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Art Basel 2015

Hong Kong's artists can't just ride on Art Basel's coat-tails

Hong Kong should set up its own schedule on the art fair calendar instead of riding on Art Basel, writes John Batten

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 March, 2015, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 March, 2015, 1:14pm

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order," says Alexie Glass-Kantor, a curator with Art Basel Hong Kong, quoting French director Jean-Luc Godard. Art fairs are the art world's supermarkets, and despite a utilitarian approach, their dalliance with luxury, money and ego can distort the purity or intention of much of the exhibited art. But, Godard reminds us, nothing is necessarily straightforward and conventional - even art fairs.

There was something for everyone in the recent week of fairs and art events spread across Hong Kong. The cynical found time to bemoan the offerings, but within the art market's wheels of frantic activity any art lover could find pockets of enjoyment. It's somewhere in the middle that it gets hazy: the market does not necessarily filter the best art to the "top" and, in a marketing fog of accolades, much can be confusing, mediocre or banal.

Art Basel's Encounters section, curated by Glass-Kantor, exhibited large installations selected from proposals by participating galleries. Strategically located at the fair's meridian points and as a "city within a city" inside the fair, these pieces were visually stronger than 2014's, but many of the works relied on sheer size for impact.

The best included American Carlos Rolón's Around the Way (2013), an installation that draws on vernacular responses to middle-class aspirations and decoration. Rolón's oversized chandelier, tiles, boom box and golden objects have been re-imagined from the artist's Chicago-Puerto Rican childhood home. Ironically, it reflects the self-same art fair allusions of luxury.

Similarly, the bloated, hybrid animals of Yang Maoyuan's THEY are coming to Hong Kong (2014) display the artist's view of luxury consumerism. And, like the thrill to "buy, buy, buy", these grotesque animals are seductively attractive and abhorrent. Taking a selfie is now part of the consumerist package of grabbing luxury by association.

Understandably, this year even more luxury brand marketing sidled alongside Art Basel, piggybacking on the fair's timing and image. The Peninsula sponsored British artist Richard Wilson's bus sculpture Hang on a Minute Lads… I've Got a Great Idea (using the film The Italian Job as inspiration), which hangs over the hotel's façade until April 8. (Social media immediately saw a visual similarity with the bus involved in the 2010 Manila hostage crisis and some described the installation as "insensitive"; it is a reminder that artistic imagery has uncontrolled associations.)

Elsewhere, Art Central took the overflow of galleries wishing to exhibit at a fair in Hong Kong. Local artist Vivian Poon's installation of abstract notebook pages at the Mur Nomade booth was a rare exhibition-quality display.

Such art events would be better spread throughout the year, instead of everything being held during the same period. This will add to Hong Kong's art diversity and continue to allow marketing opportunities for sponsors. In an overloaded art week, any marketing message is diluted.

While the energy created by these fairs is positive for this city, the onus is on Hong Kong artists and organisations to conscientiously assert stronger identities, not just linger on Art Basel's coat-tails to build an audience.

The Fotan Open Studios, successfully held yearly in January, changed dates to coincide with this year's Art Basel. Not only have they lost their previous strong identity, they now compete with similar open days in Wong Chuk Hang, Chai Wan, Wan Chai and a slew of other art activities.

The West Kowloon Cultural District's museum M+, in contrast, got its timing right. M+ needs to build a public audience during the construction of its museum and network with the art world, so timing its own events with Art Basel makes sense. Its "Moving Images" exhibitions of films and artist videos from around the world runs in Causeway Bay and at The Cattle Depot in To Kwa Wan until April 26.

This inaugural exhibition unveils the genesis of the museum's new film collection - and is potentially groundbreaking as it augments the work of the Hong Kong Film Archive, and reinforces our city's major contribution to cinema innovation and popularity. There are few equivalent art film and artist video collections in Asia.

On show is French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's Central (2001), which captures a narrative appropriately played out in Hong Kong, a crossroads for refugees, boat-jumpers and hopes: a man waits on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront to meet his brother for the first time in six months, and whom he may never see again.

As the narrator gives a poignant soliloquy, discussing friendship and relationships, the camera scans other people, whose own lives loiter on the harbour promenade.

Also showing is Hong Kong-born Paul Chan, who has built an exemplary art career in New York. His 2nd Light (2005) is in a series of seven digital animation films using his usual combination of light and shadow to depict an unnerving tension between quiet good and dark evil.

M+ is Hong Kong's first outward-looking art institution, and has quickly asserted its presence with equivalent institutions around the world and is a known buyer of contemporary art. Art people want to meet the M+ curators.

Also on view in "Moving Images" is influential South African artist William Kentridge's Felix in Exile (1994). Kentridge has a travelling exhibition touring Asia next year. Hong Kong may not see the exhibition because of the tour's timing and because M+ doesn't have its own venue yet.

The highlights in the gallery booths from Asia at Art Basel included Mark Justiniani (The Drawing Room), Trevor Yeung (Blindspot Gallery), Samson Young (am space), Jon Campbell (Darren Knight Gallery), Lui Chun-kwong (Gallery Exit), Sarah Lai Cheuk-wah (Para Site installation), Saira Wasim (Gandhara-Art), Bagus Pandega (ROH Projects), Nilo Ilarde (Artinformal), Myeongbeom Kim (Gallery IHN), Hajra Waheed (Experimenter), and Poklong Anading (1335 Mabini).

Art fairs will continue to be popular, but a healthy arts scene needs diversity and a balance between serious, non-commercial venues of museums, contemporary art spaces and, along the exhibition spectrum, artist-run spaces. All these spaces offer a purer place for art, ostensibly outside the art market. More importantly, they can be experimental, controversial and unsettling places for viewers, and offer time for contemplation of aesthetic beauty.

It is this balance that Hong Kong lacks - our city's art agenda should not be perceived to be set by art fairs or the seasonal art auctions. We have an active art market, but few alternative art spaces and no artist-run spaces to give a more critical and independent art commentary.

Hong Kong's art scene is evolving, but still needs a diversity of art exhibitions, events and venues throughout the year.

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