Hong Kong is back: a vibrant Art Basel week confirms it as a cultural capital
Mar 30, 2023
Last week in Hong Kong, the city’s art week was fully back, with a successful edition of Art Basel Hong Kong running between March 21-25. The occasion proved the city is as vibrant as ever, with +86,000 visitors crowding the aisles of the fair since the preview; among them were Hong King’s wealthy locals, fashionable millennials, influencers, and a good group of top collectors traveling from the region, coming from mainland China and Korea in the first place, but also South Asia and Japan.
Unanimous satisfaction for both the 180 exhibitors at Art Basel Hong Kong, and 70 at Art Central (this year, both hosted inside the convention center) reported multiple sales and sold out booths at different levels, increasing sophistication and diversification of the local taste. Tim Tang, a notable collector based in Manila and a great supporter of emerging artists has commented: “Hong Kong is making a statement. You can feel the energy of pre-covid HK. Top artworks from the fair, the galleries shows, museum shows and the non-stop dinners and parties. It’s just happening”.
Particularly interesting at Art Basel was the section “Discoveries”, featuring a series of new entries with highly curated solo presentations, including the audacious multimedia storytelling of Kenneth Tam presented by LA-based Commonwealth & Council, centered around the artist’s interest in unpacking ritualized constructions of belonging and identification in the Asian American experience, at the intersections of masculinity, race, and labor economics. Referencing Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers, Tam highlights the Asian community’s contribution to American history while addressing centuries of discriminatory practices and misrepresentation of the Asian male in media and cinema.
The central video, Silent Spikes (2021) is already in the Dallas Museum of Art, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art collections, and has been shown by multiple institutions including the Queens Museum, lCA Los Angeles, and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Completing the presentation there were two epoxy and resin large replicas of the coins once used between Asian American communities as tools of inside trade. To reinforce this claim for acknowledgment, the two sculptures interestingly incorporated all a series of natural elements introduced in the US just through Asia immigration, such as dried mushrooms and seaweed, preserved apricots, sunflower seeds, and dried roots.
Another Asian American artist on view in the Discoveries section worth checking in was Pauline Shaw, presented by another LA-based gallery, in lieu. Working on elaborate needle-felting techniques that combine hand-dyed wool with silk, bamboo, and viscose, Shaw’s abstract tapestries interestingly braid ancient Chinese mythology and decorative arts with science and the limits of the body. In this way, the work aims to inspire and suggests new ways to strengthen the fragility of diasporic narratives and the instabilities of identities. Then, characterized by a successful relation between content and form were the works by Chinese artist Alice Wang presented by Capsule Shanghai. Based on complex reflections of the subatomic structure of reality, a group of shining stainless sculptures reflecting lights stand in deep and enigmatic contrast with some other ultra-matte black stainless steel absorbing it. Engaging in a fascinating oscillation between material and imag/inary, virtual and physical, the artist’s presentation provided a glimpse into the alternative truth of the quantum realm, which ultimately escapes any human pretenses of scientific dominion.
Last but not least, Paris and Marseille-based Galerie Crèvecœur presented an immersive booth by artist Ad Minoliti, known for incorporating in a vibrant geometric abstraction powerful statements of queer identity. Approaching painting more as a dynamic and immersive visual set, Minoliti’s presentation at Art Basel freely revisits her imagery, confronting us with an idea of an unconventional childhood without any forms of control, such as time, age or gender, influencing the identity-making process.
Some great discoveries could also be found at Art Central, which has proved to be on its way to becoming a fair comparable to KIAF, Seoul, if not, in the long run, to Untitled, Miami, or Liste, Basel, favoring a curatorial approach that also brought 39 exhibitors from around the world. Among those, Guns & Rain, Johannesburg, presented not-easy-to-please but definitely intensely visceral works by Namibian artist Tuli Mekondjo. Imbued by the secret energies of the artist’s home country, traditional wisdom, and ancestral spirituality, her works talk about alternative natural balances within the family and the society at large. Floating in front of the booth, was a sensual textile installation by Bev Butkow also presented by the gallery as part of the Yi Tai Sculpture and Installation Projects; the Fair’s sector for ambitious, large-scale installations and interventions curated this year by Chris Wan.
Also spotted at Art Central were the humoristic and highly enigmatic paintings by cutting-edge Japanese artist NKSIN, with a solo booth sold out presented by Tokyo-based gallery Yamato Katsumi. Mastering airbrush as his technique and limiting the palette to gloomy gray tones, the artist offers a bittersweet commentary on the contradictions of Japanese society, and in particular on its proposed models of “appropriateness”, aiming to keep every individual under control. Yamato’s stylized figures resulting from a brilliant mix between Japanese subculture and the artist's fascination for American animated films of the 1990s while interestingly reminding some artists from the postwar Chicago scene.
Out of the fair, the city offered a wide variety and quality selection of galleries and museum exhibitions. To mention a few, there were: Joan Miró as part of the newly relaunched program of the HKMoA, the opening of the long-awaited M+ with a rich retrospective of Yayoi Kusama, and the presentation of the extraordinary collection of Chinese art collector Uli Sigg’s donated to the museum; opening of the K11 Art Mall by tycoon Adrian Cheng with a survey on the history of Street art; while a progressive curatorial project on LGBTQ artists and mythologies supported by the Sunpride foundation is significantly housed at Tai Kwun Contemporary, a cultural center inside a former prison.
At the same time, international galleries also appear to believe again in the city, presenting great solo exhibitions by some of their top artists, such as Katherina Grosse at Gagosian, Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth, and Zhang Xiaogang at Pace. Despite many international galleries had close their locations over the pandemic, and other those ponds just recently restarted at full capacity their program in the city, what’s interesting is that since the first editions of Art Basel the scene of local galleries have grown: the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association reported a 27% increase of his members from 2021 to 2023.
Standing out as one the most curious and engaging gallery experiences of the week, however, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s first show with David Zwirner, after the gallery recently announced the representation. Known as one of the pioneers of the Relational Aesthetics movement and for creating highly engaging experiences, this time the artist created a mesmerizing labyrinth turning the two floors of the new luxurious galleries hub H Queen into a chaotic umbrella repair shop. The journey ended up with some surreal rooms populated by robots clearing the floors, creating a powerful philosophical metaphor encouraging mental and physical cleaning, against the visual and consumeristic overexposure we all experience in the modern metropolis.
More local emerging galleries and curatorial-oriented spaces with strong programs are also popping up around the city, such as MOU PROJECTS and Square Street Gallery, or the rapidly establishing Empty Gallery and Exit Gallery, which have been active players in the city art scene for a few years now but are finally acknowledged in an international platform as Art Basel.
At night, the long list of no-stop events over the entire art week hosted by luxury brands, galleries and exceptional museums such as the LACMA, could make even Miami envious. The energy one could experience in Hong Kong reminded us that the city is still one of the region's leading art hubs, recently joined by other emerging locations such as Seoul and Singapore. But Asia as a geographical area is probably large enough to have multiple hubs, and Hong Kong's special tax regime and easy transaction advantages is still making it one of the preferred grounds for the business. Nevertheless, now the city's ambition appears to even go beyond being a simple art market hub, aiming at growing and establishing itself as a proper cultural capital of Asian contemporary culture, suggested by recent heavy investments in the sector, first of all, the West Kowloon Cultural district, which is now finally taking shape.
Further evidence and speech in that direction was offered by Museum Summit, also happening in the same week and organized in collaboration with Uffizi in Florence. The event saw the intervention of outstanding personalities from major international museums such as the LACMA, the Versailles Palace and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to mention a few, who were traveling to Hong Kong especially, for the summit.
The vibrant and fast-paced week leaves us with a question: would the city be able to attract more artists and art people to operate from, to further nourish its scene, beyond the art fair week? Once considered the persisting threat of censorship and the high rents, it is still to be seen if Hong Kong could build and progressively grow a sustainable creative ecosystem.