Art Basel Hong Kong 2019: A Post-Mortem

Lee Bul, Willing to be Vulnerable–Metalized Balloon,  2019 at Encounters. Art Basel HK 2019

If with the advent of Artificial Intelligence, and the concomitant displacement of jobs that ensues, only those servicing the über wealthy will remain employed, then it would appear that the art world, with its numerous advisors, dealers, collection managers and specialists catering to wealthy collectors––minted by the minute like Zimbabwean currency––should be just fine. It probably also means that the art market hamster wheel will continue spinning crazily for the foreseeable future.

Last week the seventh edition of Art Basel Hong Kong saw thousands of art courtesans and their collector benefactors kicking off the week with a string of exclusive parties and amusements, which left many complaining about their stressful schedules, and collectors visibly exhausted by the time Art Basel kicked off on Wednesday. Party attendance has become as competitive a sport as collecting. How we suffer for art.

This year saw the opening of the new Rosewood Hotel and adjacent K11 art mall, which predictably became the venues du jour for a host of art related parties, dinners, fundraisers and galas.  Pharell, Kaws, curators, and social impresarios came, saw art and bent their knee to Adrian Cheng––Hong Kong mega-collector, scion of a property fortune, founder of aforementioned art malls, and patron saint of post-digital art––as innumerable honours were bestowed upon him throughout the week.

Feeding into a market that loves spectacle and novelties was a 37-metre long Kaws (aka Brian Donnelly) inflatable ‘Companion’ floating in Victoria Harbour–– yet more plastic in our harbour ––resulting in the type of queues and mania normally reserved for a Supreme drop. Over inflated and full of hot air, the blow-up figure seemed a fitting allegory for the over-hyped Kaws phenomenon, which has gained cult status amongst sneaker aficionados and art bro speculators. On April Fool’s day, following the end of the fair, competitive Kaws consumption reached new heights with a US14.7 million-dollar record, 15 times its estimate, for a Simpsons themed painting of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s cover (a parody of a parody in a parody) at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction.  If nothing the record price proved that the art market, like Brexit and American politics, has become a satire of itself.

While a number of male artists, including Kaws and Neo Rauch, were in town for market exposure, many galleries seemed to get the memo about female representation. Gender inequality has come increasingly under the spotlight in the wake of the #metoo movement. Sprüth Magers brought an all-female Eau de Cologne exhibition to a pop-up space in Hong Kong’s H Queen’s with works by eight female artists, most of whom have been with the gallery since its inception. This third iteration of Eau de Cologne, which originally took place as a series of exhibitions and publications in Germany between 1985 and 1989, featured some of the most outspoken female artists of the time, including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman.  Tai Kwun Contemporary staged The Violence of Gender: Performing Society, curated by Susanne Pfeffer, a radical and timely group exhibition with works by 11 international artists–– including Pamela Rosenkranz, Anne Imhof, Wong Ping and Marianna Simnett–– examining the construction of gender in society.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Free Love), 1998 at Sprüth Magers Hong Kong, 2019

Coinciding with the Louise Bourgeois solo exhibition The Eternal Thread at Beijing’s Song Museum, the multinational Hauser and Wirth presented a solo exhibition of the artist’s red gouache on paper flower paintings, several small sculptures, and a surprisingly uninspired hologram print in their H Queens exhibition space. It sold out. This was no place for window shoppers. I managed to see it out of the corner of my eye before being stopped by a frosty gallerina who gruffly demanded what I wanted before pointing me to the lift door. I disobliged. It was a gallery cliché that seemed lifted out of Velvet Buzzsaw. Or a Hong Kong luxury brand shop.

Also in H Queens, Pace Gallery presented a series of large-scale and mainly monochromatic luminous and scintillating paintings from 1970’s Light and Space artist, Mary Corse. Painted with microsphere-embedded paint the works are playfully interactive, radiating light and casting shadows as you move around them. Historically overlooked in favour of her male counterparts, the California-based artist has finally gotten the recognition so long overdue. Last year the artist was the subject of a career-spanning exhibition, A Survey in Light at the Whitney Museum, which will open at LACMA later this year.

Gagosian, who in eight years has presented only two female solo shows, this year surprised no one with its group show of painted flowers and pots by three famous dead male artists–– Cezanne, Morandi and Sanyu–– curated by Chinese superstar Zeng Fanzhi. The exhibition seemed like a sequel to Hauser and Wirth’s 2018 exhibition also curated by Fanzhi, featuring the artist’s work alongside paintings from his own collection by Cezanne and Morandi. Like Hollywood, some galleries just rehash old scripts.

Installation view:  Kimsooja at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong , 2019

According to UBS three new billionaires are minted in Asia every week. That’s 156  potential new billionaire art collectors a year, let alone all the other existing billionaires and millionaires making up the regional economic landscape. No doubt this is proving attractive to blue chip international galleries who are flocking to Hong Kong to open branches. This year two more new spaces opened in time for art week. Levy Gorvy celebrated its opening in the former Graff jewellers ground floor space in Central, kicking off with a group exhibition of nature-inspired works including paintings by Joan Mitchell, Liu Ye, Agnes Martin and Zou Wou Ki. But, it was an Instagram post by co-founder Brett Gorvy that made waves, as a misplaced hashtag of #crazyrichasians on a Kaws auction-related image ignited the ire of a number of Chinese netizens.

Belgian dealer and Gutai crusader Axel Vervoordt relocated his gallery from a jewel box space in Central to a large 8,000sqf space in industrial Wong Chuk Hang. All the better to showcase his collection of impressive works by Gutai and ZERO group artists, including a dramatic red painting by Kazuo Shiraga previously featured at the dealer’s curated Palazzo Fortuny exhibition, Intuition, during the 2015 Venice Biennale. On another floor the gallery exhibited Infinitive Mutability a group show featuring works by Korean artist Kimsooja, Bosco Sodi and Peter Buggenhout.

Around the auction previews Christie’s presented a stellar Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964) for its Post-War and Contemporary featuring a portrait of former US President John F. Kennedy, collaged with motifs of American imperial power. Part of the Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer collection due for auction in New York this spring, the historic and iconic work is estimated at USD50 million, but expected to fetch much higher. Shown alongside was a large painting by Wayne Thiebaud of a couple holding a hot dog and soda –– American creations and symbols of social integration and egalitarianism, cheap and enjoyed by all–– painted in 1963 before obesity and diabetes became a nationwide epidemic. It was a poignant and nostalgic exhibition of Americana, of a time full of hope when people still believed in the myth of the American dream, when the blows of American military might was softened by its pervasive and seductive soft power.

More American icons were for sale to the highest bidder at the Sotheby’s preview. A 1960 Mark Rothko from the SF MoMA collection, estimated between USD35-50 million and selling in New York in May to benefit the museum’s acquisitions fund (apparently to diversify the museum’s collection from its overrepresentation of white men). At the auction house’s Hong Kong spring sale an early white infinity net painting by Yayoi Kusama, Interminable Net No.4, 1959, sold for USD6.7 million, a new auction record for the artist, but proving once again that women artists fare less well on the secondary market.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Onion Gum (1983), at Van der Weghe gallery booth. Art Basel HK 2019
Installation view: cloth sculptures by Katsushiro Yamaguchi at Annely Juda, Art Basel HK 2019

The usual chorus of complaints of overpriced drinks and mediocre food could be heard echoing through the exhibition halls at the convention centre for Art Basel during the first of two VIP preview days. “I mean, queueing in the Collector’s lounge for a glass of HKD300 (USD40) warm champagne. They’ve gotta raise the bar,” one Australian collector noted. The pace was less frenetic and the halls less crowded than in previous years in the first few opening hours, however numerous galleries reported strong sales. When do they not? David Zwirner presented a booth with four painted steel sculptures by  Carol Bove ––who will have her first solo exhibition this autumn at the Hong Kong gallery––priced between USD400,000-500,000. The booth, which also included work by Alice Neel, Marlene Dumas and Lisa Yuskavage, reportedly sold out.

At the top end of the market, a large yellow Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, Onion Gum (1983) at Van der Weghe priced at USD18 million (bought in 2016 from Sotheby’s for USD6.6 million) had reappeared after doing the rounds at several fairs in the past couple of years. No doubt hoping to find a deep pocketed Asian buyer, although at the time of writing it was still unsold. London gallery Richard Nagy debuted its Hong Kong appearance with a beautiful booth dedicated to 40 works on paper by Austrian expressionist, Egon Schiele, including a number of erotic drawings (and one painting priced at USD12 million) which seemed to draw swarms of amateur photographers documenting every fleshly ripple, dimple and curve.

With 242 galleries from 35 countries it was a more refreshing fair this year with greater diversity and, as one visiting Swiss collector put it, “There were more discoveries this year, even by European artists. It wasn’t only the usual obvious names you always see at fairs.” They were still around––the Kusamas, the cutesy Naras and the usual familiar big-name blue-chip works that pop up at every international fair–– but they were easy enough to bypass in favour of exciting discoveries. A booth featuring the colourful and geometric ceramic works of Pakistan-born London-based artist Lubna Chowdhary at Jhaveri Art sold out, with works ranging from USD8-12,000. Taiwanese-American artist Candice Lin’s install took over the booth of LA gallery Francois Ghebaly, with a collection of attractively priced ceramic sculptures (from USD2000-5,500) and tapestry that touched on colonialism and exploitation of labour. Most works had sold by the second VIP day.

Lubna Chowdhary at Jhaveri Art, Art Basel HK 2019
Tishan Hsu at Empty Gallery, Art Basel HK 2019

London’s Project Native Informant’s wallpaper-covered booth of intergender reproductive system fused with octopus tentacles, was dedicated to New York-based Juliana Huxtable. Titled Zoosexuality (2019), the series of psychedelic hybrid portraits fuses animal and human characteristics that references furry fetish and online culture together with sexuality, gender and stoner imagery. A multidisciplinary artist, writer and DJ, Huxtable came to prominence with a show at the 2015 New Museum Triennial and Performa. Berlin gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler showed a beautiful fleshy and sensual oil and pastel on linen (Ritz, 2018) by Berlin-based Ambera Wellmann. Meanwhile, Alfonso Artiaco Gallery from Naples presented a perversely apt cross-shaped minimalist floor sculpture by acquitted wife-murderer Carl Andre, priced at USD500,000.

Showing in Discoveries, a section for emerging artists, LA gallery Commonwealth and Council dedicated a booth to the works of Brazilian-born multimedia artist Clarissa Tossin. Shortlisted for the BMW Art Journey, Tossin’s exhibition, titled Further Fossil,  drew on Amazonian tribal culture and sci-fi, and included suspended woven archival inkjet disks and fossilised looking globe-shaped sculptures made of garbage. New York’s Luhring Augustine brought several wonderful hive-shaped braided ceramic sculptures by Simon Leigh, winner of the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize.

Simone Leigh at Luhring Augustine, Art Basel HK 2019
Installation view: Clarissa Tossin at Commonwealth and Council. Art Basel HK 2019

Hong Kong galleries kept it fresh and distinguished themselves from their established international counterparts with spotlights on new and local names. Empty Gallery brought rediscovered Chinese American artist Tishan Hsu, who was active in the 1980s and then retreated from the art world in the 1990s. Works were also exhibited at the gallery’s Tin Wan space. Blindspot Gallery brought a political bent to the fair with a kinetic work of a public school uniform, A Countess from Hong Kong (2016), by Hong Kong artist Leung Chi Wo. The work referenced student participation in the 1967 pro-Communist and anti-colonial Hong Kong riots, which resulted in their arrest and prosecution. Fifty years later and under a different system, plus ça change. The artist uses found images, music and objects, coupled with archival research to reconstruct events from 1967 and provoke reflection on Hong Kong’s current socio-political climate. Against the clamour and chaos of commerce its message seemed muted.

The Encounters section, curated for the fifth year by Aussie Alexie Glass-Kantor, which presented large scale installations around the fair, once again demonstrated cultural and gender diversity and provided an opportunity for social, cultural and political reflection.  Native Home (2019) by Australian artist Tony Albert, consisted of a small house frame with the words Native and Home, on either side of the structure: a wunderkammer filled with kitsch and souvenir objects, including tea towels, ashtrays, figurines, and boomerangs that depicted stereotypes of Aboriginal culture. Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota’s Where Are We Going?, showed white ghostly boats suspended in a sea of black yarn, a metaphor for migration, displacement and asylum. Lee Bul’s Willing To Be Vulnerable–Metalized Balloon (2019), referenced the ill-fated Hindenberg, which was previously shown at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau and at her recent retrospective at London’s Southbank. It had found a new home in a private Chinese collection.

Chiharu Shiota ‘Where Are We Going?’, 2017-2018. Encounters at Art Basel HK, 2019

While it is the youngest of the Art Basel fairs and a relative newcomer when compared to many other international fairs, Art Basel Hong Kong has now become a major attraction for collectors and galleries from around the world.  Whereas in previous Art Basel editions, gallerists seemed to second guess the Asian market, bringing out an over-abundance of YBAs, flashy neon works, reflective selfie-made sculptures, and Maos, this year galleries demonstrated a better understanding of the market and the city, bringing out stronger works from both Asia and the ‘West’. “Everyone now comes to Hong Kong”, one Hong Kong art dealer said. “It used to be that the quality wasn’t seen as good, or that the market wasn’t as sophisticated. But that’s all changed now. Art Basel Hong Kong is a staple on the art fair calendar.” In a city where it’s all about commerce, conspicuous consumption, corporations and capital, and where commodity is king, it is unsurprising that Hong Kong has become a playground for the art market elite.

And a few more highlights from Hong Kong Art Week:

Installation view: Elmgreen and Dragset at Massimo de Carlo Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019
Sopheap Pich at Tyler Rollins gallery, Art Basel HK 2019
Leda Catunda, Línguas Douradas (2018), Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel. Art Basel HK 2019
Ambera Wellmann, Ritz, 2018 at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. Art Basel HK 2019
Installation view: Adel Abdessemed at Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2019
Erwin Wurm photographing my failed 1-minute sculpture at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Hong Kong, 2019
Installation view: Julio le Parc at Perrotin gallery, Hong Kong, 2019
Installation view: Jonathan Meese artworks and a colourful guest at Sies and Höke, Art Basel HK 2019

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