An Interpretation of Art Beyond Visual: “Sonic Topologies: Hong Kong” in M+


Sonic Topologies is a multi-sensory interactive installation initiated by the Learning and Interpretation team of M+, in collaboration with the sound artist Ryo Ikeshiro and the digital studio MetaObjects. This is an aural cartographic interpretive experiment for a painting titled Work by Yamazaki Tsuruko in the M+ opening display. This paper recounts the project development and discusses how this innovative approach to museum interpretation found synergies between inclusivity and cross-disciplinary creative collaboration through a lens of visual culture and regional Asian perspective. It also demonstrates how the museum today could empower the visitor role to encourage a vibrant and dynamic interpretation

[caption id="attachment_14152" align="alignnone" width="420"]Vinyl painting on canvas with a border of red and white stripes. Colourful shapes, expressive lines, squiggles, and dots fill the canvas, anchored by a stack of three blue ellipses in the centre. A blue rectangle at the bottom frames diagonal black and white stripes. Figure 1: Work (1967) created by Yamazaki Tsuruko, M+, Hong Kong © Estate of Tsuruko Yamazaki, courtesy of LADS Gallery, Osaka and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo.[/caption]


Interpreting art is often a challenging and disputable task. While one of the key roles of the museum is to interpret tangible and intangible heritage (ICOM, 2022), it is worth noting how contemporary artistic practices subvert notions of authoritative and institutional power in the art world. Since Roland Barthes raised the concept of “the Death of the Author” (Barthes, 1977), artists and audiences are becoming less contented with a definite answer or a depiction of meanings. At the same time, art is no longer a visual-only, perception-based experience, but a multi-sensory, cross-disciplinary, and participatory engagement.  

As such, “visual culture” is a new lens to offer to our museum audience of today. Visual culture is about the act of seeing, how to see, and what is seen and unseen (Hopper-Greenhill, 2000). It is a composite of visual evidence and experiences that is constantly informed or constructed by people from all walks of life. Therefore, displaying objects of visual culture is more than nurturing taste or aesthetic appreciation. It creates an open platform on which all kinds of people can build relationships between themselves and the things they encounter—from there, they are able to make their own interpretations. 

M+ is a new museum of visual culture in Hong Kong, established in 2021. It is a ground-breaking museum project at the West Kowloon Cultural District that adds an iconic architectural landmark to the renowned skyline of the Hong Kong Victoria Harbor, and fosters the cultural exchange between Hong Kong, China, Asia, and beyond. It uniquely devotes itself to visual culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In M+, “visual culture” is a keyword not just because it is a broader term to encompass contemporary cultural productions and activities. Rather, it is a vantage point fundamentally taken by all stakeholders and decision-makers of the museum to foreground the discourses on interdisciplinary and transnational creative practices in the twentieth and twenty-first century, which is core to all museum work ranging from collections acquisition, exhibition design, curatorial, and learning and interpretation. Strategically, the Learning and Interpretation team of M+ has been presenting visual culture content according to three main principles—distinctive, accessible, and knowledgeable, which are crucial to the development of museum interpretation.  

One of the many curatorial projects led by the Learning and Interpretation team of M+ is a multi-sensory interactive installation titled Sonic Topologies. This is an aural cartographic interpretive experiment for a painting titled Work by Yamazaki Tsuruko in the M+ opening display (M+, 2022). The initiative kick-started a collaboration with the sound artist Ryo Ikeshiro and the digital studio MetaObjects to map field recordings based on the colors, shapes, and compositional arrangements of the painting on the terrain of its three-dimensional replica. The digital project has demonstrated how the interpretation of art can go beyond the visual through the inclusion of and creative collaboration with the utilization of technologies. This paper will cover these two aspects in response to the kind of museum interpretation M+ has envisioned. 

Inclusivity of Interpretation

Each of the major exhibitions at M+ has a dedicated space called the “Breakout Space.” It is a place designed for “breathing in and out”; in other words, visitors should take this as an intermission in an exhibition journey wherein reflection, contemplation, meditation, creation, and conversation can happen. After considering the temperament of each of the exhibitions, the Learning and Interpretation team curated different types of “breakout” experiences for the audience.  

In the exhibition Individuals, Networks, Expressions of the South Galleries, works of visual art are presented to narrate a story of intertwined individual and shared experiences in the Asia network. Cultural identities, histories, and perspectives are reflected in the works’ unique artistic techniques, materials, formats, and methods through the lens of visual culture. Given the enormous geopolitical context and multi-layered art histories, the curators decided that the Breakout Space for the South Galleries should serve as a contemplative site for the audience to experience the fluidity and interconnectedness of different artistic disciplines and insights. The idea evolved and was distilled into a few key concepts—the experience must be distinctive and of a cross-disciplinary nature, accessible in a way that goes beyond sense of sight, and resonant with the on-site museum collection display.  

These three concepts echo a core value of museum practice—inclusivity. “Going beyond the visual” is an anchor to this belief. For instance, people who are visually impaired can appreciate a work of visual art through other senses. 

A visually impaired visitor, Alex Chan, from the Hong Kong Blind Union, was interviewed in a radio program (RTHK radio 2, 2022) and gave his feedback on Sonic Topologies. He said,  

On this three-dimensional terrain model . . . with the sense of touch, I can tell how different colors are distributed and how they are varied based on the color intensity, disregarding my visual impairment… In addition to this experience, the sound effect (triggered by hand movements) brought me new insight on the messages or meanings from this work of art.  

A tactile map of Sonic Topologies was also produced by the M+ Access team to ensure visitors with low vision can have a glimpse of the overall space before they immerse themselves in the sound installation of this Breakout Space.  

[caption id="attachment_14153" align="alignnone" width="800"]Two cards with abstract greyscale prints. The card on the right depicts a central shape made up of three connected grey circles, surrounded by smaller abstract shapes made up of black patterns. The card on the left depicts the same shapes but with additional abstract forms rendered in black or made up of black patterns, mirroring the forms in Yamazaki Tsuruko’s painting ‘Work’. The black areas are raised. Figure 2: The tactile map created by M+ Access team.[/caption]

This interactive sound installation brought about another accessibility consideration for people with hearing difficulties. To tackle this, a QR code was placed on the exhibition label, and it links to a webpage that shows detailed annotations of the different sound clips applied to different areas on the model. Hence, audience members who have hearing loss are able to imagine the soundscape and enjoy the experience of interpretation just as much as others.  

[caption id="attachment_14154" align="alignnone" width="724"]Print depicting Yamazaki Tsuruko’s painting ‘Work’. The normally bright colours of the painting's abstract forms have been muted. Each form is outlined in black and labelled with different locations and soundscapes throughout Hong Kong. Figure 3: The annotation of different soundscapes ©Ryo Ikeshiro & MetaObjects, 2021.[/caption]

Inclusion of senses such as touch, hearing, and sight are all devised in the installation of this Breakout Space. And in addition to these multi-sensory engagements, there is an additional layer of interpretation to the experiencethe audience’s participation also involves movement within the space, similar to a work of choreography. Thus, this three-dimensional terrain, being a replica of a masterpiece in itself, can be seen as a public sphere for ephemeral performance.  

With the goals of achieving inclusivity through concept and format, universal design was applied in the space. The height and leg room underneath the model display table were carefully designed to ensure that children and visitors in wheelchairs can comfortably interact with the terrain and soundscape. The size of the model was formulated based on the maximum length within arm’s reach. The clean spacious aisles and sitting areas allow visitors to move around the table or simply be an observer in the interactive space. On the one hand, the spatial design and arrangement avoids congestion in the gallery room and any potential danger to the artworks and visitors. On the other hand, this design provides two options of engagement: skim-level audience are able to sit in this meditative environment and enjoy the diverse quality and tempo of sounds being triggered by other visitors; swim-level audience can move around the model table to choreograph their own music piece, while exploring the correlation between the sounds and the painting in the three-dimensional terrain. 

[caption id="attachment_14159" align="alignnone" width="1024"]A room containing a table with a recreation of Yamazaki Tsuruko’s painting ‘Work’. Parts of the recreation are slightly raised, creating a relief of the work. The table is placed in the centre of the otherwise empty room with a lot of space around it, facing a large window with a view of the outside. Both the floor and walls of the room are lined with bamboo. Figure 4: The overview of Breakout Space in South Galleries.[/caption]

Interpretation is a Creative Collaboration

Traditional means of interpretation might usually be “information-centric.” The interpretive objectives for a Breakout Space like Sonic Topologies are more “creation-centric.” This means that the interpretation is constantly being created rather than being defined. This creative process involves contributions from various parties including museum curators, architecture designers, the project designer, the sound artist, and more importantly, the audience. 

Museum Curators 

In 2020, the Learning and Interpretation team and the curatorial team members at M+ started to discuss the exhibition theme and the focus of the Breakout Space. At the very beginning, the idea was to set up a space of colored lighting effects that interacts with sound to create a highly sensorial and digital experience. Gradually, the idea was turned down after giving some consideration to the exhibition theme. In the curatorial aspect, this Breakout Space is part of an exhibition of South and East Asian visual art, and the nearest gallery to this room showcases several works by artists from the Gutai Art Association, a foundation of a Japanese avant-garde art movement in the 1950s to 1960s. The Gutai group is known for its experimental art forms that cross disciplines such as painting, sculpture, performance, and sound, challenging the typical classification and specialization in visual art practice. To encapsulate this genre-defying and collaborative spirit, the Breakout Space was envisioned as a space where visitors can be active agents rather than individual recipients of the sensory triggers. It is important to ensure that the visitor experience is not driven by digital and technological excitement, but a strong interest in the exhibition context. 

Architecture Designer 

The Breakout Space of the South Galleries is a bamboo-lined gallery room with an immense glass window on one side framing a view of an outdoor courtyard. The other side facing the large window is a row of benches for visitors to sit and meditate. The space manifests a serene, intimate, and placid atmosphere.  

The design was derived from an earlier master plan of the museum developed by architects from Herzog & de Meuron. As M+ positioned itself as a contemporary art museum in Asia, there were discussions about how the building design can possibly reflect this geographical locale and the amorphous interaction of contemporary art movements. Alternative modes of curatorial presentation were explored. Eventually, the design of South Galleries’ Breakout Space at M+ abandoned the typical white cube display model. It was imagined as an intimate place for close-looking, gathering, and exchange.   

Coincidentally, when M+ began to build its ink art collection, this room had also been imagined as a study gallery that resonates with ancient Chinese literati gatherings called yaji (雅集 in Chinese). Yaji refers to a communion of members in the artistic community since ancient China, wherein the literati appreciated each other’s artistic work such as poetry, calligraphy, painting, seal carving, and music through intimate gatherings and co-creations. One core value manifesting from yaji that can be inherited in the contemporary art scene here is the emphasis on collaborative artistic interaction. This concept inspired M+ to rethink the model of presentation in the museum space, and contributed to the urge of designing a contemplative interior atmosphere in the Breakout Space of the South Galleries. 

Digital Designer and Sound Artist 

Given this direction, the design studio MetaObjects was engaged to create this digital interactive installation in collaboration with the sound artist Ryo Ikeshiro, who oversaw the creation of the sound map, and the architectural design studio Sky Yutaka was tasked to design the interior of the space. After MetaObjects joined this project, they started to study the selected painting by Yamazaki and tried to make different versions of the three-dimensional replica by varying the arrangement and composition of the terrain relief. When the painting, originally hung on wall, was turned to a replica that is placed flat on a table, a new spark of imagination was kindled—the different graphical shapes look like a topographical map, and its overall view appears like a cityscape being viewed from above.  

This creative association was further enriched by local specificity. Ryo, the sound artist, was inspired by the three-dimensional terrain and hence provided his insightful interpretation of a cityscape by means of sounds recorded in Hong Kong. He reimagined the color and textures of the painting against the context of Hong Kong cityscape, then adopted different sounds to represent each category of land cover and use (Ikeshiro, 2021). For example, blue for water, red for urban area, black for reclaimed land, yellow for rural area or vegetation, and white for mountains. Thereafter, he recorded and collected the corresponding sounds from different geographical locations in Hong Kong. For instance, a blue area is associated with the sounds captured in a water-related location, such as the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade; and a black area is associated with the sound captured from the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals. Transforming from a two-dimensional painting into a three-dimensional cartographic work, and further into the audio recordings of various Hong Kong places, this installation recalls a Situationist psychogeography that is resonant of visitors’ sensations, emotions, and memories, hence adding layers to interpretation.  


Using machine learning, MetaObjects developed a design (MetaObjects, 2021) for the sound map that allows the tracking of multiple triggers. If more than one visitor interacts with the work, their complex interaction would ensue as the mingling of field recordings from more than one location. Whether it is fast and frenetic, or slow and contemplative, the sounds are mixed by the installation system and played through a four-speaker setup to create a fully immersive spatial audio experience. Every instance of this experience is unique and unrepeatable, and every encounter is a different experience. While this way of interpreting an art piece, which promotes interactions and collaborations between multiple audience members, is innovative, it also echoes a historical Japanese cultural concept ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会 in Japanese)—a traditional philosophy of embracing the unrepeatable nature of a moment that incidentally resonates with the performative and collaborative nature in many contemporary art attempts. Ultimately, the audience is a crucial element in this whole process of interpretation. 

[caption id="attachment_14158" align="alignnone" width="857"]A group of people stand around a table with a recreation of Yamazaki Tsuruko’s painting ‘Work’, which depicts abstract shapes in bright colours. In this recreation, the shapes are slightly raised at different points. The people reach out and touch different parts of the table. Figure 5: The overview of Breakout Space in South Galleries.[/caption]


While Nicolas Mirzoeff wrote in his book How to See the World (Mirzoeff, 2015) that “a visual culture . . . also involves what is invisible or kept out of sight,” it does not mean that the visuality of visual art is losing significance. Instead, it expands the possibilities of how visuality could motivate our audience to create changes in their world. The digital project Sonic Topologies provokes a dynamic interpretation process by the visitors who are seeing the images, and this process continuously evolves. With the creative and inspirational collaborations between the museum curators, creative makers, and the audience, the interpretation of visual art could become more inclusive, vital, and grounded in our living context. 


This project was realized by the M+ Learning and Interpretation team (Keri Ryan, Winnie Lai, Mou Tse and Carlos Ng), with the support from the Curatorial Affairs team (Visual Art), Digital and Editorial team, and Exhibition and Displays team.  

Special thanks to a number of key former M+ team members, including Lars Nittve, Stella Fong, Athena Wu, Ruby Ho, and Janet Chan, for their contribution to the earlier idea development of the South Galleries Breakout Space. 

Our gratitude also goes to the team of architects from Herzog & de Meuron, who has given insights on the spatial plan. 


Barthes, Roland. (1977). “The Death of the Author.” In Stephen Heath (ed.). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 142-148. 

Hopper-Greenhill, Eileen. (2000). Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York: Routledge. 

ICOM. (2022). Museum Definition. 2022, last updated Wednesday, August 24, 2022.  Consulted February 6, 2023. Available 

Ikeshiro, Ryo. (2021). “Concept and description.” M+ Internal Document. 

M+ Museum. (2022). Sources of information on Work by Yamazaki Tsuruko. Consulted February 6, 2023. Available  

MetaObjects. (2021). M+ Museum Sonic Topologies: Hong Kong Multi-sensory Installation. 2021. Consulted February 6, 2022.  

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. (2015). How to See the World. London: Pelican. 

RTHK Radio 2. (2022). Experiencing M+ Accessibility Facilities (Translated). 2022, last updated Saturday, September 17, 2022. 21:00-21:30 HKT. Consulted February 6, 2023. Available 

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