“It’s a tired cliché constantly heard but, yes, Hong Kong’s art scene is stronger “than before”. There’s now a wider variety of commercial art galleries and Art Basel’s choice for its Asian outpost has made the city a destination for international collectors, curators and art personalities.
However, there are still few domestic collectors dedicated to contemporary art, and there is a dearth of continuing and provocative museum exhibitions charting the contemporary art world. That’s notwithstanding the anticipated opening in 2017 of M+, the planned museum of visual culture at the West Kowloon Cultural District.
In the past 18 months, though, we have seen further instances of Hong Kong entering the mainstream art world. The groundbreaking “Inflation!” exhibition of inflatable sculpture organised by M+ in early 2013 was the type of curator-led display that can jolt a city. According to Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, the bravado of including Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile(depicting a large pile of inflated excrement) focused the city in an uncomfortable but productive discussion about contemporary art. The discussion was enriched by the counterpointed appearance in the harbour of a cute rubber duck whose happy but frivolous presence promoted a nearby shopping centre.
The showcase of contemporary art from around the world in Hong Kong at Art Basel has coincided with M+ beginning its comprehensive art collection. The museum benefits from the city’s exposure to and growing interest in international art and the impact of contemporary pieces such as Complex Pile, and its collection will be more varied and braver as a result. M+’s purchase during the fair – with help from an anonymous donor – of Antony Gormley’s Asian Field, comprising 210,000 clay figures produced in Guangdong in 2003, is the sort of stellar work that will underpin M+ having an ambitious collection.
Two public art displays with differing intentions reinforce Hong Kong’s acceptance of quirky contemporary art projects. Berlin-based new media artist Carsten Nicolai’s “á (alpha) pulse” was sponsored by Art Basel to announce the fair’s presence to the general public. Nicolai’s light display pulsed on the façade of the International Commerce Centre sequenced to music downloaded from a mobile phone application. But in a city whose residents live with continual light pollution, this might have merged into the busy night skyline.
In contrast, the darkly lit vodka bar installation, “Apocalypse Postponed”, by Nadim Abbas transformed the 17th floor of a new Causeway Bay commercial building into a post-apocalyptic sandbagged bunker staffed by white-faced zombies/waiters from a sci-fi novel. The installation and accompanying electronic music was Abbas’ wish-list of invited artists, designers and friends (employed to assist) plus musicians, including a remarkable appearance by 1960s psychedelic electronic music pioneer Silver Apples, flown in from the US.
There were no free drinks at Art Basel Hong Kong’s opening vernissage, but within two years of its inception the fair has become a magnetic juggernaut attracting international galleries and visitors.
Surfing on the coattails of Art Basel, galleries in Central, Sheung Wan, Wong Chuk Hang and Chai Wan organised longer opening hours, collector receptions and talks during the fair’s duration. This call to action attempted to tap visitors who stepped outside the fair’s tight confines. In contrast to the fair, drinks were flowing, but it looked like the attendees were out to party while serious art sales remained within the art fair boundary.
This year’s fair again had its share of Fernando Botero fatties, Picasso, two wonderful paintings by Jean Dubuffet and all the current stars of international contemporary art. David Zwirner Gallery’s latest abstract paintings of New York’s supposed new wunderkind, Oscar Murillo, did not impress. . . . .”