Art Basel Hong Kong showed film and fine art coming together

Art Basel in Hong Kong showed that the boundaries of film and fine art are blurring. And it's a trend we can expect to see more of, writes Mathew Scott

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 9:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 10:48am

Ran Huang admits he wasn't really sure how to face the bright lights on the red carpet at the Cannes International Film Festival earlier this year.

For the 31-year-old - who was raised in the relative peace, quiet and anonymity of Xichang, Sichuan - the prestigious film event seemed a whole world away as he found himself surrounded by the likes of Nicole Kidman and John Travolta.

But while Huang felt out of his element, he certainly wasn't out of place as his The Administration of Glory competed for Cannes' Palme d'Or award for short films.

Sculpture, video or photography - the medium is an avenue for the concept
Ying Yue Li, simon lee gallery

An artist who has a growing reputation for his work across varied media, Huang's measured approach captured the attention of critics in Cannes and provided an example of how traditional borders between what we know as "cinema" and what we call "art" are increasingly being blurred.

Artists who use film as part of their creative efforts are finding a wider audience for their work.

This was highlighted at this year's Art Basel in Hong Kong, which hosted a film section for the first time, and by an expansion of the very "visual" nature of works represented globally by galleries.

"The language of film is very attractive to me, in how it draws people in and their desire to seek comprehension in a conjured reality," says Huang.

"It deals with belief, the suspension of disbelief and plays with the fact of image and the meaning of image as well as the potential to achieve something without seeming to do it."

British video artist/ filmmaker Steve McQueen provided a shining example of just how far an artist's reach can go with film when his 12 Years a Slave won this year's best picture Oscar.

Like Huang's film, McQueen's earlier works played with more experimental aspects of film - in terms of both narrative and technology - and gave him a grounding that he has expanded to reach deep into the mainstream.

Huang says he was drawn to using film due to the possibilities offered by the medium. In The Administration of Glory, the artist plays with the narrative structure as he weaves five stories together in what he calls an exploration of "deception, theft and violations both sacred and mundane".

"My practice is very concept-driven, the organisation and genesis comes from an internal, creative process that doesn't imagine or involve a target audience," says Huang.

"But the completion of a work includes the recognition and affirmation by an audience. The themes that interest me are ultimately universal and it was very exciting to have the opportunity at Cannes to reach a wider audience."

Ran's film also screened at Art Basel in Hong Kong in May this year, alongside films put together by the likes of local cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The event's film section featured 49 films by 41 artists and covered six themes. Its curator, Zurich- and Beijing-based artist Li Zhenhua, was noncommittal when it came to predicting how much film and art were crossing over:

"I don't want to project things," he said. "I will wait to see the natural reaction. I'm not one to lead the public."

But others were quick to highlight the trend. As director of Hong Kong's M+ museum project, Lars Nittve is keeping a close watch on the movement. "The relationship between what they call art, video art and, of course, film is mixing and blending, so it is interesting to watch this cool phenomenon," he told reporters. "It reflects very much what we are going to do in M+, which is focus on what we call 'moving images'."

Ying Yue Li, manager at Hong Kong's Simon Lee Gallery, which represents Ran, agrees. "There has been an increasing interest in new media, post-net artists," says Ying.

"Since the explosion of post modernism and the diversity of practice, we see individual artists defining themselves using various techniques. Ultimately, whether it is painting, sculpture, video or photography, the medium is an avenue for the concept."

There has of course long been a history of artists crossing over to film - think Andy Warhol and his often torturous experimental excursions such as Blow Job (1964). But the medium is fast expanding thanks to technical advances, such as smartphones bringing filmmaking capabilities out into the general community.

Along with Huang's work, Li points to Cheng Ran, another young Chinese artist who dabbles in video and photography, as well as international artist/filmmakers at the forefront of the trend.

"The work asserts the latent possibilities of drama, emphasising the alchemical properties of cinema," says Li. "German multimedia artist Christian Jankowski's practice challenges conventional notions of media and performance; his films are full of critical wit, conceptual twists and self-reflexive humour.

"Technical innovation over the past few years has reconfigured conditions for production and distribution of art, and we've seen the permeation of portable devices on which dramatically higher levels of visual information are at hand.

"Information travels much quicker because of e-mail and electronic media, but there is still no substitute for direct engagement with a work of art and experiencing it at first hand, rather than via a mediated image," says Li.

Drop into Opera Gallery in Central and you can see an example of how the medium is evolving. One of the first things that greets you will be Small Man in a Big World - Family TV 2.0, an argentic print by French photographer Gérard Rancinan that's mounted on plexiglass and features tiny video screens where the characters' heads should be, with footage playing on them in a constant loop.

The gallery's director Shirley Yablonsky agrees that art's digital horizons are expanding.

"There is definitely a growing interest for digital artworks - electricity based, remote controlled elements are no longer intimidating aspects for collectors," she says.

"Most likely as a result of the digital world, motion-based art has become a more acceptable and usable medium among artists as well."

The Edouard Malingue Gallery has been working with Beijing-based artist Sun Xun, with his current show at the gallery featuring the stop-motion animation piece Brave New World, its title inspired by Aldous Huxley's novel.

"There is a growing interest in conceptual art, video works and installations," says Lorraine Malingue.

"The younger generation is more open-minded to different forms of art. Interpretations as to what is art have been extensively broadened."

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Simon Lee Gallery represents Cheng Ran and Christian Jankowski.