The Art Basel Hong Kong 2014

The Art Basel art fair has grown from tiny roots in 1970 to become a conglomerate with broad tendrils throughout the art world in Asia, Europe and the United States. After the company added the five-year old Hong Kong Art Fair to its roster in 2012 there were fears that the event might become too corporate, stifling the creativity of local artists. As it gears up for its second act on the city’s stage Jeremy Payne sets out to assess Art Basel Hong Kong’s impact on the contemporary art scene in China.

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]rt Basel’s purchase of the Art HK fair almost three years ago led some locals to wonder whether Hong Kong’s art scene was becoming a post-colonial exercise in importing western art into Asia, a little like the British selling cuckoo clocks to the Qing dynasty aristocracy. 

They had good reason to feel disconcerted because Hong Kong had seemingly invited a double-headed hydra to its shores. One seething skull was the seemingly irresistible tide of Western art and the other, the behemoth of the China art market.

China is now the world’s second-largest art market after the US, and Asia is home to more billionaires than North America, so while Art Basel’s financial rationale was unimpeachable, it begged the question of what was supposed to happen to emerging Hong Kong artists. Pui Pui To, director of 2P gallery, one of the few Hong Kong’s galleries to represent local artists, told The Guardian: “Now that the blue chip galleries have arrived, it’s become much tougher for us to survive.”

When the Hong Kong Art Fair opened its doors in 2008 it helped start an era that has since brought the major New York, London and Paris galleries to the city. Hong Kong’s vertiginous rents have pushed the younger and less well-known galleries further and further from Central district. Pui Pui To’s gallery, which has a booth at Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK), is on a Sai Ying Pun backstreet, where the air is far more likely to be scented with Char Sui than Chanel. “The only brand names round here are McDonald’s and KFC,” she said.

All the same, there’s little doubt that ABHK has substantially enhanced the territory’s reputation for being an art hub. It’s incontrovertible that the fair has attracted the glitterati (Kate Moss led the pack of celebrity visitors last year) and freshly minted millionaires from points north. However, is it generating more innovation in the artistic community?

Pui Pui To has praised ABHK’s director, Magnus Renfrew, who founded Art HK, for supporting the local art scene through educational programmes and collaboration with non-profit, artist-run projects. Renfrew said that when he arrived in Hong Kong it was often described as a “cultural desert” but since the fair opened, the number of visitors has grown steadily – from just 19,000 in 2008 to 67,000 in 2012 – and the gallery scene has become more sophisticated. Hong Kong may still seem like a cultural desert for much of the year but ARBK has become a refreshing springtime oasis.

Katie de Tilly from 10 Chancery Lane Gallery has no doubt about the fair’s positive influence. “The Art Basel brand is really respected. The Art Basel Fairs are really the best in the world in terms of quality of art and collector participation.” She also refutes the suggestion that local artists are being marginalised and feels the presence of this global powerhouse is a huge opportunity for them; “There is more opportunity than ever for Hong Kong artists and many galleries are including the work of local artists in the fair – making it a real possibility for them to make a living as artists.”

Harriet Onslow of Pearl Lam Galleries told The Guardian that with the diversification of the art scene, there is room for a wider range of galleries; “Collectors are not going to decide against buying one of (the smaller galleries’) artists for HK$5,000 just because I’ve sold them something for HK$200,000,” she said.

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It’s not just the artists who stand to gain. Says de Tilly, “We had many more collectors, curators and museums coming through Hong Kong last year – (people) that Art HK could not attract to that extent.” Is this deepening the pool of collectors, too? “Absolutely. Hong Kong and Asian collectors have been increasing significantly over the years. Great art will deepen this pool and ABHK brings great art to HK.”

Shanghai based artist Lu Xinjian, known for his successful City DNA series of paintings regards ABHK as an important platform for Chinese artists who want international exposure and inspiration, offering “lots of opportunities” and “a lot of art energy.”

These views are partially echoed by Jin Meyerson, a Korean/American artist working in Hong Kong whose work has been sought after at ABHK. He believes the fair “makes sense” and is “a positive thing” for Asia. All the same, he believes its focus on selling creates “a shopping mall for art” and “commoditises” art as a consumer product rather than something that should be “poetic and rare”. He acknowledges that, “any great idea will be commoditised, whether it’s an app or a painting,” even though “art should never become a brand.” Yet he recognises that ABHK “promotes innovation by allowing young people and collectors to get a view of the wider art world,” in a city whose art market he broadly describes as “anaemic”.

Leo Xu from Shanghai-based gallery Leo Xu Projects does not share Meyerson’s doubts about the value of the show; “Art Basel Hong Kong provides a platform to show the world the new and best from Asia, and show Asia what is relevant from the world. It is the best and easiest means to take the pulse of contemporary art in this region in terms of what to collect, what to watch and who to follow.” To Xu, the value is not just perceived in financial terms, “It’s the very place where Chinese from all Chinese speaking regions can converge. It enriches the dialogue and exploration of ‘Chinese contemporary art’ and gives people an unprecedented perception of Asian geography within a cultural context.”

This year, Xu will be showing the work of Cheng Ran, an artist who has created a film, video and site-specific installation inspired by an album cover featuring Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting The Sea of Ice (aka. The Wreck of Hope). Xu believes that in the fair’s environment, experimental work is best served by a solo show rather than being part of a selection of work. “We like it for being more focused and giving a in-depth view of the artist, rather than hanging a few paintings by various artists here and there on the walls,” says Xu.

But is there a danger that ABHK will become a clone of the other huge international art fairs that dominate the calendar? Absolutely not, asserts de Tilly; “It’s true that the major galleries participate in most major fairs, but 50 per cent of Art Basel’s roster is Asia-Pacific galleries so it’s very different to Basel or Miami.”

Several British dealers remarked that Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines, which are more familiar with western culture, were their most important markets in Asia. Ellie Harrison-Read, from the Lisson Gallery, also noted that collectors are not always ready to trust their instincts with new artists: “Big names such as Anish Kapoor, people who are familiar, sell well. Brand is very important here.” As in fashion, the label is often considered more valuable than the product.

Many top western galleries have recently established themselves in Hong Kong’s central business district, including London gallerist Jay Jopling’s White Cube and Gagosian from the US. Both have shown cutting edge work at ABHK 2013, respectively the Chapman Brothers’ The Sum of All Evil, which was snapped up by an Asian collector, and Gagosian presented paintings by the late New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. This year, White Cube will be showing Damien Hirst, Zhang Huan, Liza Lou, Antony Gormley, Katharina Fritsch, Larry Bell and Gary Hume, amongst other major artists.

There’s little doubt over their intended market. However, the pursuit of wealthy Chinese collectors is often a tiring and usually thankless process.

According to Western galleries, the big buyers of Mainland China are steadfastly patriotic in their taste for contemporary art. Speaking to The Guardian, Graham Steele, director of White Cube Hong Kong, described the status quo: “The barriers are coming down – but not as fast as western dealers would like. There isn’t the cultural momentum yet. The major Chinese collectors come to Hong Kong for Christie’s or Sotheby’s auctions of Chinese art”, where the work of artists such as Zhang Xiaogang has commanded multi-million prices.

Renfrew believes that the balance of the art market, which has long been dominated by Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses, will change with the construction of the West Kowloon Cultural District. When the project actually gets fully underway, it is expected to include the M+ museum of visual culture, twice the size of the Tate Modern, and 16 performing art museums. It will become the premier arts centre for Asia and in most respects the equal of anything in the West. The sheer magnitude of the project suggests its influence will be all pervasive.

Lars Nittve, executive director of M+ and founding director of Tate Modern, compared last year’s open air exhibition in West Kowloon Cultural District’s M+ mobile, featuring giant inflatable sculptures, to the sensation caused by Carl Andre’s bricks when they first were shown at the Tate. “For the first time in Hong Kong, it has provoked public debate about whether something that looks ugly can be art.” M+’s artistic credentials are already established. And with hundreds of thousands of visitors to the inflatable sculptures last year, its wide future popularity is also likely. The synergies can only reinforce ABHK’s position at the centre of the Asia art market.

ABHK’s decision to move the fair to March in 2015 has attracted some criticism, not least because it puts the event into direct competition with the annual HK Arts Festival. However, most of the exhibitors and professional commentators appear grateful that they won’t be on a global arts merry-go-round next May taking in New York, Hong Kong, Basel and Venice. With ABHK leading the way, March will almost certainly become the critical month for the Hong Kong arts scene.

There seems little doubt that ABHK will continue to grow, bringing phalanxes of PR and corporate hospitality people annually to Hong Kong in its wake. Art purists may wince at the growing influence of this financial art powerhouse but the evidence suggests that ABHK is nurturing a healthy spirit of innovation, too. Today, Asia’s contemporary art collectors demand the best and for 2014 Art Basel Hong Kong is not just enhancing the palette, it’s bringing the pallet-load.

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