Mainland artist Ai Weiwei's detention may have grabbed international attention but his sole work on display at the Hong Kong International Art Fair, which ended yesterday, was easy to miss, nonchalantly displayed on a coffee table in the Swiss Galerie Urs Meile booth.
Marble Arm is a small sculpture based on photographs of Ai giving 'the finger' gesture while standing outside the world's centres of government power, including Tiananmen Square. But this unambiguous gesture was overshadowed by the forces of art market commerce; ironically encapsulated on the fair's branded tote bag: You Want It/You Need It/You Buy It/You Forget It.
ART HK has evolved into the region's biggest art fair after a quiet start in 2008. Hong Kong's central location, free-port status, good logistics and synergy with auction houses has helped it trump other Asian art markets.
The sprawling main gallery section of ART HK 11 showed the fruit of the art fair's four-year brand building efforts. Its success is measured by attracting the participation of blue-chip galleries, among which were the Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Acquavella and Gagosian galleries. The fair has focused to overtly and efficiently serve the needs of galleries and buying collectors: if buyers come, galleries return. But, like a well-run and pragmatic trade fair, this year's event had few highs or lows. This is not necessarily a negative - an art fair is not a museum and its educative functions are limited. Unfortunately, Hong Kong has few chances to see great contemporary works; this yearly art fair is one but its commercial setting reduces great art to be viewed as a commodity.
The fair was divided into two sections this year: Asian and emerging galleries and their artists were separated from the huge main display area devoted to 168 established galleries. But it was the emerging art section that provided relief from the homogenous feel of the established players. Highlights included American Jason d'Aquino's minutely fine drawings on matchboxes at Luxembourg's Zidoun Gallery and the 'intelligently served' tea installation by Indonesian artist Syagini Ratna Wulan at Jakarta's vivi yip art room.
Of the established galleries, Hanart TZ Gallery's show of Luis Chan paintings was excellent and Lisson Gallery's display of Anish Kapoor's Untitled 2011 of a faceted stainless steel sculpture was stunning.
The fair's management has stressed that the art world is looking to the 'East' to energise global art sales, believing that with the mainland's rising economic power, Chinese collectors will soon be major collectors of Western contemporary art. Buying patterns at the fair seem to belie this theory. According to The Pace Gallery in Beijing, Chinese collectors usually only buy Chinese art.
Intriguingly, there was little top-line contemporary Chinese art: works by Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi and auction favourite Yue Minjun were thin on the ground.
Some of the fair's best art were the mixed-media sculptural installations by an international line-up of artists, including Angki Purbandono, Asim Waqif and Peter Robinson. But the most impressive pieces were Liu Wei's Don't Touch - a re-construction in ox-hides of the Potala Palace in Lhasa - and Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas' Marine Lover-A Hermatypic Romance, an underwater coral landscape bathed in ultraviolet light.
These extra art installation displays have been a feature since the fair's debut and, alongside the promotion of Hong Kong itself and the opportunity for non-profit local art institutions to freely participate, ART HK and its Britain-based organisers have built an impressive business. They have profited handsomely by selling a majority stake to the owners of Art Basel, who will be in charge next time in early February.