At last month’s first ever International Art Fair in the city, there were plenty of galleries and even more attendees. But amidst all the Asian art being sold by foreign galleries, Vickie Chan started to wonder what it all means…
Last month over a hundred leading galleries gathered for the Hong Kong International Art Fair 2008. A record attendance of over 19,000 made it a seminal event signaling the city’s arrival on the global art scene. Most of all, it raised awareness in Hong Kong on where to find art, which artists to check out, what is “in” and the biggest question of all: where is the local scene headed?
While culturally this should have been an important event for Hong Kong it soon became evident that its prime purpose was to sell and trade art. Educating and exposing the general public about modern art was a lower priority. While several “Hong Kong Conversations” and free, guided tours made the event more accessible than a trade fair, the fee-based entry might have discouraged some members of the public.
The attendees were an even mixture of local Chinese and westerners, some obviously there to buy and others just to look. You would expect the international galleries to surprise everyone, but instead you couldn’t help but notice more than one of the “Big Faces” paintings by Yue Minjun amongst several Warhol pieces. Many other galleries brought paintings by Mainland Chinese and other Asian artists. One gallery from New York even had a giant grey portrait of Bruce Lee. It begged the question: why was there so much Asian art on offer?
Wading through the diverse Asian collections at the Fair, Pékin Fine Arts of Beijing represented some newer styles of Chinese and Asian art. The piece by Huang Zhiyang showcased his incredible talent in the traditional Chinese method of painting with ink on silk. Rather than bamboo or lilies, Huang surprised everyone with wonderful organic patterns that were similar to a Rorschach print. It was modern without being blatant or obviously political. Star Gallery, also from Beijing, displayed intriguing photos of period western style furniture covered in colourful drips of paint — so delightful in part because they were not obviously drenched in political quandary.
Union of London brought more art by Asian artists, but with a kitsch feel that was better suited for a shop display in Mongkok, or even Harajuku. Zoo Inkyung’s bizarre and entertaining pink painting of naked Matt Groening style characters brought humour to the occasion while Yu Jingyoung’s Japanese-looking and ghostly Perspex figures attracted the most photographers. Finally, painted entirely in symbolic red, Sea Hyun Lee’s landscape reinterpreted the traditional Asian style landscape.
Even American galleries like the Frey Norris Gallery of San Francisco seemed to cater to what they perceived to be Asian tastes. Kate Eric’s Crossing Parallel Line was made entirely of embroidered Chinese fabrics that could easily have been an antique from the Mainland. “These are simply our best emerging artists,” explained a representative from the gallery. “They probably wouldn’t know an Asian artist if one hit them in the face — but they are all coincidentally influenced by Asian themes.”
GBK of Sydney brought mesmerising pieces by Hitesh Natalwala. Born in Africa to Indian parents, he lived in the UK before settling in Australia. His work evoked the emotional shifts in place and identity. He recreated his archaeology by cutting, re-positioning, and pasting different papers before drawing on them. Even here, there were statements of ‘福’, ‘樂’, ‘友’, and ‘囍’ amongst his pieces that were only finished a few weeks ago.
By way of contrast, M+B of Los Angeles stood out with a fantastic collection of photography-based work that didn’t have a single Asian theme! Massimo Vitali’s giant overexposed photos received a lot of interest from the public. Photographing people relaxing and interacting in public spaces (such as ski slopes or beaches), he manages to overexpose the photos while retaining saturated colours that form a strange perspective. The large format of the pieces accentuated a sense of voyeurism. It was reminiscent of a ‘Where’s Waldo’ illustration, or a modern ‘Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ by Seurat. Opposite those were photos by Mona Kühn who created an interesting interplay between nature and man-made environments. Her nudes were magically dressed by warm light, dark shade and reflections of nature.
Most of the galleries reported that they expected to take few pieces home with them. But what does this mean for the artists of Hong Kong? Commerce and economy have always been paramount to Hong Kong’s existence. Ironically, there may be no better way to bring attention to the local art scene than to invite international galleries to an art fair where they sell… Asian art. Perhaps Asian style art sells better in Hong Kong because its themes and references are easily understood. But let’s hope that with more media coverage, emerging contemporary Hong Kong artists will be better represented at the Fair next year.
Most of the galleries reported that they expected to take few pieces home with them. Perhaps Asian style art sells better in Hong Kong because its themes and references are easily understood. But what does this mean for the artists of Hong Kong? Commerce and economy have always been paramount to Hong Kong’s existence. Ironically, there may be no better way to bring attention to the local art scene than to invite international galleries that represent Asian artists to an art fair in Asia. Let’s hope that with more media coverage, emerging contemporary Hong Kong artists will be better represented at the Fair next year.
© 2008 Vickie Chan