Hong Kong's art scene is growing better all the time and Art Basel is just part of it

Art Basel Hong Kong's success is another sign that our city is becoming the regional hub that the arts community has been working towards, writes John Batten

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 2:00pm

It's a tired cliché constantly heard but, yes, Hong Kong's art scene is stronger "than before". There's now a wider variety of commercial art galleries and Art Basel's choice for its Asian outpost has made the city a destination for international collectors, curators and art personalities.

However, there are still few domestic collectors dedicated to contemporary art, and there is a dearth of continuing and provocative museum exhibitions charting the contemporary art world. That's notwithstanding the anticipated opening in 2017 of M+, the planned museum of visual culture at the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Within two years of its inception the art fair has become a magnetic juggernaut attracting international galleries and visitors

In the past 18 months, though, we have seen further instances of Hong Kong entering the mainstream art world. The groundbreaking "Inflation!" exhibition of inflatable sculpture organised by M+ in early 2013 was the type of curator-led display that can jolt a city. According to Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, the bravado of including Paul McCarthy's Complex Pile (depicting a large pile of inflated excrement) focused the city in an uncomfortable but productive discussion about contemporary art. The discussion was enriched by the counterpointed appearance in the harbour of a cute rubber duck whose happy but frivolous presence promoted a nearby shopping centre.

The showcase of contemporary art from around the world in Hong Kong at Art Basel has coincided with M+ beginning its comprehensive art collection. The museum benefits from the city's exposure to and growing interest in international art and the impact of contemporary pieces such as Complex Pile, and its collection will be more varied and braver as a result. M+'s purchase during the fair - with help from an anonymous donor - of Antony Gormley's Asian Field, comprising 210,000 clay figures produced in Guangdong in 2003, is the sort of stellar work that will underpin M+ having an ambitious collection.

Two public art displays with differing intentions reinforce Hong Kong's acceptance of quirky contemporary art projects. Berlin-based new media artist Carsten Nicolai's "á (alpha) pulse" was sponsored by Art Basel to announce the fair's presence to the general public. Nicolai's light display pulsed on the façade of the International Commerce Centre sequenced to music downloaded from a mobile phone application. But in a city whose residents live with continual light pollution, this might have merged into the busy night skyline.

In contrast, the darkly lit vodka bar installation, "Apocalypse Postponed", by Nadim Abbas transformed the 17th floor of a new Causeway Bay commercial building into a post-apocalyptic sandbagged bunker staffed by white-faced zombies/waiters from a sci-fi novel. The installation and accompanying electronic music was Abbas' wish-list of invited artists, designers and friends (employed to assist) plus musicians, including a remarkable appearance by 1960s psychedelic electronic music pioneer Silver Apples, flown in from the US.

There were no free drinks at Art Basel Hong Kong's opening vernissage, but within two years of its inception the fair has become a magnetic juggernaut attracting international galleries and visitors.

Surfing on the coattails of Art Basel, galleries in Central, Sheung Wan, Wong Chuk Hang and Chai Wan organised longer opening hours, collector receptions and talks during the fair's duration. This call to action attempted to tap visitors who stepped outside the fair's tight confines. In contrast to the fair, drinks were flowing, but it looked like the attendees were out to party while serious art sales remained within the art fair boundary.

This year's fair again had its share of Fernando Botero fatties, Picasso, two wonderful paintings by Jean Dubuffet and all the current stars of international contemporary art. David Zwirner Gallery's latest abstract paintings of New York's supposed new wunderkind, Oscar Murillo, did not impress.

The "Discoveries" section of unknown artists presented by newish galleries was the most interesting for viewers. Australian Noel McKenna's naïf paintings of horses, cats and dogs at Mother's Tankstation sold out twice over. The beautiful geometric drawings and repressed violence videos of Pakistani artist Nadia Khawaja at Thomas Erben Gallery were fatalistic in their simplicity.

British artist James Capper was present in his dealer Hannah Barry's booth to operate his mobile sculptures. Capper's work resembles earth-moving machinery, fabricated by him with a practical, un-art like physical appearance. His machinery looked confidently functional, but wasn't. Capper operated his sculpture using a lever-control system and on command, it walked on its spiked mechanical legs making impractical indentations in the ground.

Viewers were fascinated to see such a machine operating in an art setting, but it was also eerie, with a "Robocop" menace.

Works using text was prominent. Jenny Holzer at Pearl Lam Galleries reprieved an LED installation from her Hong Kong solo exhibition. Galerie Hubert Winter of Vienna exhibited elaborate English-Chinese wall text works by conceptual pioneer Lawrence Wiener. But it was Singaporean artist Heman Chong's The Forer Effect at Wilkinson Gallery that seductively drew viewers into believing they were the ones being addressed by the artist's words.

And words flowed from 14 young writers of the CJC (Cultural Journalism Campus) Internship mentored by three veteran journalists based at the nearby Goethe-Institut. Each intern contributed to a daily arts newsletter distributed at the fair.

The Art Basel week is a momentary, bubbly, blip with an impossible number of events from which to choose to attend. But the week's overhang continues at the city's galleries.

Gu Wenda's exhibition at Hanart TZ Gallery complements his display at the fair, continuing his enquiry into making paper from the pulp of tea leaves. Blindspot Gallery's exhibition of Nadav Kander's photographs of nudes as white-powdered landscapes and views of the Yangtze River is exemplary. The Asia Society showcased Xu Bing while Ju Ming's sculptures were uplifting at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Despite relatively few museum exhibitions of contemporary art, Hong Kong's scene is much better - every week can be your art week.

John Batten is president of the International Association of Art Critics - Hong Kong