Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

March 31, 2016
Wang Huaiqing, 'Chinese Emperor 6', 2015, Tina Keng Gallery
Wang Huaiqing, 'Chinese Emperor 6', 2015, Tina Keng Gallery

“I hope you enjoy it,” said Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, making his usual attempt to convince a cynical group of journalists that Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 was all about art, not money. “Well it seems to get a little better every year,” I replied with cautious optimism.

“Oh, I think you’ll find it’s more than a little better this year,” the Swiss mogul shot back.

Although no entrepreneur will ever talk down the merits of a show on opening night, I’m obliged to admit Herr Spiegler was right. This year’s art fair was a big step forward – not just in terms of the quality of the art but in the presentation, which featured improved lighting, new display panels and an expansive design that made each booth feel less booth-like.

One significant innovation was that the international mega-galleries such as Gagosian, White Cube and David Zwirner, were placed in the centre rows of the show’s upper and lower floors, embedded among the ranks of the aspirationals. This tended to disguise the financial chasm that separates big and small exhibitors, although in reality it gets more unbridgeable every year.

Regardless of the state of the stock market or the broader economy, the ranks of the seriously rich keep expanding. According to Forbes the world has 1,810 acknowledged billionaires, and countless others worth hundreds of millions. Many of them are embarking on careers as collectors – high-end art being an area in which it is possible to dispose of unlimited amounts of cash.

At one of the fair’s innumerable press conferences a representative of major sponsor, UBS, told how many of his clients are now interested in art as an “asset class”. Marc Spiegler hastened to suggest that a true collector buys only what he loves, not what is identified as an asset. But while it may be true that the most valuable collections have been assembled for love not money, the growing round of global art fairs is vitally dependent on buyers who recognise art as both status symbol and sound investment.

The Art Basel group, which believes in never resting on it’s laurels, has introduced a new initiative called Art Basel Cities, by which they hope to foster a range of art projects in cities all over the world. But despite an impressive board of directors and a grand launch, there was no hard data about either cities or projects – which left everyone slightly bamboozled.

The most basic truth of Art Basel Hong Kong is that it is a great place to take stock of the way the art market is evolving. The major galleries are now multinational corporations with impressive in-house publication departments. Many of them are putting together historical exhibitions that would be the envy of public museums.

Painting and sculpture still dominate the art fairs but collectors are increasingly willing to buy video works and performance documentation. This year, a special program curated by Li Zhenhua, brought together 70 artist films, both large and small. It seems that any artist who wishes to make a splash on the world stage must now create their own films or be the subject of a documentary.

The Fair’s new spaciousness did not mean fewer exhibitors. The final tally of 239 galleries was slightly higher than last year, although there had been a small trim in the Encounters section, which featured large-scale installations selected by Sydney curator, Alexie Glass-Kantor. The number was down from 21 to 16 on the grounds of quality rather than quantity. Any supposed improvement was a matter of personal taste, but Encounters continued to be one of the most popular components of the fair.

It would be hard for anyone to overlook Yellow Structure by New Zealand artist, Richard Maloy – a gargantuan rock made out of cardboard, painted a vivid canary yellow. Hardly less dominant was the immersive installation, Metallics & Modules by American artist, Pae White, which consisted of a series of environments woven from shiny metallic thread. Another exhibitor in Encounters, Brook Andrew, was the first Australian indigenous artist to appear in this event. His Building (Eating) Empire used large-scale historical photos of figures suspended in space like a Calder mobile.

The problematic relationship between art and money provided the topic for this year’s Intelligence Squared debate: “Art Today Has Sold Out To The Market”. I was on my way to the airport while it unfolded, but the motion was successfully defended. The majority of the audience agreed that art has sold out, although they did not rise up as one and storm the exhibition halls. The proposition was both self-evident and superfluous because many of today’s collectors are delighted to be shoppers rather than visionaries and idealists. They love the market even when they are being exploited by it.

The nexus of art and money was a topic that inspired some memorable diatribes from the late Robert Hughes, but today the market has inflitrated every part of the art scene. Even the most doggedly non-commericial artist may make a living exhibiting his or her work through a network of biennales, public and private museums and foundations.

Li Huasheng, '0669 (four panels)', 2006, Ink Studio

Li Huasheng, ’0669 (four panels)’, 2006, Ink Studio

However, one can’t view the market solely as a bad thing when there was a far greater quantity of exciting work to be seen at Art Basel Hong Kong than in the current Sydney Biennale. One may feel virtuous standing in front of a piece of dreary conceptual or political art in Sydney, but confronted with a massive four-panelled grid painting by Li Huasheng, at the booth of Beijing’s Ink Studio, the only option is astonishment. Besides, for a mere US$550,000 that work could be yours (although it really belongs in a museum).

There was a daunting amount of quality art on display, and business was brisk. David Zwirner sold five dark, disturbing figurative works by Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans for prices between US$250,000 and US$1.6 million. Conventional wisdom would have said Borremans wasn’t the kind of artist who would prove popular in Hong Kong, but then it’s not simply Chinese buyers who attend this fair.

One suspects it was the Chinese who made Taiwanese dealer, Tina Keng, a happy woman, allowing her the luxury of a sell-out by day 3. Keng’s two best sales were of paintings by Beijing artist, Wang Huaiqing – Chinese Emperor 5 & 6 (2015), which went for a combined total of US$ 3.3 million.

There was some joy for the Australians too. International dealer, Matthias Arndt, sold a painting by Kathryn Del Barton for a price in excess of US$60,000, while all of the Australian galleries were feeling positive – at least by day two. This year’s contingent included Darren Knight, Jensen, Roslyn Oxley9, Sullivan + Strumpf, This is No Fantasy + Diane Tanzer, and Tolarno.

Tolarno was celebrating sales within the first hour, but the two most eye-catching booths were both solo exhibitions: Darren Knight’s no-holds-barred display of complex works by Jess Johnson, which included the design of wallpaper and carpet; and a new series by indigenous photographer, Michael Cook, at Diane Tanzer’s space.

The kiwis were represented by Starkwhite, Michael Lett, Hopkinson Mossman, and once again, Andrew Jensen – who has galleries in Sydney and Auckland. Michael Lett stole the show with a display of oversized pairs of jeans by Campbell Patterson, apparently in tribute to a former girlfriend.

The over-sized jeans would have come in handy with the most shameless stunt of the fair – a large-scale photo of Kim Kardashian’s large-scale derrière, by Juergen Teller. Prominently displayed, it was the scene of many regrettable selfies.

Aside from a fleeting appearance by Leonardo DiCaprio, the visiting celebrity of this year’s fair seemed to be Britain’s Tracey Emin, who had dual shows of scribbles and stick figures at White Cube and Lehmann-Maupin in the city, and graced the art fair for an hour’s public conversation about herself. In her usual modest way, Tracey told us about her special talent, noted that her place in art history was already assured, and complained about the way her work was “interpretated” by some critics. At the end of the talk audience members said so many sycophantic things the great lady had to cry: “Enough adulation!”

Hear, hear! Enough is enough.

Art Basel Hong Kong
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
24-26 March

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 2nd April, 2016