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Conversation  |  Executive Director of M+, Hong Kong

Lars Nittve

In Conversation
25 September 2013

Lars Nittve has been Executive Director of M+, the visual culture museum for Hong Kong, since 2011. The museum itself is slated for a 2017 opening (the actual building has not been completed) yet despite existing without a physical space, Nittve has managed to stake a claim in Hong Kong’s cultural scene through a series of programmes enacted under the title Mobile M+, which includes exhibitions (such as the recent INFLATION!

), talks and conferences, as well as events like the annual Freespace Festival, which takes place at the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), the complex where M+ is being built. Nittve is also the lead curator of the Hong Kong pavilion, a collateral event at the 55th Venice Biennale. M+ was invited to curate the exhibition, which led to Nittve’s participation and the selection of artist Lee Kit to represent the city.

You were quoted in a Time Out Hong Kong interview conducted in 2011 when you took on the post as saying that M+ could create a museum that might be called ‘the game changer’ – a new role model for museums in the 21st century. How do you see this role developing now that two years have passed since that statement was made?

If you look at what we have achieved to date I think it almost is an answer enough – the team we have built (and continue to build), the first 2500 works in the collection, where we are with the architecture competition and the various programmes and exhibitions we have presented: the impact has been extraordinary. The debate about contemporary art in wider circles in HK society has almost exploded – the level of recognition both locally and internationally of what we are doing is much higher than we could ever dream of. In principle, I can say that the results we are achieving exceed all our expectations and with still four and a half year to go. But perhaps I should add that the amount of work it takes to reach these results also exceeds all expectations...

Thinking about the developments in the Hong Kong art scene in general, do you see Art Basel Hong Kong as also having a positive effect on the city’s creative scene?

Of course! But it is important to remember that this only is one aspect of a much more complex ecology. It is important for Hong Kong to develop its non-commercial sides.

You are the lead curator of Hong Kong’s offering at the 55th Venice Biennale. How did you and M+ come to curate this particular exhibition? I understand there was a bit of furore around the decision for a museum to curate the show, and not a local curator.

M+ was sounded out by ADC – the Hong Kong Arts Development Council – who are the commissioners for Hong Kong’s participation at the Venice Biennale. We were asked if we could consider taking on the curatorial responsibility for the 2013 exhibition. We thought about it and came to the conclusion that even though we already may have more than enough on our plate – building a collection, a building for the museum, and doing programmes in Hong Kong – it was almost a responsibility to do it. It is important for Hong Kong artists that they get the most out of the Venice participation and we have the experience, expertise, contacts and resources to do it well. After this invitation, we made two presentations for the ADC, who, – after discussion – handed us the curatorial responsibility for the 2013 participation. Yes, there were pretty stormy discussions afterwards, driven by a number of quite different interests and concerns, but I am absolutely convinced that ADC did the right thing.

Can you talk about how you came to select artist Lee Kit and how the proposal for You (You) came about?

The choice of Lee Kit was driven by the fact that he is one of a handful Hong Kong artists who fit the criteria that were set up and who had not already exhibited in Venice. But also, he is an artist that I, as the chosen lead curator, had an active interest in. This was a normal curatorial decision, where location, timing and passion, all come together. The proposal for Kit’s exhibition was more a formality and it is not very detailed – it just outlines Kit’s artistic position without going into details. The way Lee Kit works is quite site-specific and he really treats the actual space as an empty canvas, to use a somewhat worn metaphor. Right now, the exhibition is taking shape – on site.

You have described Lee Kit as one of Hong Kong’s leading artists, who, quoting yourself, ‘effortlessly manages to mix a deep understanding of contemporary art with something very personal and intimate’. How will this approach be integrated into an exhibition the scale of Venice?

The challenge for anyone with the kind of low key and intimate tone that Lee Kit has in a place like Venice is of course how to get people’s attention when the noise level is so high. I think he will benefit from the fact that the Hong Kong exhibition space, though amazingly centrally located, is a bit secluded. It is possible to shift the viewer’s focus there. Kit also benefits from the fact that he is the only exhibitor in the space – he can establish a unique atmosphere or ambience in the space.

Lee Kit comes from a generation of artists dealing with the idea of art and the everyday – there is a close relationship between Kit’s work and that of Tozer Pak, who has also represented Hong Kong at Venice. Why do you think this has been such an important idea in contemporary art movements and scenes in Hong Kong and do you see this changing, evolving or expanding?

I think there are many reasons for this tendency in his generation – even though one should be especially careful to talk about tendencies in HK art – it is very easy to find artists there who do not fit the bill. But I think one, relatively direct reason is related to a sort of protest against the rational, consumerist, utilitarian sentiment that permeates the Hong Kong society. There are already many other positions in the contemporary art scene in Hong Kong and I am certain that we will see other surprising developments in the coming years – more rapidly than ever, given the dynamic situation we have at the moment.

You are working with curator Yung Ma on the Venice Biennale project and also a team of exhibition interns who will be participating in producing the exhibition both in Hong Kong and on site in Venice (there will be parallel events taking place in Hong Kong as well as a follow up exhibition in Hong Kong in 2014). How do you see the creative scene developing in Hong Kong through such participations?

Yung Ma is an amazing young curator, and it is a true privilege to work together with him. We also recruited a special assistant curator for the Venice project, Mia Fong, who also turned out to be a true star. Then there are the new exhibition interns and technical interns, who have just started to get involved. I think it is important for the future development of the Hong Kong scene that we can build up a pool of curators and other museum staff with experience and who have worked on an international level. I personally love to share my experience with them!

If you could describe Lee Kit’s exhibition in Venice with five words, what would they be?

Still. Sunny. Melancholic. Loose and Precise. - [O]

Lars Nittve was in conversation with Stephanie Bailey


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