Art Basel Hong Kong 2018

April 6, 2018
Jeff Koons gives Hong Kong the bird, at Zwirner's

“Oh my God, is that Wolfgang Tillmans? I just saw Jeff Koons! Look! It’s Olafur Eliasson!” In what Art Basel Hong Kong quaintly refers to as its “6th Edition”, the mania for celebrity-spotting reached new heights. I wish I could say these artists are idolised because of the superb quality of their work, but – alas – they are like most celebrities: famous for being famous. Try as I might, I can’t get excited about a stick figure drawn by Tracey Emin, an apparently random snapshot by Wolfgang Tillmans, or a parody of Picasso by George Condo, but such productions could be seen all over the fair.

Like something from a science fiction film, when an artist-celebrity has been radiated by international capital he or she ceases being homo sapiens and mutates into a brand. Collectors are hoovering up their works just to be able to say they have one, like a designer watch or handbag.

None of this should come as a revelation. Art’s star system has been growing for years under the care of an amoral, high-end market dedicated to separating people from excessive wealth. Nowadays there’s no doubt that the favourite haunts of the big-time collectors are the three international fairs operated by the Art Basel group in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami Beach.

The rising expense of taking a booth at Art Basel Hong Kong rules out most Australian galleries. One dealer estimated that the costs of participation, including staff wages, accommodation, freight, and a modest entertainment allowance, would leave little change from $200,000.

De Kooning's 'Untitled XII' (1975), sold for US $35 million

De Kooning’s ‘Untitled XII’ (1975), sold for US $35 million

For the big-name galleries this is a negligible sum. On the first preview day, Lévy Gorvy Gallery of New York announced it had sold a painting by Willem de Kooning for US$35 million – allegedly a new record for HKAB, although many dealers are unwilling to disclose sales or prices. The top dealers sold numerous works for figures in excess of $1 million, with $500-700,000 price tags being commonplace.

Lisson Gallery of London were offloading Anish Kapoor wall pieces for £725,000 each. Cartoonish paintings by Yoshitomo Nara were being snapped up for US$750,000 at several different galleries. €2 million might buy you a Lucio Fontana or a late De Chirico. For US$2 million you could acquire a canvas by George Condo.

The only Australians to brave the money storm were Roslyn Oxley9, Sullivan + Strumpf, Fox/Jensen, and This Is No Fantasy + dianne tanzer gallery. None of them were selling works with million dollar pricetags although business was generally brisk. In previous years there have been as many as eight or nine Australian galleries, but it was always to be expected that the Aussies would be squeezed out by escalating costs and the relatively low prices of local art.

By way of compensation there has been a steady inflitration of Australian artists into the overseas galleries. Michael Zavros was showing with Starkwhite of New Zealand; Noel McKenna with Irish gallery, Mothers Tankstation; Abdul Abdullah with Yavuz of Singapore; Ricky Swallow with David Kordansky of Los Angeles. Cressida Campbell was represented by both CFA of Berlin, and Australian expatriate, Simon Lee, based in London.

Abdul Abdullah was one of the Aussies showing in an OS gallery

Abdul Abdullah was one of the Aussies showing in an OS gallery

Alexie Glass-Kantor of Sydney’s Artspace, who has been putting together the Encounters section of large installations for the past four years, managed to sneak two Australian entries into this year’s display: the giant-sized ceramic sculptures of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, shown earlier this year at the Dhaka Art Summit; and a small forest of poles from Yirrkala artist, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu.

There was more Australian participation in the alternative fair, Art Central, which included displays from Art Atrium, Chalk Horse, Hill Smith Gallery and MARS Gallery. With a more spacious layout than in previous years, and a smaller percentage of trash, this was the best Art Central has ever looked. It may have felt low-key alongside HKAB, (which is itself reputedly less frenzied than the Basel and Miami Beach fairs), but this was probably a plus for collectors with limited resources.

The relentless inflation of the Hong Kong art scene was given another boost by the opening of H Queen’s, a new multi-storey building filled with leading commercial galleries, including David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth (two floors each), Pace, Pearl Lam, Whitestone, Seoul Auctions, Tang Contemporary Art, and local dealer, Ora-Ora – taking a huge step up from a tiny gallery off Hollywood Road to new premises on the 17th floor of H Queen’s.

H Queen's. 17 Floors of expensive new HK real estate, devoted to art

H Queen’s. 17 Floors of expensive new HK real estate, devoted to art

Stepping into the Tang space one was confronted with yet another version of Ai Weiwei’s black rubber life raft, which has become the centrepiece of this year’s Sydney Biennale. The most crowded venue on an impossibly crowded opening night seemed to be Zwirner, which was showing photos by Wolfgang Tillmans, arguably the most over-hyped artist in the world.

Down on Connaught Road, White Cube had a smallish show of new cast-iron sculptures by Antony Gormley, which a paid explainer compared to calligraphy, pixellated images and Caravaggio. When the artist turned up and launched into a philosophical dissertation one could almost hear bodies dropping on the floor. This was still a vast improvement on Galerie Perrotin upstairs, which showed the unspeakably shallow coloured doodles and plastic figurines of American neo-Pop artist, KAWS.

KAWS, who makes Yoshitomo Nara look like Albrecht Dürer, is an artist for people who know nothing about art. It seems there are now enough of these, with large enough incomes, to convince a major gallery to show work that is nothing more than colourful junk.

Colin McCahon's 'Urewera Triptych' at Gow Langsford's booth.

Colin McCahon’s ‘Urewera Triptych’ at Gow Langsford’s booth.

By contrast there were still pockets of HKAB that concentrated on quality over fashionability. Gow Langsford of Auckland took the brave step of devoting an entire booth to the work of New Zealand’s ledendary artist, Colin McCahon. Marlborough Fine Art had a show of Frank Auerbach, while reliable dealers such as Tornabuoni and Luxembourg & Dayan had their usual strong displays of European modern masters. 10 Chancery Lane of Hong Kong had local hero Frog King Kwok in residence, producing calligraphic works by the armload.

Frog King Kwok, king of clutter

Frog King Kwok, king of clutter

I confess I’m barely scraping the surface of a riotous week in Hong Kong in which art fairs, commercial galleries and auction houses competed for the attention of the super-rich, the nouveau riche, and the aspirationals. As ever it’s the Asian character of HKAB that makes it different over other fairs, even if the wealthy buyers from mainland China are allegedly being discouraged by renewed government scrutiny.

One aspect of this orgy of commerce that may soon require some attention is the ever-growing gulf between the top international galleries and the smaller dealers. The latter, who can barely afford to take part, console themselves for their (inevitable) losses by saying they made some great contacts. If they opt out, they risk losing artists to other galleries that offer this kind of exposure.

As the mid-range galleries fall away the variety and interest of the fair will suffer, as even the current crop of new collectors will eventually get tired of the same diet of expensive trophy artists and look to broaden their horizons. After all, the phrase ‘art appreciation’ doesn’t refer only to rising prices, it also suggests a gradual growth of taste and discernment. It’s great to be rich, but so much better to be rich and smart.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2018,
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
29-31 March, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April, 2018