Art Basel 2015
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Art Basel 2015

Art Basel gives welcome exposure to Wong Chuk Hang artists

South Island Art Night sees galleries, studios and artists throw open their doors and stage a rooftop party

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 6:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 9:01pm

As with the weekend's Chai Wan Mei arts festival, studios, galleries and resident artists in another part of Hong Kong Island - centred on Wong Chuk Hang in Southern district - opened their doors to the public to coincide with the Art Basel Hong Kong fair.

Presented by the South Island Cultural District, a collective of over 20 galleries and studios in the industrial districts of Wong Chuk Hang, Tin Wan and Ap Lei Chau, the South Island Art Night included a very popular rooftop party co-organised by Blindspot Gallery and Clockenflap.

At one end of the Wong Chuk Hang arts community, Meg Maggio counted around 300 visitors to her gallery on Sunday when the five-hour event was held.

“Ninety per cent of the visitors are local,” said Maggie, the director of Pékin Fine Arts. “Wong Chuk Hang is very close to Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, and [local] people feel very comfortable coming here. And we have the mainland [Chinese] visitors: all we have to say to them is that this is next to Ocean Park.”

Apart from offering people the opportunity to visit a broad range of art spaces over a single evening, the event has brought art professionals in the area together, Maggio believes. 

What set the South Island Art Night apart from other gallery openings was, in Maggio’s opinion, the relative lack of alcohol involved. “I like this because it’s not a pub crawl,” she says. “It’s less boozy; it’s more about the art. People come because they’d like to look at art. In Wong Chuk Hang, there’s not much to look at on the street.”

She's not exaggerating. A few of the participating studios in Wong Chuk Hang were hard to find, and  galleries in Tin Wan and Ap Lei Chau saw relatively few visitors  – we spotted only two or three when we toured those areas at 6pm on Sunday, with a couple of overseas collectors explaining that they had come by taxi because they couldn’t locate the shuttle buses taking visitors from the Art Basel venue, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. 

Although the majority of stops on the map provided by the South Island Art Night organisers appeared to be along Wong Chuk Hang Road, most required visitors to enter the buildings through garages at the rear because the front doors are closed on Sunday nights.

One place we couldn’t possibly miss, though, was the ADC Artspace, the only institution to have a disproportionately bright and glossy entrance on Wong Chuk Hang Road.

The premises, which occupy the entire 12th floor of one building and are provided by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, include 12 studios for artists, illustrators and photographers. There were many decorative paintings around the floor, and turnout there was good – despite the feeling we were visiting a university student hall. “Nobody’s going to start a bonfire in the hallway,” artist Kurt Tong assured me. “This space seems a little bit more formal [than other open studios in Hong Kong].”

Tong has been sharing a working space with fellow artists David Boyce and Joshua W. F. Thomson for almost three years, and their current studio represents a major upgrade in terms of presentability: their previous space was shared with a group of dancers, which made any visit difficult. The South Island Art Night is the trio’s first open studio experience in Hong Kong.

“This is a good working environment – it’s clean, it’s new and the floor is level,” said Boyce of the current space. “We’ve had an interesting crowd of both local and overseas people tonight. It’s a nice range of different sorts of people coming through.”

When it comes to welcoming visitors to the area, there are probably few rivals to Spring Workshop, which one gallerist described as “the anchor tenant of the area”. The non-profit space’s increasing popularity bodes well for the Wong Chuk Hang district as a whole.

“We’ve had over 600 people so far, and that’s just this evening,” Mimi Brown told me a few minutes before the art night ended. The founder of Spring Workshop received hourly updates by phone of visitor figures from her staff. “It’s such a big difference to when we had [the exhibition of] Yang Fudong’s [video installation The Fifth Night] three years ago, when we didn’t have that number of people [over] the whole month of the show,” she said.

Compared to Spring Workshop's usual exhibition openings, Brown sees various advantages to a special occasion like the South Island Art Night. “Tonight, the benefit is the number of new audience members who have the opportunity to discover a new neighbourhood with their friends. It’s much more casual,” she said.

“On the other nights when we have just a Spring talk – let’s say, by [the Singaporean artist] Ming Wong – it’s more for people who’re specifically interested in Ming. The benefit of those nights is you have people who have a unique interest in what the artist is doing. So those are also beautiful nights – with fewer but more specialised people.”

Asked about the demographics of the visitors on Sunday, Brown said her impression was that, compared to last year’s Art Basel event, there had been a much larger proportion of locals.

“I think the benefit of having Chai Wan Mei or South Island Art Night is that people feel like there are multiple options – so you’re not just going to see one thing,” she says. “I do think that’s helping the branding.”

With the upcoming completion of the MTR’s South Island Line (East), the status of Wong Chuk Hang as an art destination is no doubt going to receive a major boost. For now, however, both artists and galleries are enjoying their last months of tranquillity, as reflected by the subdued atmosphere in more than a few venues we visited.

“We all realise when the MTR opens, everything is going to change,” said Maggio. “But now it’s very quiet. It’s like a little village where everyone – the artists, architects, writers, filmmakers and clothes designers – is just quietly working in a nice way.”