Just six years ago, Grotto Fine Art was the sole gallery regularly exhibiting works that were "made in Hong Kong". How that has changed. Although mainland art attracts more interest, Hong Kong artists have been receiving an unprecedented level of attention, due to a booming commercial art scene of auctions, fairs and galleries.
The inaugural edition of Art Basel - Hong Kong (formerly Art Hong Kong) featured solo showcases by Hong Kong artists including Halley Cheng, Hung Keung, Lam Tung-pang, Tang Kwok-hin and Stanley Wong Ping-pui (aka Anothermountainman).
Even the very first talk of the fair, held at the Asia Society's Hong Kong headquarters, focused on "home-grown talent", with artists Chow Chun-fai, Ho Sin-tung, Linda Lai Chiu-han and Adrian Wong discussing their practices.
More local art is on view at Hong Kong Eye, the Prudential-sponsored show running through May at ArtisTree in Quarry Bay. Featuring works in various media by 24 contemporary artists, the blockbuster exhibition was first staged at London's Saatchi Gallery last year. It offers an illuminating survey of the city's creative community.
The Hong Kong trend extends to auction houses. Last month, works by talented locals Kevin Fung Lik-yan, Tsang Chui-mei and Tsang Tsou-choi went under the hammer at Sotheby's spring auction, while China Guardian sold a collection of 20 ink paintings by masters including Luis Chan, Lui Shou-kwan and Wucius Wong, fetching a total of HK$5.9 million.
Hong Kong artists have never been celebrated with such enthusiasm before, not even during the 1997 handover or at its 10th anniversary in 2007. A keen observer and participant in the city's evolving art scene for three decades, Hanart TZ Gallery director Johnson Chang Tsong-zung says that galleries like Hanart and Alisan Fine Arts have "only occasionally" showed local artists in the past.
"All these commercial opportunities convey an important message - that art-making can be a sustainable career," he says.
But therein lies a paradox, says Chang, one of the three curators of the Hong Kong Eye exhibition. "In the art market, the higher the price of a work, the more successful the artist seems to be. But we don't use the same criteria to judge an artist culturally."
These days, many Hong Kong artists are collaborating with local and well-established, international galleries, even if they are not formally represented by them.
New York-based Lehmann Maupin Gallery, which opened a space in the Pedder Building two months ago, is mounting a group show about writing and language featuring Tsang Kin-wah and Tozer Pak Sheung-chuen, alongside major names such as Tracey Emin and Barbara Kruger.
Hong Kong artists also had a strong presence at Art Basel, says Magnus Renfrew, the show's Asia director. Renfrew has overseen previous editions under the Art Hong Kong banner since the fair began in 2008. So does the reincarnated event favour the group of artists whose works are comparatively marketable?
"One has to remember that an art fair is a platform for galleries. So that the art fair itself cannot be in its own right a platform for artists, or artworks. It's the galleries that are selected, not the individual artists," he says. "It's a competitive environment."
But as Renfrew sees it, the very best galleries do much more than sell work - they also promote the vision of their artists. "They often support biennales and triennales by paying for the production costs of a very ambitious project for an artist that would never otherwise be realised, because they are completely unsellable."
This view is shared by Mark Saunderson, director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show, a satellite fair at the JW Marriott Hotel that coincided with Art Basel - Hong Kong: "The role of galleries is to build artists and to help develop their careers."
Now in its second edition, the Asia Contemporary Art Show also presents an annual award, the Hong Kong Art Prize, to "recognise and spotlight the local art community", according to Saunderson. The prize is awarded by nine jurors from diverse arts backgrounds, and this year it went to 26-year-old Jims Lam Chi-hang's Beacon, Sheung Wan Hours - 01.05.
This painting, together with the 20 finalists and other selected entries, is on display and for sale at Wheelock Gallery in Queensway Plaza until June 2.
"The artistic community in Hong Kong is under-recognised," Saunderson says, "largely because Hong Kong has always been the window for mainland contemporary art."
Steep rentals in Hong Kong are another challenge for local artists who are new to the art market. "Galleries have to contend with the practical reality of paying the rent, so is every business, that's the reality," says Saunderson, who also sits on the board of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association and is one of the three owners of Fabrik Gallery in Wan Chai.
He says the city's high rents dictate the artists that the commercial galleries decide to carry. As a result, it's not surprising that some local talent - especially emerging artists jostling for a gallery contract - create work to meet market demands, says Hung Keung, an established video and media artist.
Hung, who is an assistant professor the Polytechnic University, feels that some items that have come on the art market in recent years that might be better described as eye-candy than art.
But he is grateful for the exposure that Art Hong Kong has given to artists like himself. Supported by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hung exhibited his award-winning interactive video installation Dao Gives Birth to One (version III) at the fair in 2010. That brought him new audiences from Hong Kong and abroad, as well as collaborations with Chanel and Hotel Icon.
"There is a grey area between the commercial and non-commercial art worlds," Hung says. Some clients buy art simply to decorate their homes, while others acquire the most "uncollectable" pieces because they reflect a certain epoch.
Renfrew agrees: "People often talk about the commercial and non-commercial sides of the art world as being completely separate, but the reality is that's a cultural ecology - everything is interrelated."
So art fairs, more than simply an occasion for the buying and selling of art objects, contribute to the art scene by providing an opportunity for artists, curators and collectors from around the world to converge and interact. This year's inaugural Art Basel - Hong Kong brought together 245 galleries from 35 countries.
"The most vibrant art scenes in history have been art scenes that have been welcoming of outside influences. It's not about navel-gazing," Renfrew says. "I think all the different elements of the cultural ecology are beginning to come together, though it's been commercially driven to start with."
The annual fair has served as a catalyst, spurring other art organisations to stage special presentations throughout May. Commercial galleries, and even non-profit groups such as Para/Site and 1a space, have been showcasing annual highlights.
But for Clara Cheung and her husband, Gum Cheng Yee-man, who make up grass roots art duo C&G Artpartment, these activities form only a small part of the city's art eco-system.
Cheung worries that the buzz around art markets will overshadow projects aimed at ordinary people, the exception being programmes initiated under M+, the contemporary art museum for the West Kowloon Cultural District.
"There are many artists in Hong Kong doing smaller-scale things in parallel," says Cheung, perhaps best known for her guerilla performances with Cheng at July 1 protests.
Buoyed by the success of art fairs, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah made it a goal during his budget speech for government to "promote the profile of local artists and bring their works to the attention of the art market".
This grand art environment tends to promote only "stars", Cheung says. Artists who stay away from institutional settings and the money game are inevitably rendered invisible.
Performance artists and art activists are under-represented, Cheung says: "Besides incorporating them into Art Basel or the global art system, are there other platforms for those artists to get seen?"
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