Art Hong Kong 2011

June 10, 2011
Hitesh Natalwala, Surrender 2010, Gallery Barry Keldoulis
Hitesh Natalwala, Surrender 2010, Gallery Barry Keldoulis

It is scarcely believable that the Hong Kong Art Fair is only four years old. As the infant prodigy among the many, many fairs that have been breeding, virus-like, in all parts of the world, Hong Kong’s growth has been freakish. It started out as a shrewd, optimistic idea in 2008; struggled through the GFC and a SARS epidemic in 2009; and had its ‘coming of age’ in 2010, as the world’s top dealers began to take an interest. This year, regardless of the fickle nature of the art market, it has blossomed.

After the first day of Art HK 11, French gallery, Emmanuel Perrotin, had sold a large Pop-style painting by Takashi Murakami for US$2.2 million. At the same time L & M Arts of Los Angeles disposed of a hideous picture by Jeff Koons called Monkey Train (Orange), for a sum in the vicinity of US$3.5 million. Taste was left at home, but fashion prowled the corridors. For some unknown reason a European collector even decided to relieve Sprüth Magers, of Berlin and London, of a big Andreas Gursky photo of a Grand Prix pit-stop for a mere US$700,000. It was the third print in an edition of four.

Prices of US$100,000 to 200,000 were almost commonplace, with much larger sums being forked out for works by recognised superstars. No wonder the Australian art dealers were lining up to show their wares. With no sales tax or import duties, and an international clientele, Hong Kong puts the poor old Melbourne art fair to shame.

This year, Sydney was represented by Roslyn Oxley9, Conny Dietzschold, Dominik Mersch, Sullivan+Strumpf, Barry Keldoulis, Tim Olsen, GRANTPIRRIE and Annandale Galleries; along with Tolarno, Sutton Gallery, Tristian Koenig and Anna Schwartz, from Melbourne. Starkwhite was, once again, the sole New Zealand exhibitor. Everyone seemed remarkably up-beat about their prospects.

Tim Olsen hosted a show of large, lyrical watercolours of the Australian desert, by his dad, John Olsen. After the first day he had made four sales. Sullivan+Strumpf were doing a roaring trade in small paintings by last year’s Archibald prize winner, Sam Leach. Annandale was going equally well with British-Israeli sculptor, Zadok Ben-David. A beaming Barry Keldoulis, if that’s not a tautology, announced he would not be bringing very much home from this Fair.

Dominik Mersch was savouring a special accolade, as his installation of wild, stream-of-consciousness drawings by Locust Jones, had come in at number three on a list of must-see galleries compiled by the Fair’s major sponsor, Deutsche Bank. Jones has often been treated as a marginal artist in Australia, but his work looked compelling in this company.

In 2010 there were 155 galleries included in Art HK, this year the numbers had risen to 168, plus another 92 in two new sections on an upper floor. In previous years the top floor had hosted conventions for wine and funerals. This time it was wall-to-wall art, edging up towards the 300-plus exhibitors who take part in the annual Basel Art Fair – the acknowledged market leader.

The first new section was called Asia One, and consisted of galleries that couldn’t be squeezed in downstairs. The second was Art Futures, in which dealers were obliged to show the work of no more than two artists, with an age limit of 35. This was a useful rule that generated some excellent projects. It was hard to go past a massive photomontage landscape by Yang Yongliang at Shanghai’s 18Gallery, and a frenetic display of cartoon-style pictures by a Japanese Irishman, Atsushi Kaga, at the Dublin gallery, mother’s tankstation.

A US$25,000 award for best project in this section went to Gao Weigang, for an oblique but oddly impressive installation put on by Magician Space of Beijing, in which a traditional silk scroll painting of a tiger skin was placed alongside a stainless steel, A-frame sculpture. Gao was giving nothing away when confronted with the probing questions of the arts journalists.

Reporter: “Mr. Gao, how do you feel to have won this award?”
Gao: “Happy”.

The Asia One section was also devoted to solo shows, reputedly by “artists of Asian origin.” It was an expanded definition of Asia that ranged from New Zealand to Turkey and Dubai. In one fell swoop this ‘Asia Major’ resolved a thorny problem for Australians, who have argued for years over whether or not we are an Asian nation. When I mentioned this to Magnus Renfrew, the popular director of Art HK, he said: “Well I’m glad I sorted that out for you.”

Along with the shows by Asian artists such as John Olsen, Sam Leach and Locust Jones, this section featured a show-stopping installation of large paintings, sculptures and puppets by Indonesian artist, Heri Dono, at Edwin’s Gallery of Jakarta. While Dono is an old hand at these big international events, it was exciting to see some of the projects undertaken by lesser-known artists. China Art Projects, run by Aussie expats, had an lively display of paintings done on the inside of bottles by Liu Zhuoquan, whose work has been seen at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery. A bottled portrait of the late Osama Bin Laden was the obvious centre of attention.

Even more ambitious was Wu Jian’an’s room-sized paper cut installation at Chambers Fine Art of Beijing. Viewers found themselves enclosed in a mountainous panorama made up of 18,000 brightly-coloured silhouettes, clustered together to form bands of earth and sky.

It was widely feared that the division of Art HK into two separate floors would create a gulf between haves and have-nots, with the rich and powerful galleries on the main floor, and the emerging ones upstairs. To a certain extent this was true. All the big names in art were on the ground floor: Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, Aquavella, Castelli, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, White Cube, Bruno Bischofberger, and so on. But there, in their midst, were gallery Barry Keldoulis and GRANTPIRRIE.

It was not just wealth and power that got galleries onto the ground floor; it was also long-term loyalty, innovation and initiative. But being upstairs was not a significant handicap. After sampling the unlisted prices on the ground floor, buyers with small-to-medium-sized budgets attacked the top floor with relish. Pieces priced at $30-40,000 suddenly seemed like extraordinary bargains. In many cases this was true, as some of this year’s novices will be next year’s stars. They may, however, have shifted allegiance to a more prestigious gallery.

This successful arrangement might not last, as it was announced at the beginning of Art HK that the company behind Art Basel and Art Miami has just bought a controlling stake in the Hong Kong fair. The first impact is that next year’s show will be held in February, not May, to create a more even spread with the other two fairs. It remains to be seen whether the Basel group will follow its usual pattern and concentrate on the richest galleries at the expense of variety.

Perhaps the best aspect of Renfrew’s fairs has been the broad geographical spread of participants and the mix of established and younger dealers. It would be foolish to sacrifice this in favour of a concentration on European and American heavyweights, as many wealthy Asian collectors are less concerned with western blue chip art than with the art of their own region. This trend will only continue to grow and Art HK must be sensitive to the signs. Nevertheless, it will get harder for Australian galleries to command so many places.

The big dealers are already aware of the escalating strength of Hong Kong, and have opened local branches. Gagosian’s impressive space at the top of the Pedder Building is leader of the pack, although it is hard to imagine HK collectors forking out huge sums for the current exhibition of bad jokes and blown-up photos from old biker magazines by New Yorker, Richard Prince – virtually unbeatable for the title of the World’s Most Overrated Artist.

It was more fun at ArtisTree, a new initiative by the Swires Property Group, on the east side of the island. The show, Memories of King Kowloon, celebrated Tsang Tsou-choi, (1921-2007) the legendary graffiti artist who spent fifty years covering the walls of Hong Kong with his calligraphic claims to be the rightful monarch of Kowloon. Of 55,000 examples of Tsang’s work, only a handful remain intact on the streets, but the show at ArtisTree contains hundreds on sheets of paper. Their meaning may be incomprehensible to most westerners but the power of the King’s brushwork requires no translation. This is the other side of Hong Kong’s culture – a dynamic folk art that defies the slick irony of the international product shown at galleries such as Gagosian. Why hang out with the American Prince when you can enjoy an audience with the King of Kowloon?

Art Hong Kong 2011
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 24-29 May.

John McDonald was a guest of Art Hong Kong

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2011