Published on Ocula, 6 April 2018
On Monday night of Hong Kong Art Week, the Guerrilla Girls, the US feminist activist art collective who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’, addressed a packed lecture theatre at University of Hong Kong—their first ever appearance in Asia. Armed with their signature stats, facts, and bananas, the gorilla-masked trio, which has counted more than 55 members since its formation in 1985, made a damning case against an unregulated art market riddled with unethical practices, insider trading, and gender and cultural imbalances.
Art writer John Berger once wrote: ‘The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class’. These days ‘it’s the economy(ics), stupid,’ rather than any ideological interest being served. ‘It’s difficult to address imbalances when you are caught up in the economy of art’, one of the Guerrilla Girls said. Museums are overseen by collector trustees with vested interests validating their collections. Often, they collect what other collectors do—largely the work of white men. These collectors—named and shamed in a slide presentation—also open museums, which help them pay less tax, and let them dictate to the public what art is. ‘Your huge donations get you huge tax breaks, while people think you’re an incredibly generous philanthropist’, one visual slide read. ‘At fancy art fairs, parties, and Biennales, everyone sucks up to you—and your wallet!’ read another.
As the US art provocateurs were making their argument, collectors, curators, owners of private museums and museum directors– who had descended upon Hong Kong for the annual Art Basel pilgrimage–were clinking glasses of champagne and Kool-Aid at a charity gala across town. It was a night of contrasts that set the tone for the art filled week.
As if validating the group’s argument, art week kicked off with openings of all the usual big names (mainly men) making up mega collections and breaking art auction records: George Condo had a pre-sold exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum presented by Sprueth Magers and Skarskedt, and another exhibition alongside Picasso at Sotheby’s; Antony Gormley was showing at White Cube (again, after a 2014 solo show); Sean Scully presented a series of signature abstract paintings at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
At the new purpose-built 24 storey commercial art building, H Queens, a red velvet rope was set up downstairs to contain the communist era queues that were snaking their way down the footpath to get in for the previews. After waiting for an eternity, visitors were crushed into inadequate and exhausted elevators to see Yoshitomo Nara at Pace; Mark Bradford at Hauser and Wirth, whose works were all sold (prices reportedly started at USD$650,000). Wolfgang Tillmans had a solo show at David Zwirner Gallery with his typical hang of photographs of various sizes, framed, unframed, and clipped to the wall at differing heights across four separate rooms; and a collection of Christopher Wool paintings owned by billionaire collector J. Tomlinson Hill, Vice Chairman of Blackstone Group, was showing on the ground floor, right next too a neon light-decorated Major League Baseball shop (it was mistaken for an art installation by more than a few collectors). ‘Everyone complains about governments or council’s public art, but no one seems to object to a load of capitalist privates showing their stock,” remarked one art world figure, referring to the trend of private collectors showing (and sometimes selling) their wares at international art events.
On Connaught Road, upstairs from White Cube’s Gormley exhibition, Perrotin opened a show of Kaws’ colourful paintings–perfect for skateboard decks– plus one garish sculpture of a cartoon figure, which drew a mob of sneaker-collecting fan boys. Over at Pedder Building, one of the few international galleries to present a female solo show was Gagosian Gallery—only the second female artist the gallery has presented since opening in Hong Kong seven years ago. Jennifer Guidi, whom one renowned art-world figure calls ‘the most famous and expensive non-Aboriginal Aboriginal painter’ presented a series of decorative, abstract colour field sand dot paintings. The paintings, which seem to be ubiquitous in at-home yoga rooms up and down the coast of California, have been described repeatedly as meditative, and it’s true they did seem to engender a certain mindless state whenever I stared at them.
At the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the sixth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong kicked off with a VIP preview on Tuesday, featuring 248 international and regional galleries—up from 241 last year—which by the end of the week had attracted an overall attendance of 80,000. It’s not just the fair that has grown. Hong Kong has caught up with the international art market, with China now the second largest secondary market in the world, having surpassed London, accounting for 21% of sales globally. There are more billionaires now in Asia than the US; Asia accounted for 41% of the world’s billionaires in 2017, a greater share than the United States, at 32%, according to the 2018 Art Market Report, with the taste for establishing private museums creating a huge appetite to fill wall space. Beijing’s tightening of capital controls and caps on overseas withdrawals hasn’t dampened the spending of mainland Chinese buyers with homes (and bank accounts) in Hong Kong and elsewhere, either—there’s always a loophole.
Equal representation of genders may, as the Guerrilla Girls argue, be a while off in the art world, but there were wonderful works to be found by female artists. At Xavier Hufkens, an Alice Neel portrait was picked up at under USD1 million. A large pink mattress sprouting neon tubes and breasts by Sarah Lucas, ‘Dis-ease’ (2017), could be found at Gladstone Gallery, with more mammaries hung in a bundle like fruit from a post by Laure Prouvost at Carlier Gebauer (‘Cooling System 1 [for global warming]’, 2017), and a couple of beautifully detailed anatomical ink drawings at Blindspot Gallery by Hong Kong artist Angela Su.
At Tokyo’s Maho Kubota, Yurie Nagashima presented a series of photos featuring the artist and her family naked. Nagashima also took part in a panel discussion as part of Art Basel Conversations later that week with the Guerrilla Girls, Nilima Sheikh and Yu Hong on feminist aesthetics. Levy Gorvy sold several works inspired by Chinese pottery by 70-year-old American abstract artist Pat Steir, titled ‘For Hong Kong’, each for around USD$450, 000 a painting, to collectors in Asia. Gallery director and cofounder Brett Gorvy said he found that more women are buying art or involved in buying art in Asia compared to other markets, and that interest in previously unrecognised female artists seems to be increasing.
Regional artists were given strong representation throughout the fair, with around 50 percent of exhibiting galleries hailing from the Asia Pacific region. Silverlens from Manila curated a strong booth of works from Filipino artists including a multimedia installation by Gabriel Barrels; large paintings by Manual Ocampo; and a Norberto Roldan wall installation with catholic liturgical cape, fabric and lighting. STPI, Singapore, brought together a beautiful architectural series of woven thread on paper by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, which had all sold. This is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery showed a series of eight large black and white photographs, with all but a couple sold, priced at USD$85,000 each, by Australian indigenous artist Michael Cook, whose work touches on discrimination against indigenous people, and restages colonial-focused histories to re-image the contemporary reality of indigenous populations.
A personal favourite was Auckland’s Gow Langsford booth, which presented, for the first time in Asia, a number of seminal works by one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent twentieth-century artists, Colin McCahon, spanning 1958 to 1977. The artist’s works explore the relationship between the indigenous Maori and the New Zealand landscape, and well as the influence of colonialism, and are already carried by museums across Australia and New Zealand.
More quality presentations could be found at Luxembourg and Dayan who invited dealer Jeffrey Deitch to curate its booth. Titled ‘Modern Figures’ the selection of art artworks explored the representation of the human body through painting with works by Picasso, Balthus, de Chirico, Picabia, Enrico Baj, Domenico Gnoli, Martial Raysse. Marlborough Gallery London presented a Frank Auerbach focus titled ‘Here and Now’, with a series of works on paper and oil paintings. And Annely Juda Fine Art showed a beautiful minimal installation of partly charred beech columns, charred geometric wood sculptures, and works on paper by David Nash dating back to 1985. Meanwhile Galeria Plan B (Cluj and Berlin) put together a slick presentation of geometric ceramic works and paintings by 1970s Romanian conceptual artist and poet, Mihai Olos, that drew on Constructivism and Romanian folk iconography.
Mid-week, Artsy presented a panel discussion at Upper House with Jeff Koons and star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Koons is the hottest brand there is in the art world, which seems to suit and reflect a luxury-brand obsessed city like Hong Kong very well; the event was more difficult to get into than the hottest club in Berlin. People were getting knocked back by the dozen for not being ‘on the list’, no doubt putting a few noses out of joint. As the artist arrived, voices were hushed and lights dimmed prompting a smart-arsed quip from British curator and art historian Norman Rosenthal, who was in the audience: ‘That’s a bit dramatic isn’t it?’. Koons, ever the loquacious silver-tongued salesman explained to his audience without the slightest hint of irony how his shiny, mirrored works were about personal transcendence and empowering the viewer, and something about Plato, which provoked a snort and chuckle from an Aussie in the audience (there’s always one). Earlier in the week, I interviewed artist Shirazeh Houshiary, in town to receive the Asia Arts Game Changer Awards at Asia Society, who had a different take on the art market’s obsession with reflective artworks. ‘Our biggest problem is that we want to fix that image in the mirror and there is nothing there. That’s why people are attracted to shiny art—they are desperate for affirmation that they exist.’
At the fair, there was a lot of shiny trophy work for plenty of self-reflection and affirmation, luring viewers to their reflective surfaces like flakka doped Narcissus’. A rotating glass and steel concave sculpture by Olafur Eliasson, ‘Concave Sun’ (2017) hung in a glowing room at Neugerriemschneidder, placed right across from the Lisson booth presenting a similar reflective elliptical wall mirror by Anish Kapoor (which sold for more than US$1 million). At Project Native Informant, Sophia Al-Maria presented ‘Mirror Cookie’ (2018), a multi-panelled mirrored film installation featuring Chinese actress Bai Ling reciting sentences of positive self-affirmation that she posts onto her social media pages. The shiniest work of them all was the giant two-tonne Koons bird sprouting live flowering plants, ‘Bluebird Planter’ (2010–2016), at the David Zwirner booth: a work that was almost impossible to see in its entirety without a horde of visitors posing before it for selfies, or posing with the artist who was (as always) on hand for self-promotion.
On the subject of affirmation, status anxiety is always spread thick across an art world so self-aware and neurotic, particularly when it comes to the parties. And there were more ostentatious parties and events this year thrown with Gatsby-esque lavishness (and by some Gatsbyesque characters), and more luxury brand-sponsored everything. ‘It’s getting as bad as Art Basel Miami Beach’, one collector remarked. Eagerness to be on invite lists was maniacal. Who was or wasn’t invited, or could get into which parties seems to provoke a fair amount of consternation– if you want to see a supposed powerful middle-aged male collector/director/curator get bitchy or hysterical just mention a party he hasn’t been invited to. invites are social currency at international art events. Throughout the week, I eavesdropped on conversations/monologues that could have been scripted for Mean Girls. One New York collector was overheard exasperatedly telling another collector of an encounter with a doorman who would only let his friend in, but not him, because he wasn’t on the guest list. ‘I have bought several pieces from the gallery, and I wasn’t on the list?!’
As well as the usual gallery and museum hosted events, there were Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter, and Gucci dinners, the latter held in honour of photographer Martin Parr, who seemed bewildered amidst a swarm of Instagram stars; not to mention a Matches cocktail (online retail is making headway with Chinese consumers), a Prada art inspired bag launch, and the ever-ubiquitous watch brand soirées. Art lends cultural cachet to t-shirts, bags and watches, so you’re not just a consumer, you’re a cultured consumer. So much better. Every brand and everyone was throwing an art party. There was enough schmoozing, boozing, posturing and posing to make you think art was beside the point during Art Basel week.
Given the traffic jams and taxi situation during art week, perhaps those unauthorized Art Basel-branded sneakers distributed by Adidas at the 2016 Miami fair (and for which they got sued by the fair and its parent company MCH) would have made a good addition to the VIP catalogue bag. I walked to The Murray hotel, clearly the latest ‘it’ venue, and found myself crammed in the lift going to the rooftop Wolfgang Tillmans party alongside the artist and his entourage (Art Basel hack: if you wanna get into a party, no questions asked, always enter with the artist). When I asked an art world figure which dinner he’d come from during the ride, he named the gallery and scoffed like a Frank Zappa Valley Girl: ‘Where else would I have been? Everyone was there.’ Having a Justin Bieber-at-the-height-of-his-fame-moment he seized the opportunity to use the elevator seating as a rave trampoline. What the surveillance footage will reveal will rival the Solange elevator beatdown.
Aside from a frenetic and frantic schedule of exhibition openings, auction houses were also previewing sales during Art Basel week, capitalizing on Asian collectors’ growing appetite for Western blue-chip art. Conveniently located in the Convention and Exhibition Centre upstairs from the fair, highlights from the Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening auction set for 16 May were on view. The centrepiece was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Flesh and Spirit’ (1982–83), a massive text and iconography-loaded masterpiece inspired by Yale historian Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art and Philosophy, that has been virtually unseen since it was first shown in 1983. A private selling exhibition titled Panorama: A New Perspective, was shown alongside the auction highlights including more than 40 works of Modern and contemporary art—featuring work by Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Pierre Bonnard, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, and Gerhard Richter, and group of four Picasso paintings consigned directly from the collection of the artist’s granddaughter, Marina Picasso. The auction viewing room was also, as I discovered, stalking ground for single women, dressed up to the nines and strategizing encounters with wealthy bachelors.
One of the best exhibitions during Hong Kong art week was from local non-profit art space Para Site. The group show A beast, a god, and a line (17 March–20 May 2018), travelled to the city from the Dhaka Art Summit with a remixed line-up of over 50 artists that includes Hong Kong artists Jaffa Lam, Au Hoi Lam, and Christy Chow, among others. This dense and textile-heavy exhibition thoughtfully reflects on contemporary cultural and political concerns, exploring geopolitics, politicised religion, and the fracture of the neoliberal promise. Notably, it is one of the most gender balanced on view in Hong Kong right now, with 25 women and 33 men on the artist roster. Slightly further afield, Blindspot Gallery, in the industrial area of Wong Chuk Hang, presented a beautifully hung exhibition of photographs, paintings, and a four-channel video installation by Jiang Zhi, meditating on the cycle of life and suffering, which after a week-long art marathon in heels was exactly what I was meditating on too.
A highlight of the week was a tour of Tai Kwun Contemporary, located in the former Central Police Station. Hard hat-donning visitors viewed a ‘rehearsal’ exhibition in an impressive 16,000-square-foot space, featuring 20 local and international artists, including Hong Kong’s Lee Kit and Ko Sin-Tung. This new addition to the Hong Kong art landscape, which is still under construction and set to partially open this summer, was designed by museum favourites Herzog and de Meuron, and forms part of a complex of 16 buildings that will make up the HKD1.8 billion arts and culture development.
Under the direction of curator Tobias Berger, it is hoped that Tai Kwun will become one of the most important art spaces in Asia when it opens, alongside Hong Kong’s first museum of contemporary art M+, which is on course to be completed by the end of 2019. With that future fast approaching, Hong Kong is set to become more than just a trading post for art defined by its international art fair, as a city with its own voice on the international art stage