The Art and Soul of Hong Kong

Published in Destinations of the World, Dubai, February 2016


As Hong Kong gears up for the thought-provoking art and fabulous parties of Art Basel next month, Diana d’Arenberg examines the coming-of-age art industry in a city on the cusp of a cultural renaissance

An Antony Gormley sculpture stands before Hong Kong’s iconic HSBC tower, 2016

A metallic cube rises up over the construction site that has occupied an entire block of Hong Kong’s former Central Police Station for the last five years. Reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s extraterrestrial monolith, the structure – enveloped in an aluminum brick patterned lattice skin designed by Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron – stands in stark contrast to its heritage listed colonial-era neighbours, the former Central Magistracy, Central Police Station and Victoria Prison. Known as Tai Kwun, the repurposed 16-building and two open spaces art and culture complex set to open later this year is the latest hope for a Hong Kong cultural renaissance.

Sitting on the Kowloon waterfront only a short ferry ride away across the harbour, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre is the 40-hectare site for Hong Kong’s other cultural magnum opus, known as the West Kowloon Cultural District, an integrated arts and cultural district set to open tentatively in 2019. When completed, WKCD will house a total of 15 new facilities including a concert hall, a Great Theatre, an opera house dedicated to traditional Chinese opera, four black box theaters, a chamber music hall, four medium-sized theaters of 800 seats, a mega-performance venue (18,000 seats) and ancillary education and entertainment facilities. The cultural complex’s flagship art museum, M+, focusing on 20th to 21st century visual culture and also boasting a de Meuron design, the architects du jour for cultural institution, will be Hong Kong’s first contemporary arts museum. It’s somewhat unbelievable that it’s taken a global city like Hong Kong this long to develop its first international museum of contemporary art. Finance has predominantly ruled the city’s interests, but it looks like finally there is some momentum on the city’s cultural side.

The Herzog & de Meuron designed building as part of the Tai Kwun arts complex
Pekin Fine Arts, Hong Kong

The Hong Kong art industry is booming and the local arts scene itself is flourishing. Low tax, logistics, ease of doing business, transparency, geographical position in Asia and proximity to Mainland China, have all helped the city become a regional arts hub. The arrival in 2013 of global art fair brand, Art Basel, put an international spotlight on the city’s art industry.

Last year the fair attracted nearly 60,000 visitors. This year, from its VIP opening on March 22 until close of fair on March 26, 239 of the world’s leading modern and contemporary art galleries will display – and in all likelihood sell – works by more than 4,000 artists. It’s a vast leap from a decade ago, when a gallery sale of an editioned photographic print meant several hours of explaining the medium and the nature of editions to speculative budding art investors and collectors. Things have rapidly changed since. International collectors may flock to the city during Art Basel, but Hong Kong is also seeing a rapid minting of savvy and passionate regional and local collectors. And despite the city’s astronomical retail rents, galleries and auction houses are multiplying.

There are auction records being broken, blue chip galleries opening, and big name exhibitions previewing. During Art Basel, hundreds of art lovers descend on the heritage-listed colonial-era Pedder Building for exhibition previews, with queues snaking around the block. The building, once full of fabric and garment shops, is now a gallery hub housing internationally renowned galleries including Simon Lee Gallery (exhibiting a solo show of London based artist Dexter Dalwood from 22nd March – 25th April); Lehmann Maupin (presenting ‘I Cried Because I Love You’, an exhibition by British artist, Tracey Emin, in collaboration with White Cube); Gagosian Gallery; Ben Brown Gallery; Chinese art trailblazer, Hanart TZ; and Pearl Lam Galleries. London and Milan-based Massimo de Carlo is also opening its new Pedder Building space in time for Art Basel, and rumour has it that New York based David Zwirner gallery is also shopping for a space in the city.

Across the road, the Entertainment Building houses Pace Gallery and the bijou box Axel Vervoordt space. A stone’s throw away on Des Voeux Road inside a high-rise commercial building is Edouard Malingue Gallery’s new space, which will be showing Laurent Grasso’s recent work. At 50 Connaught Road you will find London’s White Cube of YBA fame, and Emmanuel Perrotin’s eponymous gallery, which also throws some of the best star-studded parties during Art Basel, where Takashi Murakami can be spotted snapping selfies with guests.

In terms of partying, it’s the annual Chai Wan industrial garage party that has the art crowd excitedly pulling out their Margielas to rub shoulders with local and international artists over a vodka cocktail at the Absolut-sponsored bar. Each year’s invite-only party features performances and works by guest artists, including dance performance by Ryan McNamara in the past.

Giuseppe Penone exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016
A work by Yang Maoyuan at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2015

The rest of the city gets swept up in art fever during the city’s art equivalent of Fashion Week too, with hotels like Mandarin Oriental, the official hotel of Art Basel, hosting art-themed lunches and dinners – and even an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art  – and offering an art stay package; department stores and malls embarking on art/fashion collaborations and pop-ups; and entire buildings, like the 490-metre-high International Commerce Centre in Kowloon, transformed into large-scale public art installations. This year Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima will create an LED light installation, titled ‘Time Waterfall’, across the façade, which will be viewable each night from March 21-26.

Aside from the commercial side of art industry in Hong Kong, there is also a burgeoning and vibrant creative movement quietly taking place. For local artist Adrian Wong, an active player on the Hong Kong creative scene, it goes deeper than simply Art Basel. “I think the biggest – and most important – way that the art landscape has changed for local artists in the past 10 years is the increased exposure to contemporary art and critical discourse taking place in other parts of the world,” he says. “I think Art Basel had a lot to do with it, but there were a number of individuals that paved the way for this sea change.”

In the absence of a diverse creative scene a decade ago, the pioneering efforts of non-profit organisations, local galleries and a handful of driven individuals helped transform the nature of the art landscape from one that is merely commercial, to one that fosters engagement, and promotes creativity and education. “Hong Kong is no longer merely an art hub of convenient logistics and ease of operating a business”, explains Meg Maggio, a gallerist and the founder of Pekin Fine Arts, a gallery focusing on Chinese contemporary art in the hip industrial area of Wong Chuk Hang, which is also home to Rossi and Rossi gallery, and non-profit art space Spring Workshop. Founded by California-born arts patron Mimi Brown, Spring hosts regular artist-in-residence programmes out of which bloom various surprising and innovative performances and exhibitions. According to Maggio, the city’s art movement is finally bearing fruit. “Hong Kong is fast transitioning from what was once an art hub to what is rapidly becoming an art centre, where grassroots artists and art organisations are beginning to reap the benefits of hard work.”

Tucked a little further away in Kowloon’s densely populated industrial district, Kwun Tong, Osage Gallery, established 12 years ago by Agnes Lin, has quickly established itself as one of the region’s more significant interdisciplinary art spaces with its thought-provoking and experimental exhibitions and programmes.

Hong Kong artist, Adrian Wong, with one of his plush robotic creations

Non-profit art spaces in Hong Kong are gathering momentum and are not to be missed if you want a real taste of the local art scene. One of the first independent exhibition-making institutions of contemporary art in Hong Kong is ParaSite Art Space. Founded 20 years ago by a group of local artists, it has been instrumental in producing educational projects and publications, and curatorial training programmes in a city where there was a yawning gap and need for it. Today, based out of a larger new space in Quarry Bay, it continues to work with local academic institutions and collaborating with international museums to bring world class and cutting-edge curated exhibitions to Hong Kong.

The most recent addition to the city’s independent art space is the artist-curated Things That Can Happen, founded by Hong Kong born artist, Lee Kit, and director of special projects at Hong Kong’s Asian Art Archive, curator Chantal Wong. Based in the city’s historic textile area of Sham Shui Po, the space aims to “provide a platform for open experimentation and dialogue in response to the rapidly changing cultural and political context of our city”, with exhibitions from up-and-coming artists, and residency programmes.

Mill6 Foundation is another non-profit arts and cultural multidisciplinary platform, founded just last year as part of a conservation project of the Nan Fung Cotton mills. The space will be presenting a duo exhibition of Hong Kong artist, Kwan Sheung-chi, and Mills6 Foundation Gallery resident artist, Mariana Hahn, from 22nd March – 21st April, curated by internationally renowned curator and former director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, David Elliot.

Another industrial creative offshoot is Chai Wan, home to the studios of many Hong Kong creatives. Under the umbrella of the Chai Wan Mei Art and Design Festival – a collective of artists, gallerists and designers, including Platform China Gallery, AO Vertical Art Space, YY9 Gallery, Latitude 22N and 10 Chancery Lane – during Art Basel HK the area becomes host to happenings, installations, performances, curated exhibitions, workshops, and studio openings by artists and photographers. This year the festival will kick off in November.

Samson Young at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2015
Gu Wenda hair flag installation, ‘United Nations: Man and Space’, at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2015


Toby Ziegler at Simon Lee Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015


Local artists, it seems, are finally getting their dues. With more international galleries setting up in Hong Kong, many are looking to represent local talent, giving them more visibility in the art market. Art Basel, has also been instrumental in bringing to light the works of many young artists, including works from Lee Kit, Morgan Wong, Angela Su, Chow Chun Fai, Samson Young and Adrian Wong.

Collectors are also taking on an active role in the art scene, such as property scion, Adrian Cheng, whose K11 Art Foundation will join forces this year with the Serpentine Gallery to present a pop-up exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad for a month from 21 March. And internationally renowned Swiss collector of Chinese art, Dr. Uli Sigg ­– who donated HKD$1.3 million worth of artworks to the M+ Museum in 2013 – will be presenting a rigorously curated exhibition of highlights from the M+ Sigg Collection from 23 February – 5 April 2016. On Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan is the lovely Liang Yi Museum, a private museum dedicated to Chinese antiquities. Quiet, with crisp white modern interiors, the space is an oasis of calm and beauty amidst the frenetic beat of the city.

After all that pounding of pavement, in heels no less, you will likely want to kick your feet up for a well-deserved drink. If you want to continue the art schmoozing, then pop into the Ilse Crawford-designed Duddell’s in Central for a cocktail. Or for some Gallic flair, head to Bibo in Sheung Wan for a glass of wine and truffle nibbles while soaking up the cool art collection hanging from and decorating every square inch of space- including works by Jean Michel Basquiat, street artists Invader and Andre, Jean-Michel Othoniel, Yayoi Kusama and Kaws. Newly opened, and drawing rave reviews, is Stockton, a hidden whisky bar on Wyndham Street, recalling the leather upholstered taxidermy-filled drawing rooms of the Victorian era. On Icehouse Street, easily dismissed as a gentleman’s umbrella shop, is the new popular speakeasy, Foxglove. Drawing its inspiration from the 1950s with an interior reminiscent of airplane cabins, you can relax with a whisky, order from the refined dinner menu and listen to some live jazz, to tap into your inner Don Draper (or not).

Hidden a little further out, in Sai Ying Pun, is Ping Pong Gintoneria. Stuffed full of art from the proprietor—a local Hong Kong collector and patron—the space, a former ping pong hall, is regularly frequented by Hong Kong’s cool creatives, hipsters and fabulous somebodies, and draws a lively Art Basel crowd every year. It’s anything but stuffy, and the gin cocktails never fail to impress, making it– and Art Basel as a whole, of course –worth the schlep.

A bit of old Hong Kong in Wan Chai
Light installation at Ping Pong Gintoneria
An art themed lunch by Mandarin Oriental



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