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Art Hong Kong

by Barbara Pollack
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Cultural historians, mark your calendars. 2011 was the year that Art HK, May 26-29, 2011, became a stop on the global art tour to rival the Venice Biennale and Art 42 Basel. With 260 participating galleries (up from 150 in 2010) and attendance of over 63,000, Art HK has now far outstripped and outsold SH Contemporary, the Shanghai fair that takes place each September, Art Singapore, which took place in October, and two more local art fairs in Beijing.

While some U.S. dealers may be skeptical of the fortitude of Asian buyers, many prominent New York galleries turned up for Art HK, toting works by Chinese artists that proved sure sales in this context. David Zwirner sold Yan Pei Ming like hotcakes, Marian Goodman offered works by Yang Fudong, Lombard Fried brought Cao Fei, Galerie Lelong sold works by Lin Tianmiao and Sperone Westwater boasted sales of Liu Ye.

Pace, which now has a major outpost in Beijing, came fully prepared with works by Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan, as well as Korean-born artist Lee Ufan -- who opens a solo show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, June 24-Sept. 28, 2011-- and found buyers for all at prices ranging from $100,000 to $750,000.

"Asian collectors are building great collections of Asian art," says Pace director Peter Boris. "They may want to understand Western art, but they don't need to, not in the way that Western collectors are discovering that they need to understand Asian art."

The artist of the hour was “Mask Series” painter Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), whose paintings occupied several booths at the fair, all priced at well over $1 million (his auction record is $9.7 million). Acquavella Galleries, which for the moment represents the artist in New York, offered a 2007 painting for $3.5 million -- but refused to comment on rumors that Zeng would soon be showing at Gagosian Gallery’s brand new space in Hong Kong's Pedder Building.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Schoeni Gallery sold the artist's Mask Series No. 16 (1996), for $2 million. Beijing gallery F2 -- which also has a space in Los Angeles and oversees dozens of works by the artist thanks to a long-term relationship with him in China -- offered one of his triptychs for over $1 million.

But Zeng Fanzhi shone brightest at the Christie's Hong Kong evening sale on May 28, 2011, which coincided with the fair. Christie's holds its sales in the same convention center as Art HK, and brought in a total of $227 million for a week of sales, including $63 million for Asian 20th-century and contemporary art -- its highest total ever in this category.

Zeng had the top lot in the sale when his 1996 Self-Portrait, consigned by New York collector Howard Farber, sold for over $4.8 million. The artist's more recent painting The Leopard, which was done in 2010 and was featured in a solo show of 39 works that Christie's sponsored during the sales, sold for over $4 million. Zeng consigned the work himself, with the proceeds earmarked for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

The buyer, Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Zhijun -- an active representative of the new surge of philanthropy in China -- said of his purchase, “Zeng Fanzhi’s act of generosity is tremendously moving. I, like him, also wish to contribute in my own way to help protect the environment.”

But more than just Asian art was selling at Art HK. Gagosian Gallery found a buyer for Damien Hirst's Immortal Life, a massive collage of butterflies, for $1.4 million, in addition to selling several works by Takashi Murakami. Brent Sikkema of Sikkema Jenkins proved an unlikely success story with a booth devoted to works by the much-liked Los Angeles African-American abstractionist Mark Bradford (b. 1961): a painting sold for $400,000, and a wall installation from the Merchant Poster series brought in $600,000.

"Asia is no longer out of the loop," said Sikkema. "This is a very international community of buyers smart enough to know they need good art advisers." According to Arthur Solway, who heads the Shanghai branch of the James Cohan Gallery, "We are building a broad market here -- we are definitely getting people interested in Western art."

Hong Kong has very few galleries and no well-regarded contemporary art museum, and recent cultural enhancement plans for the West Kowloon district -- which are sure to include a museum -- seem permanently stalled by political turmoil. For these reasons, a huge general audience, including dozens of school groups, flocked to the fair to take advantage of this chance to view contemporary Asian art.

Particularly popular were the fair's upstairs sections -- Asia One and Art Futures -- which offset the Western domination of the main gallery section downstairs. Local dealers worried about their place in the mix, especially in the future plans of Art Basel, which announced its purchase of Art HK a month ago. A new iteration of the Art Basel-Art HK collaboration, with or without a contingent of local dealers, is scheduled to open in February, just after the Chinese New Year.

"It’s important to convey a different voice. It would be good to have even more of that," says David Chan of Hong Kong's Gallery as he successfully found buyers for local artist Kit Lee, who recently showed with Lombard Fried in New York.

"Clearly, Asia makes a lot of sense," says Magnus Renfrew, Art HK’s director from the start. "There are now more billionaires in Asia than there are in Europe. The balance of power is really tipping this way; I think that Asia is coming of age and there's a need for an art fair on Asia's doorstep and on Asia's terms."

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).