After protests and politics, a troubled country turns to art

Roll the clock back four years to 2019. In Hong Kong, Art Basel was consolidating the island’s reputation as the heart of the international art market in Asia. The gargantuan West Kowloon Cultural District was starting to emerge but was still largely a building site. The world’s leading commercial galleries were opening branches, hoping to lure China’s growing crop of big-spending billionaires. Life was good, everyone was making money. The future looked rosy. What could possibly go wrong?

The pandemic certainly slowed things down. The whole world may have been coughing along, but the lockdowns were especially difficult for a place such as Hong Kong, which relies on a rapid turnover of goods and a stream of international hit-and-run shoppers.

More disturbing were the riots that ensued when Big Brother in Beijing imposed new security laws with authoritarian overtones. The population reacted violently, the crack-down was implacable. Activists and journalists were arrested, many Hong Kongers went into self-imposed exile, and the flight of capital began. As businesses relocated to other cities, there were fears that Hong Kong’s days as an economic powerhouse may be coming to an end.

Solitude of Silences by South Korean artist Gimhongsok.Credit:AFP

It was, therefore, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that the international art crowd returned in force last week for the latest edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. During the past four years, China’s relations with the west have become increasingly strained, and these tensions have acted as a discouragement for some dealers and collectors. For others, it was impossible to imagine irrepressible Hong Kong being transformed into a tame client state.

If ebullient displays of energy, conspicuous wealth, teeming crowds, and healthy sales are any indication, Hong Kong has defied the doom-sayers. The much-discussed National Security Law seems to have had a minimal impact on the city’s cultural aspirations.

“Seems” may be the operative word because the way such laws work is by sowing seeds of doubt and caution in the public mind. The government does not have to come down hard on those who have gotten into the habit of self-censoring. Spend a few days in Hong Kong, and one becomes conscious of a new sense of restraint underlying the blur of activity. There’s also that forced positivity so characteristic of those who are keen to make a good impression.

It’s impossible to say whether this is a growing tendency or a natural cautiousness that will fall away as the city gets its mojo back. My suspicion is that Hong Kong is too dynamic to remain long within any invisible guardrails.

Art by Mr Doodle at the Pearl Lam Galleries booth during Art Basel in Hong Kong.Credit:Getty

The immediate beneficiary of Hong Kong’s momentary eclipse has been Singapore, the preferred destination for an enormous transfer of wealth. Feeling ambitious, Singapore launched its own major art fair in January, challenging Hong Kong’s supremacy as the centre of the Asian art market. It was a qualified success: Art SG was the biggest and most prestigious fair yet held in this prosperous city-state, but it has a long way to go before it steals Hong Kong’s crown.

Art SG hosted 164 galleries as opposed to Art Basel Hong Kong’s 177 (70 less than in 2019), but where ABHK attracts a huge popular audience, it seems a similar level of curiosity has yet to develop in Singapore. If one asks organisers and participants, all art fairs are massive successes, but sales were allegedly slower and fewer in Singapore. This is understandable, as it’s still early days, but it’s impossible to deny the resilience of Hong Kong, even allowing for the instability of the past few years. If Art SG will be stronger in 2024, one suspects that ABHK – barring any new upheavals – will be stronger still.

Among the notable absences in this year’s ABHK were galleries from Australia, which was represented only by Yavuz, with branches in Sydney and Singapore. Owner Jan Yavuz is a great believer in art fairs, and in Australian artists, whom he is introducing to a broad range of international clients.

Art Basel at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.Credit:Getty

Yavuz was one of five Australian galleries at Art SG, but none of the others chose to come to Hong Kong, not even the adventurous Sullivan + Strumpf. A friend from New Delhi lamented a similar lack of Indian galleries, while New Zealand went unrepresented. If these galleries feel they can only afford to attend one fair or the other, it will be interesting next year to see which one they choose.

The most notable Australian input in the 2023 ABHK came from the curator Alexie Glass-Cantor, who put together one of her most successful Encounters displays, featuring large-scale installations by artists represented by participating galleries. Korean artist Gimhongsok represented by Kukje gallery of Seoul, drew crowds with his Solitude of Silences (2017-19), which featured a group of lifelike mannequins with oversized animal heads, sprawled across a platform. What made the work so unsettling was that each came with a hard-luck story about an actual person. What looked like a children’s pantomime became an anthology of social misery and dysfunction.

Perhaps the most impressive of the Encounters installations was Stanislava Pinchuk’s The Wine Dark Sea, an expanded version of a work first shown at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2022. Pinchuk is of Ukrainian origins but grew up in Melbourne and now lives in Bosnia. The work consists of 76 plinths clad in coloured marble, each inscribed with quotations from Homer’s Odyssey paired with extracts from the Nauru Files, which detailed the abusive treatment of asylum seekers. It’s a triumph of erudition and ambition, pairing poetry with bureaucracy, discovering remarkable affinities between ancient myth and contemporary politics. Yavuz, which represents Pinchuk, reported that the installation had been acquired by the He Art Museum in Shunde, Guangdong, a relatively new, privately owned gallery designed by Japanese master architect, Tadao Ando.

Yayoi Kusama’s Art Basel exhibition.Credit:AFP

For many of the participants in ABHK – especially the Uber Galleries, such as Gagosian, Pace, White Cube, David Zwirner and Hauser and Wirth, who occupied prime real estate on Level One of the fair – to sell a work to a Chinese private museum was an ideal result. Each day’s sales report was full of triumphant announcements about expensive works by big-name artists sold to Chinese or Hong Kong collectors. The message was clear: Abandon your anxieties about Hong Kong. The contemporary art market is resurgent, and the party is back on!

Regardless of whether this was an exaggeration, it was clear that one of the main targets for this year’s fair was a subculture of younger buyers with free-spending habits and a taste for Neo-Pop cartoonish figures with big eyes. I’ve never seen such a concentration of big eyes, cute animals and anime princesses. Artists such as Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami looked like Modern Masters in this crowd. For those with less time for the contemporary, and deeper pockets, there was a smattering of genuine Modern Masters, including a haunting portrait by Picasso of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, shown by Helly Nahmad.

This year ABHK was joined in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre by Art Central, the secondary fair. In relocating from a temporary pavilion down by the waterfront, the new venue may have seemed like a promotion, but a surprising number of dealers told me they preferred the previous arrangements, feeling it was better to keep one’s distance from the major event.

The show kicked off with a spectacular digital, nocturnal panorama of Hong Kong by Yang Yongliang, which stopped viewers in their tracks. Upon entering the main halls, it was the usual visual cacophony, with another preponderance of big-eyed, Pop princesses and their mascots. Art Central lacked nothing in terms of attendance and I’m assured that sales were brisk, but the atmosphere was that of a bazaar.

I can barely scratch the surface of everything going on during this frenetic week in Hong Kong, but one obligatory stop was the West Kowloon Cultural District, where the Palace Museum and M+ were finally open for business. These two huge buildings are only part of a development on reclaimed land that has been planned and executed to perfection. The infrastructure allows one to get on a train in Beijing and get out at the doorstep of M+.

Both the major museums have state-of-the-art facilities, using new technology to enhance presentations. Both are distinguished by spacious galleries that allow more hanging space on each floor than Sydney Modern manages in the entire building.

Along with an impressive collection of artworks and artefacts on loan from the Forbidden City, the Palace Museum will host major travelling exhibitions, such as From Botticelli to Van Gogh, the show from the National Gallery, London, seen in Canberra in 2021. As for M+, it is easily the world’s largest museum of modern and contemporary Asian art – or rather “visual art within an Asian context”. Designed by Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron, with a core collection based around more than 1,500 modern Chinese works largely donated by legendary Swiss collector Uli Sigg it establishes Hong Kong as a global art destination. Roughly twenty years ago, as the locals are happy to admit, the city was known as a “cultural desert”.

The museum’s current major exhibition, a sprawling retrospective by Yayoi Kusama, may be a calculated crowd-pleaser, but it is also the most comprehensive survey of the Japanese artist’s work to date. As for the crowds, they’ve been arriving in large numbers ever since M+ opened in the midst of the pandemic.

After the turbulence of recent years, the West Kowloon project is crucial to the restoration of Hong Kong’s image. It’s a charm offensive on a monumental scale, the most prominent part of a museum-building program that will encompass almost every part of China within the next few years. There is a lot to be said about these museums, which are both cultural assets and vehicles for social enginering, but it’s clear that Hong Kong’s efflorescence offers a path to a more positive relationship with a Chinese world that simply cannot be ignored.

John McDonald visited Hong Kong as a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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