inside hong kong's global art world

As the fourth edition of Art Basel rolls into a smog covered Hong Kong, we look inside the city's global, commercial art scene, for a place where east meets west.

by i-D Staff and Felix Petty
29 March 2016, 10:50pm

Almost every building in Hong Kong is a skyscraper, topped with a neon logo belonging to a bank or insurance company, disappearing into a thick smog that didn't dissipate from above the island for the duration of the fourth edition of Art Basel in the city. An easy metaphor for the gloom surrounding the world of Chinese finance at the moment, which has been rocked by stock market crashes, and which you might expect to have had a knock on effect on the art world in the city. China is the fastest growing market for contemporary art, full of untapped riches and wealthy collectors. Hong Kong is the natural conduit for that, China's commercial window onto the world, a city that seems to be built on commerce, existing in its own little smog covered bubble -- a place where east has always met west, a repository for the more gluttonous elements of global capitalism. So if there was any lack of confidence, in the money markets or art markets, it wasn't immediately obvious. By the end of the fair's five-day run, most galleries were reporting massive sales.

Tracey Emin, All I Want Is You

White Cube, Gagosian, Massimo De Carlo, Lehmann Maupin are just a few of the western galleries to have permanent outposts in the city to capitalize on the boom; to coincide with the opening of Art Basel, most are organizing new exhibitions. Tracey Emin has her first solo show in China at White Cube, an exhibition that continues her fruitful creative second life as a painter and draftsman. The works are as bold as they are subtle, a heady mix of bodily and ethereal -- taking in charcoal drawings ripped from pages of notebooks, large scale pieces of embroidery, and a trademark neon spelling out the exhibition's title, I Cried Because I Love You. The exhibition is, as Tracey revealed in an interview with The Art Newspaper, apparently about marrying a rock in her garden. As someone who never found much to like about her conceptual 90s YBA heyday of self-aggrandizement, arrogance, and vanity, her new direction continues to amaze. Though it draws from similar themes of the body, relationships, and love, their delicacy and lightness and contrast between gentle pastels, intricate embroideries, and flashes of neon, draws you into a totally absorbing world. It's hard though, in a city ruled by finance and tax loopholes, not to be a bit cynical about the point of it all -- the intentions, what it's really offering to the cultural landscape, a sort of post-post-colonial desire to re-assert a dominant Western culture on the city. At one point during the fair Jay Jopling, the owner of White Cube, was spotted in an elevator with Nancy Dell'Olio; make of that what you will.

Yinka Shonibare, Hong Kong Toy Painting

A more considered approach was taken by Pearl Lam, at her gallery in The Pedder Building, one of the city's few ancient monuments (built in 1923) that have survived Hong Kong's urge towards continual architectural metamorphosis; the lack of available space means everything is being constantly redeveloped, razed, rebuilt, taller, grander, more obscene, more steel, more glass. A group show, Structures of Recollection, artfully and seamlessly mixed the work of Asian and Western artists together; taking the intricacies and manufacture of cultural memories as its theme, specifically inspired by a Proustian take on the subtle hypnosis of memory. Yinka Shonibare's work being the real stand out, exhibiting his Hong Kong Toy Painting, a work that uses an intricately structured series of circles as centerpoints for found objects, notably toys -- Pokemon, Bruce Lee, anime characters, etc -- transforming the literal manufactured detritus of society into a method of examining the fragile assemblages of cultural identity. It feels weighty and relevant and poignant; it's strange how little post-colonial discourse there is here, or at least, within this context, within these bigger galleries. Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, manages to leverage out a rather beautiful and universal comment.

Dexter Dalwood, Propoganda Painting

Equally Dexter Dalwood, exhibiting with Simon Lee in his gallery, also in the Pedder Building, for his first exhibition in Hong Kong takes his rather unique hallucinatory approach to history painting, and points it directly at China. The images take in Nixon, Mao, industrialization, the cultural revolution, the great leap forwards, and China's current quasi-colonial adventure in Africa. They explode in a quiet riot of a persistence of symbols; a pink Mao and a splatter of spraypaint sit next to a flat African totem; flat Warhol-esque lilies shine bright amongst a sea of trapped, grey figures, stuck in murky depth; backgrounds smudged with idealistic propaganda of picturesque factories. This is the painting of politics as the piecing together of fragments of memory; painterly composition as form of turning abstract into the concrete; linear history warped around recurring motifs stuck in an infinite loop. They are seductive and beautiful and engaging and they draw you into this parallel barely possible universe constructed entirely of symbols. He might begin by seeking to question "the role of painting" but mainly show the form's potent possibility in the right hands.

It's hard not to think about memory when traversing the city, which seems, especially on Hong Kong Island itself, so ruthlessly new, so devoid of the old. I keep finding myself looking for the leftovers of a long gone world and find none. There's an odd old tower here and there, but the overriding sense is an erasure of history, there's no nostalgia on display, no sentimentality, not even a wiff of faux cultural kitsch to market to tourists. Hong Kong is a place, commonly said, where east meets west, but I can't decide if they meet, but never really interact, or have instead met, and melded so perfectly you can't really see the joins anymore. Either way, nothing on the island feels natural.

Hack Space

This is rather suitably brought up at Hack Space, the fair's other standout satellite show. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist of London's Serpentine Gallery, it takes their recent exhibition of Simon Denny's work and pairs it with 11 Chinese artists. On the surface, it sounds like it might be a recipe for either twee disaster, or gross cultural appropriation, but instead, strikes a contemplative note on the changing relationships between China and the West, the changing face of China because of the West, and role of globalization in the art world. Rather subtly it draws on themes of exploitation, asking who's exploiting who, as well as the complicity of exploitation. Do we expect all Chinese artists to be elaborate craftsmen keeping old traditions alive? Or do we expect all Chinese artists to be activists and dissidents, flowering in the shadow of state repression? Luckily Hack Space steers well clear of such simple dichotomies.

Simon Denny's work deals with hacking culture and its links to innovation, his sculptures here are arranged on the display pedestals left behind when the real estate company who used to inhabit the building moved out (how apt), and resemble a sky line of sorts. Hack Space is of course a doubly loaded title, a noun, a space to hack in, and a command, to hack the space we live in. How are our environments changing and evolving and who's behind it? A question the exhibition poses that feels suitable for Hong Kong, with its infinite string of malls and luxury shops; this laissez-faire entrepôt that has privatized every public space.

Cui Jie, Overpass at Shuang Jing

One of the most astounding works in the exhibition are Cui Jie's futurist dystopian landscapes, oddly flat and frightening, full of swirling curves that disappear into the foreground, dynamic but motionless lines, and absorbing clashes of tranquil colors. It thankfully slips into no easy political mode, has no easy answers, no dull didactic messages on exploitation or rampant consumerism or China's changing culture and landscape. Cao Fei's Rumba II, also deals with the landscapes of contemporary China in a rather startling way, a video work that shows the loosing of Rumbas, those automated floor vacuums, into the rubble of building sites that dot the outskirts of Beijing. They are frightening and threatening and extra-terrestrial, silent, Dalek-like horrors obliviously traversing a landscape in flux.

It's hard not to ask yourself questions about the role of art in a city like Hong Kong, so explicitly does the surrounding landscape draw links between capitalist entrepreneurs and art world profiteers. Hong Kong is a city turned over to shopping, a neutered, post-cultural vision of a society devoted to consumer luxury. And during Art Basel it is a city that for a week has been turned over again, to another vision of consumer luxury. There's a rather sickening clash between the two; Hong Kong is so geographically small, so tightly packed, so ruthlessly new, everything is claustrophobically ramped up a notch. The city feels a world away from the one that just recently was rocked by protest against Chinese policy. I keep looking out for the cracks in the city's façade, but find few. It lends the city a surreal air; made more surreal by the fact I'm here to spend time in a conference center contemplating the monied world of contemporary art. The VIP area of the fair has a diamond stand and an Audemars Piguet stand and a stand specializing in helping you to slip your art across borders without paying tax. You can't move around the city without knocking into luxury store after luxury store. You end up using them as markers for directions.

Louise Bourgeois 

The fair itself screams money money money in the way these things always do, and yet, like all these things, they're suffused at the edges with the genuinely thought provoking and eye catching. At their best, art fairs are a wonderful place to have your mind changed and opinions reformed; that rapid succession of booth after booth, painting after painting, work after work... it's best to simply go with your gut and give in to the spectacle. The fair started rather wonderfully with a sighting of Leonardo DiCaprio -- who trumps Nancy in the celeb-spotting stakes -- doing his best to look anonymous, dressed in a bad gilet, beard and flat cap, yet flanked by a large group of minders. It's always good to imagine what celebs are picking up at these things; that giant wonderful Louise Bourgeois spider at Hauser & Wirth for the garden? Some restrained classic minimalism, a Sol LeWitt or Agnes Martin at Pace? That giant Picasso? Some other gaudy trinket off the secondary market? That $10 million dollar Cy Twombly? A Warhol Mao print? A piece of experimental video art from a small Taiwenese gallery? A series of 18 giant gold boxes? It's all here.

The dominant trend at the bigger galleries seems to be to show off the highlights of the artists they represent and counterpoint them with the odd Asian artist; in their defense it is, I suppose, what the market wants. It's hard though to find much to engage with, or much that you wouldn't see at Frieze, or Artissima, or Arco, or FIAC. It's a delicate balancing act of credibility, this dance between west and east, colonial dominance and post-colonial acceptance.

Li Songsong, Map Watching

Pace, alongside Sol Lewitt and Agnes Martin had works by Qiu Xiaofei, a young, Beijing based artist, which are, admittedly, wonderful expressive and full of complex construction, clashing color and shape. Their other nod to the east was with Li Songsong's Map Watching, an artist who uses found images of recent Chinese history as a base, deconstructing them in thick layers of paint. They resemble collages or blurred memories, erasing detail and reveling in shape and space left behind. Subtly political, without being overt or forceful.

At Gagosian, there's a magical and beautiful Sterling Ruby sculpture, a deep textured jade green crumble of glaze stuck in with a large piece of wood emblazoned with the word "juvenile", and next to it, a Howard Hodgkin, a rectangle of magnificent pink, a sweep of deep red across the bottom left corner adorned with a flutter of blue and a sprinkle of turquoise. Two artists whose works' complex beauty obliterate everything else you could ever write about them. They make the luxurious baubles of the rest of the Gagosian's stand, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, etc, look, well, like luxurious baubles.

Jeff Koons

David Zwirner has pulled out all his big guns too: Marlene Dumas, Sigmar Polke, Chris Ofili, Yayoi Kusama, Isa Genzken. Same goes at Dominque Levy, who have a Calder, a Warhol, and a Gerhard Richter on display. All great, of course, hard to say much about them that hasn't been said before. Probably raking it in though. Hauser & Wirth's booth was a well curated selection dedicated to theme of the spider, and crowned by that magnificent Louise Bourgeois sculpture.

Off the beaten track the fair throws up unexpected delights. There's an incredible selection of galleries, from Hong Kong, China, Japan, and Taiwan (as well as closer to home) stuffed full of work that rewards. ShanghART, from Shanghai, obviously, revel in a plethora of various forms that Chinese art can take; from paintings that draw on Western forms to striking visions of conceptual work, the highlight being Zhang Ding, who recently took over the ICA for a week long performance during Frieze. Here he presented 18 large gold boxes, which fair goers were free to attack with a piece of onyx, and scratch something into the surface. Hans Ulrich was 'ere. A neat conceptual take on the obscene world of luxury these things promote and languish in and sometimes manage to rise above.

Yuri Pattison

Mother's Tankstation, from Dublin, had a selection of new work from Yuri Pattison, whose upcoming Chisenhale solo show we are eagerly looking forward to. A work that engages in the connections made possible by the internet, the work was made collaboratively via the internet, with Yuri getting workers at a bitcoin factory in remote Tibet to record a film of them at work, tending the machines and servers, and a cooling tower he outsourced to an American YouTube blogger. It was kind of fascinating complex and simple at the time, engaging with the weirder fringes of the hyper-connected modern world we inhabit.

Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi brought American artist Wu Tsang to their booth for a solo exhibition, part of a larger project dealing with the legacy of Chinese feminist revolutionary Qiu Jin, who was executed whilst plotting revolution. Wu Tsang takes inspiration from the way the legacy of Qiu Jin has been fought over, a large sculpture dominates, made from swords, glowing blood red, against a backdrop of red walls, decorated with ephemera inspired and derived from the artist's research; decorative swords, a photograph of a naked female torso clutching a sword tightly, a statues head.

Wu Tsang

Chi-Wen gallery presented survey of Taiwanese video art. The films, particularly the work of James T Hong and Chen Chieh Jen, were ferocious and fiercely political, and full of black humor, and this is it at its best, that feeling of discovery, lifting a lid on something you never knew about. Equally AM Space, a Hong Kongese gallery, who showed a duo booth by Chang Huei-Ming and Frank Tang Kai Yiu, decked out like a trad Chinese lounge, a rather touching hymn to the loss of space and disconnect with nature that a packed Hong Kong forces on you. It was beautifully pieced together, the fake plants gently vibrated on exposed motors, a nod towards their artifice, it was all rather aesthetically pleasing.

Chen Chieh Jen, Flickering Light

Elsite gallery, from Taipei, took on a similar theme, cultural memory suffused with revolutionary longing, though of a more gentle kind, a reflection on upheaval seen on a smaller scale in a series of touching images detailing the artist David Diao's life in Hong Kong from the late 40s to the early 60s. The images retrace his steps and recraft memories; Chinese movie stars rub up against an image of the artist as a young boy laid over a map of Kowloon, these pictures are bright and beautiful, but mostly touching and heartfelt. Pak Sheung Chuen at Vitamin gallery used the handover of Hong Kong to Britain as the starting point for his images that explored the sea around the island, looking outward to some never coming horizon. Which like the smog covered skyscrapers, might also stand in easily, as a metaphor, for the whole art fair.

David Diao


Text Felix Petty

Art Fair
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