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Art HK 2012


by Barbara Pollack
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Now in its fifth edition, Art HK, May 17-20, 2012, with 260 galleries from 38 countries, is better than ever, transforming Hong Kong overnight from a sleepy backwater of contemporary art into Asia’s art capital. It will never compete with a city like Beijing that, at last count, had tens of thousands of artists, a major art school and over 300 galleries. But Hong Kong, due to its colonialist history, is a very comfortable place for foreigners to spend money, and that’s exactly what is making Art HK such a success.

This year in Hong Kong, Emmanuel Perrotin and White Cube opened lavish galleries at 50 Connaught Street, a brand new office tower that mimics the look of colonialist architecture. Perrotin opened with graffiti artist KAWS, who already has a following and his own souvenir shop in Tokyo. White Cube unveiled new works by Anselm Kiefer, inspired by his 1993 trip to China. Kiefer’s appeal to Chinese collectors was evident at the opening, with several mainland buyers picking up works before the evening was over.

Several blocks away crowds lined up to enter the much more cramped Pedder Building, where Gagosian Gallery, which has been open in HK for over a year, showed a mini-retrospective of Andreas Gursky and Pearl Lam inaugurated her new space with abstract paintings by Chinese artists. Lam, who has several galleries in Shanghai and comes from a HK real estate development family, packed her space with even more visitors than Gagosian, despite the proliferation of billboards around the city featuring an image of Gursky’s emblematic 99 Cent Store.

Art HK opened the next day, on May 16, with a vernissage that delivered collectors from throughout the region, from Indonesia to Australia, as well as visitors from Europe. Only a few Americans showed up, perhaps squeezed between Frieze NY in early May and Art Basel in early June, or perhaps from lack of interest. With 266 galleries filling the convention center -- half from Asia -- it was a great way to get a sense of art in the region, usually not included in New York fairs. (Only two Chinese galleries were included in the Armory Show in New York in March -- Shanghart and Tang Contemporary -- a ridiculous oversight, given the scale of the market here and the wealth of local talent.)

Art Basel has bought a controlling interest in Art HK and takes over in 2013, so there was much speculation among visitors about the tenor of the fair. One Paris journalist complained to me that the fair was too western. I thought, how interesting, just what is she missing? A tourist experience, perhaps? Interestingly, many local dealers participating did not seem concerned and were thrilled to finally be included in an arena the scale and quality of Art Basel.

Fair director Magnus Renfrew, who is remaining in his position under the new regime, assured me that the show would continue to be 50 percent Asian, including its fantastic Asia One section, which this year had 49 galleries presenting solo shows of artists of “Asian origin.”

Marc Spiegler, the high-profile co-director of Art Basel, chimed in that many of the galleries participating in Asia One have already graduated to the main gallery section, demonstrating how much the fair is encouraging development of the gallery system in the region.

Indeed, as opposed to fairs in Europe and the United States (which presume to be international despite ignoring three-quarters of the world), Art HK truly had a global feel, with western galleries trying to find the right balance for Asian collectors and Asian galleries similarly negotiating cultural differences to satisfy the many foreigners attending the event.

Pace Beijing sold a major work by Li Songsong and had a bidding war going on over a Zhang Xiaogang, but Gagosian was attracting equal interest with a magnificent butterfly painting by Damien Hirst, as well as a small painting by its single Chinese artist, top seller Zeng Fanzhi.

Many western galleries were out in force: Acquavella with a monumental James Rosenquist, Sean Kelly with an Anthony McCall light installation, White Cube with a $500,000 Hirst spin painting, and Marianne Boesky, Marian Goodman, Leo Castelli, Cheim & Read, Paul Kasmin, Lombard-Fried, Sikkema Jenkins and many others from New York.

L&M Arts successfully bridged the cultural divide by placing mural-sized wall labels on the gallery walls, spelling out Koons, Picasso and Warhol, for buyers unversed in English. The gallery also brought out a large ash painting by Zhang Huan, Youth (2007), from a private collection, and a painting by Chinese modernist Zao Wouki, who recently sold for $8.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

I went out of my way to ask more local galleries if the fair seemed too western, or threatening to them. The answer was a resounding “no”! “To a Singapore collector, is Michael Joo Eastern or Western? Is Murakami Eastern or Western?” asked Lu Jei, director of Beijing’s Long March Space sarcastically. “Anyway, is this the number one question? I don’t think so. I think number one is how are the sales and more importantly, what is the quality.”

Hong Kong dealer Robin Peckham, who just opened his alternative Saamlung space earlier this year, also praised the fair. “This fair made the Hong Kong art scene,” he commented. “None of these galleries, like Gagosian and White Cube, would be in Hong Kong without this fair.”

Art HK is undoubtedly a superior fair to many of the more local Asian fairs, especially those in mainland China. I spent two days wandering the aisles trying to discern whether it even makes sense to think about things as an East-West divide.

One of my favorite booths was Aando Fine Art, based in Berlin and founded by Wonkyong Byun, who is Korean. He was showing inflatables by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, priced between $20,000 and $45,000. The artist had a large-scale installation on the outside of the Los Angeles County Museum a couple of years ago, and was at the fair on his way to the Kiev Biennial.

Meanwhile, Beijing gallery Pékin Fine Arts was stealing the show with a $213,000 plastic rotating musical sculpture of Mickey and Minnie Mouse holding machine guns, the work of the Hungarian artist Kata Legrady. I would have sworn it was Chinese.

Pearl Lam Gallery paired a big blue slather of paint by London artist Jason Martin with an abstraction on rice paper mounted on canvas by Zheng Chongbin. Lehmann Maupin filled its booth with an installation by Korean artist Lee Bul and Sean Kelly had a series of gold leaf canvases by Terence Koh for $30,000 each.

The Richard Long floor sculpture at James Cohan Shanghai sold before the fair opened and the artist was a big hit when he had a solo show at the gallery last year. Chambers Fine Art had already sold most of its watercolors by rising star Guo Hongwei, for up to $30,000, while a big bird by Will Ryman had become one of the fair’s many photo opportunities with a continuous stream of young visitors snapping their pictures at Paul Kasmin’s booth.

“We are just beginning to learn about this market,’ said Michael Lieberman of Harris Lieberman. Interestingly, the gallery was doing good business with works by Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel, whose drawings priced from $6,000 to $17,000. Just a couple of years ago, an emerging American artist would have found no buyers at this fair.

But Lieberman laid the groundwork by coming over a month ago to meet with new clients, using the show as his entry into the region. A mid-level gallery like Harris Liebermann in the past would have kept its focus squarely in the west. “I don’t think that that’s it anymore,” he said to me, “You would be foolish to ignore this trend.” As far as the art market goes, this is obviously advice well-taken.

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