The beginning of spring heralds a month of art in Hong Kong. Like flower buds, art shows big and small proliferate all over Hong Kong, culminating in the hanami-like profusion at Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central. Entering their fifth and third editions respectively, both art fairs are a statement of how important the Hong Kong art market is. And how far it’s come. The first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2008 (then known as Art Hong Kong) drew 20,000 visitors; this year, it welcomed 70,000.
Of the two, Art Basel Hong Kong has more clout. This is where all the big names are. The Gagosian – who brought two pieces by Katharina Grosse. Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki – whose booth was an explosion of dark anime motifs. Kukje Gallery contributed the beguiling Mirror (Pink to Purple) by Anish Kapoor, while the presence of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery – and Mikhael Subotzky’s sticky tape recreation of Hieronymous Bosch – illustrates the global reach of the fair. Pedigree reigns here, but room is also given to rising stars in the search-and-ye-shall-find intimate Kabinet spaces. And then there is the VIP-only Collector’s Lounge, where power comes in the form of influence, not numbers, and deals are made over flutes of champagne.
While Art Basel Hong Kong is housed in the cavernous Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Art Central sets up shop in two giant tents across the promenade. Lighter and airier, the younger art fair also seems more accessible. Co-founded by Tim Etchells, who created the original Art Hong Kong in 2008, the fair is typically more focused on newer talent, as well as a regional lens on Greater China and Asia. But don’t be deceived. It holds its own. “The main difference between Art Central and Art Basel Hong Kong is age – Art Central skews towards younger artists – and price – which is usually ‘friendlier’ to first-time buyers," says Angela Li, of Hong Kong’s Contemporary by Angela Li, who also served on the selection committee for 2017. Pieces at her booth, including LV Shanchuan’s dramatic textural paint depictions of Seoul and Li Hongbo’s Slinky-like Fortune paper vases, start at US$5,000.
The galleries are here, from all over the world, because of the importance of Hong Kong as the central node of art in Asia. “This is where the big galleries are. This is where the auction houses are. The money might come from elsewhere – China, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia – but this is where they meet," says Wonjoon Lee of Gallery Hyundai. Isabel Croxatto, who brought artists Miss Van, Cecilia Avendaño, Victor Castillo and the delicate fractal artwork of Juana Gomez all the way from Chile agrees. “Hong Kong is the gateway to Asia," she says. “I would like to establish myself more in Asia, but I have to start somewhere, and that place is Hong Kong."
Just like the galleries, the art is equally and fittingly diverse. “There was a time when Chinese art and Asian art was seen as derivative," says Ethan Cohen, from Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in New York City. “We used to have bring in art that was Asian in origin, but that’s changed. Now I bring great art – some by artists who just happen to be Chinese – and it sells." He points to two large pieces he brought by Côte d’voire painter Aboudia. It bristles with Basquiat-like energy and, as Cohen points out, ‘always sells out.’
The diversity makes detecting trends challenging. This year, there were a lot of Jaume Plensa sculptures – distinctive in their frames made of letters – at Art Basel Hong Kong (at Galerie Lelong and Chicago’s Richard Gray Gallery), while polka-dot queen Yayoi Kusama appeared at Tokyo’s Sakurado Fine Arts and Hong Kong’s Whitestone Gallery at Art Central alongside her requisite presence at Basel. Pieces like Damien Hirst’s Resurrection (2016) will command headlines, but supporting that is a wealth of diversity.
At Art Basel Hong Kong, for example, Tokyo’s Mizuma Art Gallery presented a technicolour side of Japanese art, in an eye-popping double-panelled Yoshitaka Amano piece titled ‘2017’, Ellie Okamoto’s colourful The Stone Bridge and its references to Japanese Edo-era art, and Makoto Aida’s quaint lunchbox series. From there, travel to Turkey, to the unassailable beauty of Gülay Semercioğlu’s wire-and-wood Golden Butterfly at Pi Artworks. At Art Central, Malaysia’s Richard Koh Fine Art showcased the tribal idols of Anne Samat, while Lan Zhenghui’s powerful calligraphy strokes were seen at Ethan Cohen Fine Art. Indra Dodi’s wonderfully naïve La Grande Fete was displayed at Malaysia’s Artemis Art, and Hei Yiyang’s ‘I Prefer This Colourful World’ – a wheel made up of numbers snipped off from actual banknotes – attracted plenty of attention at Tokyo’s Tezukayama Gallery.
Sales were brisk. The highest reported price for Art Basel Hong Kong 2017 was US$1.5 million each for two (of three) Luc Tuymans paintings created by the Belgian specifically for David Zwirner Gallery, paid within the first hour of VIP preview. Elsewhere, chatter on the floor suggests that almost half of the exhibits at Art Basel Hong Kong 2017 sold within the first day. Interest came not just from individual collectors, but also the growing number of private museums in China. “We’ve been delighted with the level of sales this year," says Daniela Gareh, director at White Cube (London, Hong Kong), who sold a Theaster Gates pieces that will go on public display in China.
And it isn’t just headlining pieces trading hands. Various Small Fires, a Los Angeles gallery, brought a single artist – Joshua Nathanson – to Art Basel Hong Kong, showcasing his graffiti-inspired Airport Paintings series and the debut of his sculpture practice. “We sold out on the first preview day," said Sara Hantman, director of the gallery. “There’s been a tremendous interest, which goes to show the breadth and depth of the market here."
Over at the tents of Art Central, trade was equally brisk. The ‘calmer’ price points contribute to that, with pieces starting at US$1,500. With the artists displayed at Art Central being generally on the ascent, that frees up the galleries and the artists to just enjoy themselves. “I’m happy just being here. It’s lovely. The vibe and the energy," says British artist Sinta Tantra, whose Balinese roots inspired the vibrant, geometric paintings that were on display at the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery (London). “But yes, I’ve also sold a few pieces," Tantra says with a wink.
Money, however, is not always the motive. Thomas Brambilla from Bergamo, Italy brought a single piece to Art Basel Hong Kong – a recreation of a church cloister by Edoardo Piermatti that was an oasis of calm reverence in a kinetic sea. Motifs of decaying plaster and Renaissance colours are evident when you enter the 3 metre high structure; pious but certainly not commercial. And that’s the point. “I don’t expect to sell this piece," says Brambilla. “It is my first time at Art Basel Hong Kong and my first time in Asia. For me, this experience is not about money. It is about educating and inspiring. So instead of a painting I could sell, I brought a little piece of Italy here with me."