Art Basel Hong Kong 2015

March 21, 2015
Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015
Photo by Jessica Hromas/Art Basel 2015
Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015 Photo by Jessica Hromas/Art Basel 2015

At the Cocktail Reception that followed the Private View of this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong the Swiss luxury brand, Davidoff, was handing out free cigars. It proved a wildly popular giveaway. The entire party, held around the swimming pool of the Grand Hyatt, was wreathed in a fog of cigar smoke.

A food queue snaked for about a kilometre while everyone waited for Dita Von Teese to take a dip in a giant cocktail glass. Yet even this curious prospect didn’t make me feel inclined to hang around. As I left the party with another weary scribe, I encountered images that have lodged in my mind. Imagine, if you can, a set of glamorous girls in chic dresses puffing a cigar from one corner of their mouths while shovelling food into the other. Some of them managed to hold a champagne glass as well. How could Dita Von Teese top that?

Last year I thought the final transmutation of art into a luxury commodity had been accomplished, but this year’s Fair showed the process could be taken much further. Art Basel Director, Marc Spiegler, was delighted to announce that more than 20 big brand international galleries had decided to show in Hong Kong for the first time. It’s all due to the coup of moving the dates of the Fair from May to March. This has put a respectable distance between Hong Kong and the flagship event held in Basel every June. With the new dates comes a new Asian director. The redoubtable Magnus Renfrew has taken a job with Bonhams, leaving us with the charming Adeline Ooi, who managed to smile her way through a series of nerve-wracking public events.

Although Herr Spiegler didn’t give a sinister chortle and announce: “My plans for world domination are now complete!” that was the gist. It is an indisputable fact that the art fair model is transforming the way art is bought and sold all around the world. Instead of checking out the local galleries on weekends, collectors are now more inclined to save their money for a binge in Basel, Hong Kong, Miami, London, New York, or a hundred other destinations – even Sydney, which will be hosting the second edition of Sydney Contemporary in September.

The new breed of collector adores the idea of international one-stop shopping. He or she loves to mingle with the upper echelons of the art world and the gaggle of celebrities that frequent the high-end dealers. The collectors hang out at the parties, and even the forums. They are not simply buying art, they are acquiring a lifestyle.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that many wealthy buyers are virtually indifferent to the qualities of the works they are purchasing. They want something with a big price tag, instantly recognisable by the in-crowd. Not only does art confer status, it is a market that can never be exhausted. If you have a billion dollars to spend, the dealers have the works.

This may sound like a bottomless pit of decadence, but the thrill of such a business is that art is not just another product. The infinite variety of works and the inscrutable motivations of artists means that expensive pieces may also be profound and beautiful. Even the most commercially minded dealers cling to this thread of idealism.

The Art Basel crowd is no different. They understand how important it is to show they care deeply about art’s intellectual and aesthetic qualities. Consequently the number of participating galleries has been reduced this year, down from 245 to 233, from 37 countries. This has allowed exhibitors more space and improved the overall feel of the show.

The most positive effect of the move to March is that the big name dealers seem less inclined to do stockroom hangs in Hong Kong while saving their best shot for Basel. This year there were a lot of major works on display. Most of the booths concentrated on paintings and sculpture, although Pi Artworks from Istanbul provided some distraction with a performance by Nezaket Ekici, who spent the art fair in her nightie, covering blank canvases with lipstick kisses.

Turkish performance artist, Nezaket Ekici, created the artwork "Emotion in Motion" by kissing a white blank canvas with red lipstick throughout the launch.

Turkish performance artist, Nezaket Ekici, created the artwork “Emotion in Motion” by kissing a white blank canvas with red lipstick throughout the launch.

There was the usual round of talks and forums; an extensive film program selected by Li Zhenhua; and a series of major installations called Encounters, put together by Australia’s own Alexie Glass-Kantor, who chose a lively, impressive group of works by 14 artists from around the world. More importantly she was able to talk knowledgeably about each piece and the connections between them. Glass-Kantor did not, for instance, describe anything as “a flight of fancy”, which is one of the ways Juliana Engberg rationalised her choices for last year’s unhappy Sydney Biennale.

Hint to would-be Australian über-curators. Take the art more seriously than you take yourselves and all will be well.

There were eight Australian galleries in the Fair this year: Anna Schwartz, Darren Knight, Dianne Tanzer, Jensen, the Murray White Room, Roslyn Oxley9, Sullivan + Strumpf, and Tolarno. I’m under strict instructions from Murray White to say how magnificent his booth looked, or risk hurting his feelings. However, the main action was at Sullivan + Strumpf, whose version of world domination bears comparison with Marc Spiegler’s. Sam Jinks’ hyperreal, silicone sculpture of a crouching woman was causing a crowd phenomenon that I last saw in a wildlife documentary, as hyenas swarmed around a dead gazelle.

Another Australian artist attracting a lot of attention was the stylish Michael Zavros, who showed his painstaking realism-with-a-twist with Starkwhite gallery of Auckland.

After two days of the Fair almost everyone seemed to be selling, so there was a positive feeling among the dealers. As I didn’t stay to the end I’m in no position to separate success from optimism. The opening night was a veritable orgy of sales, as buyers fired off questions and flashed credit cards. The top-of-the-line David Zwirner Gallery (New York/London) was selling paintings by Leipzig artist, Neo Rauch, for US$1 million each, and one by Britain’s Chris Ofili for US$2 million to “a new collector”. Sales between US$500,000 and US$1 million were commonplace (Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Zhan Wan, George Condo, Sean Scully, Nam June Paik, Andreas Gursky, etc.). Sales between US$100,000 to US$200,000 were hardly worth mentioning.

Am Brunnen (2014), an oil painting by Neo Rauch

Am Brunnen (2014), an oil painting by Neo Rauch

These are only the figures that were released over the first two days. There were plenty of works that must have been far more expensive than US$2 million, but everything was strictly price-on-application. In some cases one could ask a gallery assistant the price of a work, point blank, only to be told they weren’t authorised to divulge that information. No Australian gallery could afford to be so recalcitrant.

If there was a single artist who was seen everywhere it was Yoshitomo Nara, whose trademark grumpy little girl glared from several different booths, plus solo shows at the Pace gallery downtown, and the Asia Society. Among the more memorable presentations was Tyler Rollins of New York, who had great success selling works by Cambodian artist, Sopheap Pich; and Tokyo’s Misa Shin Gallery, which featured a museum-quality solo exhibition of the architectural sculptures of Tadashi Kawamata.

For the first time this year Hong Kong hosted a satellite fair: Art Central, located in a gigantic tent by the harbourside. The show was operated by Tim Etchells and his colleagues, who sold the Hong Kong Fair to Art Basel three years ago. With creaking floors and carpet offcuts, it was a cheap and cheerful version of the main event. The organisers must have been pleased with attendances, which were phenomenal, and with the fact that a Korean gallery allegedly sold a million dollars’ worth of work on the first day.

'Royal Pet' by Troy Emery gets a baffled reaction from some attendees.

‘Royal Pet’ by Troy Emery gets a baffled reaction from some attendees.

Art Central featured five more Australian galleries: Martin Browne Contemporary, Chalk Horse, Conny Dietzschold, .M Contemporary and Metro Gallery. One might even include Aussies such as Rebecca Hossack, who is based in London, and Brian Wallace’s Red Gate Gallery of Beijing. Sales were healthy, but everyone seemed to be fighting a running battle to keep children from handling the paintings and sculptures. It could be interpreted as a promising display of enthusiasm by the Hong Kong art buyers of the future.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
15-18 March.

Art Central
Central Harbourfront, Hong Kong
14-16 March

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 21st March, 2015