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May 27, 2011

Hong Kong Art Fair blog

By Spear's

I will be in Hong Kong from Tuesday for the art fair, blogging here about the art, the parties, the places to be, the powers that be.

I will be in Hong Kong from Tuesday for the art fair (ART HK), blogging here about the art, the parties, the places to be, the powers that be… Keep returning here for the latest news and freshest interviews from ART HK.

Friday 5.40pm (Hong Kong time)
There is a Disney-length queue in the expo centre as visitors are made to deposit their bags, in case they, you know, try and yoink a John Chamberlain sculpture. People are getting a little frustrated. Even at Frieze the queue for the cloakroom is never that bad.
Friday 3.40pm (Hong Kong time)
Another busy day, hence pm blogging. (Although if you’re reading this in London, get to work!) After a horribly early start (8.30, but I was at the Lane Crawford party at the Pawn [try asking a taxi driver for that and not going red] till midnight and editing the magazine until 1am), there was a group interview with Invest HK and the family behind the De Sarthe Gallery, the appropriately-named De Sarthes.

Frenchman Pascal de Sarthe was very frank (think about it) about Asian collectors. ‘All the new clients are looking for Warhol. They’re looking for bright and colourful and big paintings,’ confirming my understanding of why ART HK is overweight Andy (see below).

Most interesting was Pascal’s explanation of what Asian collectors do with their paintings. He said that their houses are often off-limits to all but family, and that they rarely entertain there, so there is no point in having your paintings on display. (This only makes sense if paintings are purely status symbols…) Instead, they are in storage or in bank vaults, and they visit them – ‘like mistresses’ – in the evening for an hour.

He also described the process of acquiring Asian clients: ‘It’s a lot about education [by Western galleries] now. You need to become their friends: you need to establish a really close relationship with them. When you have their ear, you can then start to do serious work with them.’

As the De Sarthe Gallery is holding the David Lachapelle show, their parting gift was a catalogue with studies for the work: tasteful (and not so tasteful) naked nubiles in collages.

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After that, I went to the Landmark shopping centre, which looks like Sloane Street warped into a square. It’s all TODs, Fendi and such. I read through new articles for the next Spear’s, then headed to nearby SCAD (the Savannah College for Art and Design, which has campuses here, Savannah, Atlanta and Lacoste, France) for a lunch.

SCAD’s gallery space (the campus itself is in Kowloon, where I am now) was hosting an exhibition called NO LAB, created by Chinese contemporary artist Cao Fei and MAP Office, a Hong Kong-based design partnership between Laurent Gutierrez and Valerie Portefaix. The project exists in both virtual reality and real reality, recreating part of New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward (which was inundated after Hurrican Katrina) in Second Life and reviving the Second Line parade in New Orleans proper, photos of which were then turned into line drawings. To make it more complicared, Cao Fei’s Second Life avatar, China Tracy, pops up in the drawings.

MAP Office, China Tracy with MAP Office wandering in the Lower Ninth Ward

While the show at first left me cold, as I began to understand that there was a certain amount of wish fulfilment in both recreations, trying to use the virtual to reanimate the real, it became moving. There was also a video made in Second Life, showing NO LAB (the virtual New Orleans) being flooded every three minutes. It is still hard to engage properly with the unreal aspect of Second Life, and it will never be a visceral experience, but NO LAB is at least poking round the internet for its artistic possibilities.

Finally (for now), I’ve just seen Ink Art vs Ink Art at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Kowloon, a short ferry-ride across the bay from Hong Kong Island. Kowloon is certainly more touristy than Island, although it does have the well-proportioned Peninsula, proper colonial splendour amidst the pink hideousness of the Cultural Centre and Space Museum.

This show is excellent – it has developments from the past 50 years in the medium of ink. There are some obvious European influences – Picasso’s human-animal forms, Juan Miró and possibly even Basquiat seem to be there – but it is not as simple as Western artists influencing the East. Zhao Shao’ang‘s Skull in a Faded Dream (1955) combines a Dutch still-life skull with a traditional misty background (as eternal a motif as the skull) and a vivid sprig of flowers on a long hanging scroll.

Irene Chou‘s My Inner World I (1976) looks at first a little sci-fi, with Blade Runner-esque strokes and strikes creating a white rolling wave against a black background, but when you look at the black, it is actually thousands of dark dots, Pointillist-style. The effect is subtle and draws your concentration, the vast black background hinting at eternity and Chou’s tiny, defiant place within it.

One of the best works was the extremely long In the Middle of Spring, No One is in Sight (2003), by Wan Qingli. In 15 panels, we gets a clearing in a black and grey forest. A lute-ish instrument sits upright by a pool, its holes and neck resembling a human face. Against the title, there is someone in sight, even amidst the loneliness of the surrounding panels. The lute, although not obviously recently plucked, suggests that delicate waves of music could even now be heading into the further panels.

My other favourite, which made me smile and frown, was NG Kwun-Iun‘s The Diary of Clouds (2009), smallish squares of acryclic set diagonally into a block of black wood. On each pane is painted a grey-white smudge, which when looked at from the front, coalesce into clouds. It achieves the impossible, capturing a cloud but making it as evanescent as ever, disappearing when you move.
Thursday 6.10pm (Hong Kong time)
Finally for today – before I head out for dinner and drinks – I spoke to maverick designer and artist Stanley Wong (who is presenting a coffin at Simon Lee that deconstructs into a sofa, coffee table and book shelf) and Ben Brown of Ben Brown Fine Arts. I’ll be featuring those interviews in my article about ART HK in the next issue of Spear’s, so I won’t give away the juicy bits, but both agreed – from an artist’s and a gallerist’s perspective – that art fairs are irremediably changing the way the art market runs and even the way artists produce their work.

In market news from the fair, director Magnus Renfrew dropped by and said that he had heard of an Irish gallery selling Japanese work to a German collector, and galleries have sold work here that didn’t go at Basel or Frieze (White Cube’s Chapman Brothers skeleton diorama). Some big European stands reported quick sales, and pieces have been going for $500,000.
Thursday 5:40pm (Hong Kong time)
After the prison (see Thursday 5:00pm), we went on to the Asia Art Archive, where its innovative founder, Claire Hsu, talked about what had started off as a side-project to her MA at SOAS. She had had a hard time finding resources on contemporary Chinese art so started her own archive. The AAA is now leading the world not just in its field but in its approach to the 21st century: it has begun to digitise its ludicrously extensive archive (70,000 items), so all can access it.

The AAA looks like most archives – shelves heavy with monographs, articles, catalogues – except for the Ai Weiwei shrine/exhibition (you can see his photo on the lower level). I’ve noticed how assertive most people in the Hong Kong art world are about Ai Weiwei: they seem to like to use and test the freedom they might not have (will not have?) as a full part of China. Does the Chinese government mind this, or does it merely tolerate it?

On the subject of censorship, the AAA is starting to document performance art, which you might think a conceptual oxymoron. But Claire said it was valuable precisely because of its vanishing nature: one can be subversive or outspoken and no material evidence is left. The AAA, having just celebrated its tenth anniversary, has completed a major project on Chinese art from the Eighties and is about to embark on the next decade.

Speaking to Claire after her talk, she was pleased that Hong Kong is gaining cultural spaces (see the first entry, on the WKCD) and sceptical about China’s similar attempts. ‘China is building museums left, right and centre, but doesn’t take care of the ones it has. It doesn’t look beyond ten years. They’re building hardware but don’t know what to put into them.’
Thursday 5:00pm (Hong Kong time)
Pardon the lateness but I’ve been editing articles for Spear’s 21 after a surprisingly good Italian lunch at 208 (I wouldn’t have figured either) and rushing back to the fair to interview Stanley Wong and Ben Brown (on which more later).

This morning I went to prison. (About time, you might say.) A prime central site in Central Hong Kong of 1.4 hectares, the nineteenth-century colonial-style Central Police Station was decommissioned five years ago and handed over by the government to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, which runs horse-racing and betting on the island and is a large philanthropic benefactor to schools, hospitals and the arts. On the site are police barracks, a parade ground, narrow and unpleasant prison blocks and a rec ground with a towering frangipani.

David Elliott, curator and former director of several major museums, took us round the CPS in his capacity as arts adviser to the HKJCCT (neat acronym). Wearing a flowery black shirt and black trousers, as if it weren’t 30 degrees, he explained how Herzog de Meuron would be adding two shiny but austere aluminium buildings to the site, one a 1500 sq m Kunsthalle for museum-quality exhibitions, the other a multi-purpose concert hall and auditorium.

We were taken through the twisting campus – as tightly-packed as anything in Hong Kong, and surrounded by lofty blue-glass towers and vertiginous dirty white apartement blocks, laundry hanging out of the windows. Halfway through is a thin block modelled on the classic English Victorian prison: tiny high-ceilinged cells with bunkbed frames, grey skeleton staircases leading clear up three floors. There was electric light, but only recently. I wanted to have my photo taken behind one closed door, but worried that it wouldn’t open again.

The prison blocks will not be converted into the galleries and exhibition spaces of the other old buildings. David said that most probably they will commission a sound installation to reflect on the experience of the prisoners, many of whom included immigrant Vietnamese boat people, not just criminals. Sitting in the rec ground, under the tree, it felt much more appropriate to acknowledge the prison’s past than paint the walls and forget.
Wednesday 4:40pm (Hong Kong time)
The two and a half hours I’ve spent trawling round ART HK really felt like, well, two and a half hours. Not because it was not pleasurable – there were nice gallerists to talk to, good art to see – but because in a hall (more like an aircraft hangar) of 160 galleries, you can’t do a quick zoom-round. Each time you visit a new stand or concentrate on a new artist, you need to refocus your attention.

But it was a productive time. One trend was abundantly clear: big names sell, or as one gallerist told me, ‘We were given advice by friends not to bring young artists out here.’ There were Warhols on more stands that I care to remember, and plenty from Marc Quinn, Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst and Murakami – all bright, digestible work. What this seems to say is that Asian buyers want brand name artists, as if they were buying their jeans from Calvin Klein. It’s dispiriting to see so many undistinguished Warhols rolled out (Franz Beckenbauer, anyone?): even as it patronises the audience, it’s probably the right tactic.

Denis Gardarin of White Cube said they had followed the advice of someone on the ground here about what to bring. ‘For the Asian sensibility,’ he said, ‘colour is very different,’ hence the many gaudy Murakamis elsewhere, ‘and the relationship with the brand, where your name is more recognised. It’s definitely the case.’

Many people associated with ART HK have been telling me that the Asian collecting market needs to be ‘educated’ about contemporary art, and while that’s bound to be true in the way that the West needs educating about Asian art, it won’t be done by bringing Pop Art’s greatest hits to market. One small but significant concession in this respect is that Gagosian have put the names of the works next to them, like most other galleries normally do: at Frieze, the visitor is presumed to know the artists.

At least some people have a sense of humour about it: Bruno Bischofberger brought with a wall-length Warhol of Chariman Maos.
Wednesday 2:05pm (Hong Kong time)
The press conference for ART HK has finished; on the panel were founder Tim Etchells, director Magnus Renfrew, collector Richard Chang, curator from sponsor Deutsche Bank Alistair Hicks and artist David Lachapelle, responsible for a million glossy, lascivious yet art-historical photographs as well as feature films and music videos.

The most notable remark was from fair director Magnus Renfrew, who, unprompted by a question, said about Ai Weiwei: ‘We share the concern of the international community that due legal process be followed and hope for a swift and just resolution of the current situation.’ It is not hard to see this as proving (or testing) Hong Kong’s oft-vaunted freedom of expression.

Lisson Gallery, who represent Ai in the UK, have brought his work here, though not for sale, and before the fair issued a statement: ‘At this stage we feel we can fo more for Ai Weiwei by being present at the fair. By continuing to show his work we build new audiences for it and draw attention to his plight … To withdraw from ART HK and not show work by the artist would make us complicit in the authorities’ attempt to silence him and his supporters.’

Usually I treat such justifications as hogwash, cover for commercial motives, but I’m inclining to belief this time: they stand to make no money from him now, and there will be plenty of people – 45,000, plus mainland Chinese collectors – who will be exposed to his work.

Most questions were about the recent sale of 60% to Art Basel. Founder Tim Etchells said: ‘The Basel brand is so well known globally that it will help us to further the fair into Asia.’ Richard Chang, a collector and friend of ART HK, said it was ‘the Basel of Asia’, making the tie-up inevitable, I suppose. The fair, as part of the deal, is moving to February next year, putting paint-streaked water between it and Art Basel.

I asked whether art fairs were an entirely positive thing for the art market, artists and collectors. Magnus and Tim naturally said they were. ‘It’s helping to facilitate networking,’ said Magnus. ‘The 45,000 people that come through in the next four days will confirm that,’ said Tim.

When I spoke to David Lachapelle afterwards, I asked him the same question. His response, from the artist’s perspective, was enlightening. He said that he was lucky enough to have reached a level where he could produce the work he wanted, but other artists ‘have to produce for the fairs, they have to produce what sells in the market’. Now, artists have often tried to catch the market’s taste, but art fairs are changing this.

It seems to me that instead of having a show every three years, for which you produce a complete body of work, the major role art fairs play in selling work has created a series of peaks for which new work has to be produced, on demand almost. Simon Lee, whom I spoke to in London before the fair, agreed, saying that he couldn’t call on his artists for every fair, especially when they were represented by more than one gallery.

I also spoke to Lachapelle about his work. His new show at de Sarthe Fine Art, which opens tonight, reflects his love of Bruce Lee, ‘my first experience of Chinese culture’. ‘I think that he became the yin and the yang, Hollywood commercialism and Chinese philosophy.’ Lachapelle is producing the next part of his Deluge series, where the survivors of the post-modern Biblical flood (there goes the Starbucks logo! Caesar’s Palace – the casino, of course, is crumbling!) now find themselves in calmer waters. Lachapelle is shooting in Hawaii.

And I’m a happy boy because he invited me to the opening tonight. Now the fair has opened, so I’m going to join the rush of collectors.
Wednesday 12:20pm (Hong Kong time)
Paul McCarthy‘s inflatable ketchup bottle. The people, they are ants.

Wednesday 12:00pm (Hong Kong time)
Have stepped gingerly off a boat tour to see the site for the West Kowloon Cultural District, a cultural complex to which the Hong Kong government is contributing HK$22 billion (£1.75 billion – Cameron et al take note). The site is underwhelming because it is just scrub and grey metal fences on reclaimed land on the south flank of Kowloon. The plans for it, however, are big.

The contract for the 40-hectare site has gone to Foster and Partners, who will develop a campus based on the theme of city-park. Within the site will be a museum (it’s called M+), theatres, galleries, artists’ studios, cinemas and other venues; the aim is to make Hong Kong the cultural hub of Asia.

Speaking to Tobias Berger, the first visual arts curator on board the project, I questioned whether the WKCD was responding to local artistic demand, when most Hong Kong artists occupy one of the former factories, relics of the manufacturing era, or whether it was creating the supply and hoping the demand would arise.

‘How much demand was there for Tate Modern in London?’ he parried. ‘There’s a huge demand because there’s no museum. The arts scene was asking for ten years.’ Artists did not so much want studios as ‘exhibition space, big shows, more support, information, books’. The demand would also come from the region, drawing in collectors and art-lovers from across Asia.

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