by Liz Riviere
printed in the Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2010.
As the ferry World Star rumbled rhythmically across Victoria Harbor to its dock in Wan Chai, scene of the 2010 Hong Kong International Art Fair, it was a particularly robust sunny day—as if someone magically erased the thick felt of pollution that normally clings to the tall towers of Hong Kong Island like some sort of futuristic moss. Hong Kong: Westernized, yet sitting comfortably in the palm of China as a SAR (Special Administrative Region), its community and people have prospered from its status and enjoy the celebrity. This is the perfect spot for an all-Asia Art Fair and ART HK is it. (All I could think was that it had better be worth it if I was going to trade the best day Hong Kong has seen in months to be inside a giant box.) Would the fair be a tool for featuring Western Art for the astute Asian collector, I wondered? Or was it, in fact, a showcase of Asian Art for a multi-cultural audience?
I braced myself for another repetitive display of what have become successful trademarks of this new chapter in Asian contemporary art. I was ready for an abundance of doe-eyed innocents and glorified manga-esque characters with enhanced anatomy and exploding genitals; for futuristic fairy-like beings with exaggerated facial features floating through mushroom bogs leaving behind a dusting of sparkles. I braced myself for Murakami, Murakami, more Murakami, and Murakami copycats.
But what I got was totally and utterly lost. 10a.m. suddenly became 3p.m. and I hadn’t seen the hours pass. With over 155 galleries from 29 countries, it was especially inspiring to see some really top-notch, sophisticated, buyable not-so-Western artwork. I followed wafts of conversation, noted the crowd pleasers and counted the colored dots on labels. Sure, Damien Hirst was fully represented, as was Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibar, and Gilbert and George: many “blue chip” artists were here that earmark an event of premier distinction and yet, all of the works became part of a glorious and elaborate puzzle of energy, creativity, and multi-nationalism to rival the definition of its host city.
Murakami’s “Louis Vuitton” paintings, a life-size figure and some happy smiling flowers all made it here, but it was just enough and not too much— kind of like the right amount of croutons in a perfect Caesar salad. And yes, my apprehensions were confirmed: all the trademarks were here but, as it has been pointed out to me, there is definitely something to be said for the number of Chinese adults who lament the idyllic liberty of a childhood sacrificed in the name of education. It is not uncommon when visiting my Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends (who are in relationships or married) to view a precious selection of pristine Hello Kittys and pixies on their beds as if “in mourning.” From stationery and umbrellas to t-shirts and cell phone accessories, everyone in Hong Kong seems to have a cartoon doppelgänger. While toddlers and teddy bears streaming across a starry moonlit night just aren’t my thing (sorry, then, to the artist who goes by MR.), there IS an audience for you—and it’s a big one. (Just look at Japanese artist, Yoshitomo Nara’s Rock N’ Roll and Roll that was sold at the fair by Marianne Boesky for $350,000.)
Sperone Westwater chose to feature the work of Beijing born Liu Ye. His medium-size canvases, harkening to Dutch portraiture blended with a little Pierro della Francesca, hover successfully between fantasy and reality. The first piece that caught my eye was “Hans Christian Andersen in the Snow” (after Albrert Kuchler), 2005. Ye preserved this beloved author of childhood storytelling indefinitely in a giant pastel snow globe. A second canvas, “Small Painter,” of a young Chinese girl who appears no older than two, sits facing the viewer. Before her on the table, she has completed a pencil outline of Miffy on paper. The drawing is flanked on either side by colored pencils and the subject holds a red colored pencil. She looks at the viewer in hesitation, wondering if red is the appropriate choice for the next stage of her drawing. The child has drawn Miffy in near perfection, and yet she fears making a mistake. Ironically, it was a non-portrait that hit a high-note. Liu Ye’s “Composition with Bamboo and Grass” (2007–08) sold for US$650,000.
Hong Hao’s large-format photography of “gatherings” of rather banal household items had me coming back for more at the Beijing Commune booth. His arrangements of accumulation are crafty and unexpected; haunted and sentimental. “Bottom No. 6” features inverted drinking vessels made of porcelain and china that, from afar, read as a pleasing abstract of round shapes, giving the illusion of octopus suction cups or even coral. Yet, detail reveals each vessel has a story. A birthplace indicated by a factory stamp and then a lifetime of unexplainable chips or the sparkling luster of good fortune. Likewise, “Book,” 2009 gives the impression of a maze of some sort, or buildings perhaps, yet it was simply a crammed horizontal network of books placed vertically with covers touching, dense with pages—the spines hidden from view. This simple inversion of organization gives Hao’s work a feeling of patchwork bordering on abstraction. The yellowed pages of these books speak clearly of a time in China’s not-so-distant past when owning an extensive book collection was forbidden.
One could not miss the abundance of Damien Hirsts on display at White Cube. Repent, 2008, was a dizzyingly bright and controlled arrangement of butterfly wings resembling a cathedral stained glass rosette. “The Inescapable Truth” (2005)—the first of his formaldehyde works to be shown in China—was also on display. (ART HK later reported that it was sold at the fair by White Cube for £1.75 million.) Hirst’s work made its way into several other booths, perhaps as some sort of beacon to the hungry status-seeking collector. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to stop and soak in his celebrity.
Perhaps the most viewed was Anish Kapoor’s “Untitled,” 2010, that looked, in this Hong Kong setting, like a giant lacquered rice bowl affixed vertically to the wall. Standing in front of it, one is transported to the hall of mirrors at the state carnival. Suddenly impossible to discern between concave and convex, one is instantly inverted within this high-polished monochrome bubble of illusion. (Lisson Gallery sold “Untitled” for £550,000.)
The only negative: Rikrit Tiravanija’s installation of two towering bamboo birdcages entitled “Ne Travaillez Jamais” at Tang Contemporary Art standing just inside the main entrance as most visitor’s initiation to the fair. Wrong place, wrong time. One of the towers looked an awful lot like the Bank of China Tower in Central and the last thing I wanted to be reminded of was that I am now one of those colorful birds captive and cramped, living in a vertical cubicle arrangement. It was an instant visual of life in Hong Kong and left me feeling rather anxious before I became a wandering calf in a maze of cubes.
One thousand artists were represented at ART HK and, now that the numbers are in: over 46,000 visitors attended—that’s a staggering 65% increase over 2009.
Make room on your calendar next year for ART HK: the latest “World Star” of contemporary art fairs. Asia is the new chapter in contemporary art history and the art market here is very, very, healthy—and it’s staying that way.