Art Basel

A case of mistaken identity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


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This year's Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK) hosted 266 galleries from 38 countries, 67,000 visitors and - a downside of such globalised international events - a display of homogenous art that dominated over regional and local creativity. One Hong Kong artist described last week's event as a 'visual merry-go-round'.

International art fairs induce conformity, and Art HK is no exception; this will be reinforced when the fair is renamed Art Basel. The oddity of 'Asia's world city' hosting an art fair bearing the name of a Swiss city (population: 170,000) cannot be overstated. It is the sort of confused identity Hong Kong experienced as a 'British Crown Colony' until 1997.

The British founders of Art HK, Asian Art Fair, announced last year that they had sold a majority (60 per cent) shareholding to the MCH Group, owner of Art Basel.

The MCH Group organises, besides Art Basel, 95 worldwide trade exhibitions and fairs including Auto Basel and Baselworld (for the watch industry), attended by more than two million people. The majority owner (with about 40 per cent) of the publicly listed MCH Group is the city of Basel (Canton Basel-Stadt), and the city appoints five directors to MCH Group's board. Renaming next year's event will place it on par with the company's Art Basel edition in Miami in the US.

Hong Kong's art community, institutions and government have generously supported aspects of the current Art HK, most prominently through Home Affairs Bureau funding of the Asia Art Archive-organised 'Backroom Conversations', a series of roundtable discussions, talks and presentations by art professionals. With Art Basel's spreading umbrella, the fair's future sponsors will undoubtedly consider their branding concerns and maybe next year's events, including 'Conversations', should emphasise a stronger Hong Kong profile.

Over the past five commercially successful editions, Art HK has slowly weaned itself from the need to coincide with the seasonal auction house sales. Now attracting major galleries, international collectors, party-goers and art world players, Hong Kong's liberal tax and business environment has allowed the fair to grow and independently become a magnet for visual art and commerce for five days every year. And Hong Kong galleries and art institutions (including the first dedicated exhibition by West Kowloon Cultural District's planned museum, M+) have astutely ridden on the coat tails of the art week to add necessary depth in presenting other visual art exhibitions around the city. However, the art fair's monetary success has rarely trickled down to Hong Kong's artists and non-participating galleries.

Art fairs are seldom places for intellectual enquiry and Hong Kong's only moment of such refinement was in the 2009 edition with Charles Merewether's curated 'Crossing the Persian Gulf' exhibition of six artists from Iran, Iraq and the UAE. Since then, the fair has provided project space for galleries or sponsors to mount an individual artwork by one artist.

This year's showing was generally decorative with banal pieces from Yayoi Kusama, Daniel Buren and Choi Jeong-hwa, whose large kinetic red lotus was particularly annoying. Brazilian Jose Patr?cio and his delicate use of domino pieces covering the floor and Michael Joo's contrasting pair of painted pink and bronze horses were particularly strong. A favourite among visitors was Shen Shaomin's I Sleep on Top of Myself, a frighteningly life-like series of life-size silicon sculptures of rats, chickens and pigs sleeping peacefully as entranced visitors watched their mechanical heart beats and breathing.

In previous years there was a spontaneous push by some galleries to present a 'name' artist at the fair, governed by trends and prevailing prices. These artists have included Julian Opie, Gerhard Richter, Candida Hofer, Anish Kapoor, Bill Viola, Damien Hirst and last year's William Kentridge; all were represented again this year but not in volume, and no single artist appeared to dominate the booths of blue-chip galleries. The emergence this year of documentary photography featuring the stellar Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic might see a future trend.

The fair offered its usual dizzy array of art and the best could often be found in smaller galleries and the competition section, Art Futures. Guo Hongwei's Painting is Collecting at Chambers Fine Art finely replicates the botanical and ornithological collections of museums by careful renditions in watercolour on paper. The random spontaneity of the washes gives a conceptual literati edge.

The fair generally had a paucity of photography, but the tableaux photographs of Jiang Pengyi at Hong Kong's Blindspot Gallery, and Guy Tillim's lush mountains and tropical landscape photographs at South Africa's Stevenson were excellent. Tomoko Yoneda's Heat series of black and white photographs at ShugoArts were carefully crafted and placed in a booth that displayed an overall strong selection.

Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul's A Tale of Two Cities paintings, video and installation was of museum-quality. This display was intended to be in the fair's project spaces on large bamboo scaffolding and comprising large banners; however the presentation was restricted by the fair's tight set-up schedule. The result is not much affected: the video of interviews with Chiang Mai and Hong Kong street hawkers and market vendors was a fascinating contrast of two cities.

Likewise, the considered allusion of Tibetan mysticism in Kara Tanaka's Bent-light Night at New York's Simon Preston Gallery, using scraped and dressed cowhides to form religious mandalas and long Tibetan horns, was a beautifully considered installation that discreetly hovered between secular abstraction and conceptual installation to religious contemplation.

Hong Kong artist Kum Chi-keung's oversized bamboo birdcage at Galerie Ora-Ora was a wonderful absurdist sculpture that didn't have its intended physical presence because it was hemmed in within a tight booth. Christian Schmuck's Rear Window paintings on intentionally damaged aluminium panels at Weingr?ll were beautifully painterly. Likewise, Takahiro Iwasaki's Geo Eye (Victoria Peak) at Arataniurano is a craftsman's bird's-eye view of a colonial Hong Kong carved out of grey packing tape.

Automaker BMW's overtly promotional stand in the middle of the fair summed up the week's commercial rationale: displaying one of their cars painted by Andy Warhol, his words were prominently displayed: 'I love that car. It has turned out better than the artwork.'