront of West Kowloon will be the host of the M+ museum which has chosen Herzog & de Meuron to design its future US$642 million home. The horizontal section of the T-shaped building will offer 183,000 square feet of exhibition space, while the vertical bar, devoted to offices, storage and education, is to have an LED lighting system that can showcase artwork. The building is expected to be completed in 2017. Although the 17 core art and cultural venues are yet to be completed, the WKCDA has started its soft programs such as the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, a series of nomadic exhibitions curated by the M+ team, as well as the Hong Kong Collateral Event – “You, (you)” by the artist Lee Kit – at the 55th Venice Biennale 2013.
In the relaxing and festival mood of the Biennale opening week, Mr. Lynch sat down with us at the Hong Kong exhibition space. Looking at the beautiful Venice canal, we talked about Hong Kong – the city’s cultural landscape, the debates surrounding the project and a possible future for art and culture in Hong Kong, and for the people of Hong Kong.
Venice, Summer 2013
Hong Kong in Venice…
Selina Ting [ST] : We are now in Venice for the preview of the 55th Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world. This year, M+ is the co-presenter of Hong Kong’s Collateral Event [with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council]. How do you feel being here as the head of the Hong Kong team? What is your general impression of the Venice Biennale, and how does it compare with your previous experience?
Michael Lynch [ML] : I was the Commissioner for the Australian Pavilion in 1997 and that was my first time attending the Venice Biennale. It was the most mind-blowing experience that I ever had, and it completely opened up my perceptions of visual art in the world… This is my second time being here and it’s very surprising to see how the visual art world has changed since 1997.
This kind of international exposure is very important for the training of art professionals. We see that things are changing [in Hong Kong]. For example, the team we brought here, including the technical staff and interns, many of them are better educated and more qualified than their counterparts from other countries, but they haven’t had the experience of working on an international project like this.
ST : Hong Kong is well-known for its commercialism, pragmatism and efficiency, but here we have a presentation of very conceptual work by Lee Kit. The experience can be quite surprising for a Western audience who has previous contact with the more market-oriented Chinese Contemporary Art. What kind of image of Hong Kong are we projecting to the world here?
ML : We are pleased to work with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. In appointing M + as the curator they allowed the team to choose the artist that they considered most appropriate to represent Hong Kong this year. As a curator, Lars Nittve [Executive Director of M+] is very experienced at commissioning artists for biennales and international exhibitions and I consider it smart to avoid the best-known names and the most expensive work. Lee Kit is an artist who is beginning to emerge onto the international scene and we hope that this exhibition will have a significant impact on his career. We want to make a difference. We want to differentiate ourselves. Lee Kit’s exhibition here is definitely not a market-oriented show but a very particular, soft and lyrical attempt in exploring and expressing what art is. In Lee Kit’s work, we see the evolution and growth of contemporary art in Hong Kong. I hope that with this relatively low-key and subtle show of Lee Kit at the Venice Biennale this year, we would be able to reveal a different dimension of Hong Kong,by showing that it is not merely the cliché shopping and dining paradise, but a vibrant city where an intellectual process is going on to redefine art and its roles in society.
Other than showing to the world that Hong Kong is changing, and that the West Kowloon Cultural District project is going to create further changes, I think we also hope that with the Lee Kit exhibition in Venice, people [in Hong Kong] would start to see the importance of an event like this and understand why most countries in the world participate to provide their artists with international exposure and to feature the very best of their cultural offer. . We are lucky to have a wonderful location for the Hong Kong’s Collateral Event. [The Hong Kong’s Collateral Event is located right in front of the entrance of Arsenale, one of the two official sites of the Venice Biennale.] As you said, the Olympics of the art world is just in front of our doors. Everyone going to Arsenale would have an opportunity to come and visit our exhibition.
ST : The location of the Hong Kong exhibition is in a way symbolic of the city’s cultural position in the world. We are close to the centre of action but at the same time stay in the periphery. Just like here, the Hong Kong exhibition is presented as a collateral event, not part of the official program. The Art Basel Hong Kong this year suddenly put Hong Kong under spotlight, the unexpected attention made us very uneasy if not lost. Let’s say, Hong Kong is at a transitional period, we all know that we could no longer afford to stay local, otherwise, we lose the international perspective…
ML: I think this is a very important point and that’s also why it’s important for the West Kowloon Cultural District project to be actualized rather than be talked about. We need M+ to be there if we are going to envision a future for contemporary art in Hong Kong. The existing institutions are not in touch with the world. We need new venues and investments. We need to create different perceptions and expectations about art, and to build some confidence among the people of Hong Kong. In the next few years, it’s very important that we continue to build support for the District and M+. At the same time, we need to create some sense of excitement that’s going to change Hong Kong people’s perception of arts. We want people to work in the arts rather than exclusively in the finance, law or medicine, etc. We want to develop knowledge and audiences within Hong Kong and to provide an international platform for Hong Kong artists. There is a fantastic appetite for contemporary art in the city that needs to be nurtured.
I am very excited about the potential impact that M+, Hong Kong’s future museum for visual culture could have for the perception of the cities art scene locally and globally. It will be a museum dedicated to Hong Kong and its contemporary culture, providing a Hong Kong perspective, with a global vision. M+ will host world-class exhibitions on visual culture from Hong Kong, Asia and the rest of the world. It will provide a place for artists to meet, collaborate, experiment and showcase their work. We want people to actually see that there are great opportunities for them to use their creativity and knowledge in different ways, and that there is a big world out there for them to pursue a career in the arts. For someone like you, growing up in Hong Kong ten or fifteen years ago, it must have been extremely difficult to start a career in the visual art or performing art. I hope that in the next few years, we will start creating some real opportunities for people.
It will be a museum dedicated to Hong Kong and its contemporary culture, providing a Hong Kong perspective, with a global vision.— Michael Lynch
ST: I should have been born ten or fifteen years later so that I wouldn’t have had to leave Hong Kong for a career in the arts!
ML : [Laughs] It’s fantastic to know that there are people out there in the world who are able to develop their expertise! One of the things that we are trying to do is to find the Hong Kong diaspora. It was a very interesting experience when we chose the Canadian architect Bing Thom to work on the Chinese opera theatre. We didn’t know that he was actually born and brought up in Hong Kong until the age of 9. He is now in his seventies and the Chinese opera theatre is his first project in Hong Kong – his hometown! Similarly, what we are trying to do is to find people like you who have gone out into the world, really! [Laughs] I think Lars Nittve and I are very conscious of the fact that the West Kowloon Cultural District and M+ projects are for the future of Hong Kong and the region. The idea of getting people who have experience in the arts in Hong Kong and the world is very important.
ST : We are going through a process of cultural renegotiation, both in terms of the roles that culture plays in society as well as the cultural roles that Hong Kong plays in the world.
ML: The East meets West discourse is still an important part of it. If you look beyond everything that has happened, Hong Kong plays an increasingly interesting role in terms of the trio – Hong Kong in relations to China, and to the region around us. I think it’s a great time to try to redefine Hong Kong’s role and we need to play on its strength such as the freedom of speech and expression that characterizes Hong Kong. This freedom is also essential for the arts and its role in the society. Of course, it’s not happening just today. The world has shifted over the last 10 years in terms of its access to Hong Kong and China, and the rest of Asia.
Politicized before cultured?
ST : Apart from the Lee Kit exhibition in the Hong Kong ’s Collateral Event, the Mobile M+: Inflation! exhibition has been the biggest event that M+ has launched in Hong Kong so far. If the first exhibition is often a kind of statement-making show, how do you see the debates surrounding Inflation and the concomitant Rubber Duck show? What are the dangers in telling people what contemporary art is and what to expect from contemporary art? On the other hand, what do we, the art professionals, expect from the public?
ML : I think it’s a really interesting tension. There are debates that needed to take place but have remained absent in Hong Kong in the last twenty or thirty years. Such as: What is art? What is good art? What is bad art? What is entertaining art? What is serious art? I think the motivation behind the Mobile M+: Inflation! exhibition is to show that not everything can be quite as serious as what we are doing in Venice. Here we have a very intellectual and experienced audience. In Hong Kong, you need to take the audience with you if they haven’t had the experience. But you also don’t necessarily want to dumb it down to the experience of, say, the Rubber Duck. From my point of view, it created quite a good contrast to have the duck arrived just after the opening of Inflation!. It didn’t concern us to have people say that you should do more “Duck” projects. That’s not what we plan to do, but it reflects changes in people’s understanding of art and its role in society. Some exhibits can be relatively populist; some meant to enrage people, to confuse people, to make people think. If you look back at the constructive roles art has played in most societies, you see that art makes people think differently, and see the world differently. Some of our future projects will be populist, some not.
It’s very interesting in a way to compress a lot of things that would normally take twenty, fifty or a hundred years to happen, and to try to do it in five years. It’s very exciting to be able to do something within that compressed period of time…
ST : … in a very compressed manner as well ! Two years now in the project and you have already served three chairmen…
ML : I have two predecessors in the project as well [Laughs]… One was there only for a week and the other for five months. Yes, this time, I have been here for two years and I have three chairmen! [Laughs]
ST : Have the changes of Chairmen affected the direction of the project?
ML : The project has a certain degree of stability now. It’s very important that at the Board level, the governmental level, the WKCD Management level and the M+ Management level, we have this stability in order to focus on the architectural competition, the range of temporary activities, and moving forward. What we really want to see is progress over the next couple of years. I think that will start to rebuild confidence for the project, both in Hong Kong and the world.
ST : How do you react to the tendency of politicizing the project?
ML : I think that any project of this scale – having a large amount of public money committed to it, taking up one of the few empty sites in Hong Kong, and clearly having an important role to play in Hong Kong society – would inevitably always be political. We are creating something that the Hong Kong people have to live with in the coming decades. We need to justify what we are doing. We need to make sure that the money is being spent smartly. From the point of view of leading the project, you have to understand the balance, the impact and the sensitivities around that. Our artistic focus now is to try to get away from politics. We are also building the confidence of the art community in Hong Kong. With some of the big events that we have done, such as the Music Festival, the Bamboo theatre festival, Mobile M+: Inflation!, Mobile M+: Yau Mai Tei, etc., we are also trying to build audiences and develop community support for the project. Clearly there will always be people who want to politicize cultural projects of such scale. Be it the Pompidou Centre in France or the South Bank Arts Centre in London, they are all sources of political contestation.
We are creating something that— Michael Lynch
the Hong Kong people have to live with
in the coming decades.
We need to justify what we are doing.
ST : Has the HK people’s mistrust of their government transferred to the WKCD project as well?
ML : A cultural project of such scale is an easy target for this kind of mistrust. Even just in my two-year experience here, the level of political mistrust has surprised me. We try not to take too much notice of it. If the people of Hong Kong would stop focusing exclusively on politics, life might get a lot easier for everybody.
ST : The situation is getting worse and worse, I am sorry!
ML : [Laughs] I think it’s true! It’s quite a challenging period for a big project like this. The government’s role is very much constrained by these political issues ….
ST : When you started working on the project in 2011, the budget overruns were already at issue. When the figures were released in May 2013 that the total estimated construction cost went up from HK$21.6 billion (US$2.8 billion) to HK$47 billion (US$6 billion) [See Note below], more than doubled…
ML : We try to be as transparent as possible. We know that people are going to criticize us but we cannot ignore some basic facts of life in Hong Kong. The reality is that the construction cost in Hong Kong has risen over 100% in the last 4 years, which means that we have to be thinking all the time how we are going to manage that.
ST : If you compare the pressure from the government and that from the public, which one is more stressful?
ML : We know we will always be the piggy at the middle! [Laughs] We are always juggling in between, and to be frank, it is the same in every country.
ST : Is the idea of four more years in the project tiring for you?
ML : This is a bad question to ask in Venice! [Laughs] I already feel old walking around in Venice! I am very excited with the project, my team is building, we have got very good people from Hong Kong and from all over the world. I am really excited with the progress.
ST : Thank you very much!
About Mr. Michael Lynch
Mr. Lynch joined the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in July 2011. He had a long and distinguished career in arts administration, serving as Chief Executive of the Sydney Opera House from 1998 to 2002 and then led the rejuvenation of London’s Southbank Centre where he was Chief Executive from 2002 to 2009. Since then he has been a director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a member of the Board of Film Victoria and the Myer Foundation. Mr Lynch was awarded an Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2001 for services to arts administration and as an advocate for Australian cultural life. In 2008, he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the Birthday Honours for his services to the arts.