Is Hong Kong's Art Scene Bouncing Back Against the Odds?
From the term 'ghost booth' to dubious statements about flight availability in and out of the city, coverage at times exaggerates Hong Kong's challenges while underselling its energy and ingenuity.
Nanzuka, Art Basel in Hong Kong (27–29 May 2022). Courtesy Ocula. Photo: Anakin Yeung.
On the ground at this year's Art Basel in Hong Kong, Ocula Magazine saw a strong turnout of regional buyers, enthusiastic local interest, and engaged young locals staffing the 75 satellite booths of foreign galleries unable to send their own employees due to travel restrictions and increased costs.
Several galleries, including Anat Ebgi's satellite booth and Take Ninagawa (presented in person by Atsuko Ninagawa), sold out their entire presentations. A number of works sold for over US $1 million dollars.
These results are out of step with some of the pessimistic coverage by press including Artnet News and ARTnews, who have described satellite booths as 'ghost booths', negating the contributions of young, creative Hong Kongers—including architecture students, photographers, and art professionals—who attended the booths of art galleries such as Vitamin Creative Space and neugerriemschneider.
Some satellite booth attendants dressed to match the works they were showing. Young creative Aris wore a sparkly top while representing Los Angeles gallery Château Shatto, whose booth of paintings by young artist Jonny Negron also sold out.
Fashion designer Jerry Haha, described by one PR guru in Hong Kong as 'a whole vibe', donned a suit to complement the suite of sardonic works by artist Ken Kagami at Tokyo's Misako & Rosen. His outfit included sneakers with the same imprint featured on a bronze cast of a turd. (Kagami's was one of the more popular booths during the public days.)
Shasha Tittmann, director at Lehmann Maupin, said there was a healthy turnout of 'old and new collectors' at Art Basel in Hong Kong this year, and they were able to 'place works with excellent private collections in both China and Japan.'
Despite some strong results, Hong Kong's art market certainly faces challenges. The national security law passed in 2020 has chilled free expression to some extent and Covid restrictions remain. Visitors are required to quarantine for seven days on arrival and they must show evidence they have received three vaccine shots in order to visit restaurants, bars, and many other venues.
It is not the case, however, that visitors to the fair were unable to return to the mainland following 'a sudden cancellation of all flights from the special administrative region to the mainland' as The Art Newspaper claimed in a report that has since been removed from their website. (Flights continue to run between Hong Kong and China, per multiple sources working at Hong Kong airport.)
Asked to comment, Lisa Movius, who filed the report, said that transit conditions between Hong Kong and mainland China were 'uncertain'. She added that 'Hong Kong visas have become difficult for mainlanders to obtain'—but according to Hong Kong's official immigration data, more Chinese nationals entered Hong Kong in May than in the past two years combined.
(Collectors also came from farther afield with the associate director of one international gallery disclosing that someone from Miami bought in person at the fair on its closing day.)
Restrictions on travel into Hong Kong didn't stop people from acquiring works, according to Pascal de Sarthe, founder of de Sarthe Gallery, who sold 41 works during the fair and the days immediately after. 'Collectors that could not travel reached out on WeChat and WhatsApp and viewed and bought the artworks via video calls,' he said.
New York gallery Catinca Tabacaru, participating at the fair for the first time, said they were able to gain a sense of local sentiments from abroad as their artists and gallery team 'spent 40 hours on zoom, available during the entire duration of the fair. [We] spoke to several hundred people, among them some important curators, writers, and collectors.'
In another display of ingenuity, Art Basel in Hong Kong offered over 100 personalised virtual tours for collectors, leading to 16 sales and many more collectors signalling interest in buying works.
A Resurgent Hong Kong Art Scene
Beyond the market, there was evidence of a truly engaged and evolving local audience. During a virtual tour of M+ Hong Kong hosted by Art Basel in Hong Kong director Adeline Ooi and art critic Alex Seno, with M+ curators Pauline Yao and Doryun Chong, M+ director Suhanya Raffel quipped that whoever was not at M+ was at Art Basel.
Indeed, with the arrival of M+, which collaborated with Art Basel this year on Ellen Pau's video commission The Shape of Light currently screening on the museum's iconic LED-screen facade, heralds a new era for the city, with both world-class international institution redressing and redrawing art histories across Asia and beyond.
New galleries have continued to open in Hong Kong in spite of the pandemic and new constraints on free speech.
Galleries like Thy Lab in Sham Shui Po use the neighbourhood's grimy alleyways to their advantage. Dubbed a 24-hour museum, they housed works on the alley walls in an exhibition titled 'VIA DOLOROSA' meaning 'way of suffering'. They've also hosted film screenings mixed by experimental producers, and held community events for the domestic helper community.
EJAR | RAGORA is an industrial-looking art gallery in Shau Kei Wan that started as a studio and rave space by a group of artists and DJs in Kennedy Town. It opened to the public with satellite exhibitions for the Hong Kong International Photography Festival and is currently exhibiting local street artist Lousy.
International commercial galleries are also continuing to come to Hong Kong, with Budapest's Double Q and New York's Denny Dimin Gallery, which both opened in early 2022. Meanwhile, Art Basel veterans Rossi & Rossi moved to a larger space in the city.
The opening of M+ in 2021 signalled that Hong Kong will remain a major art destination in the region over the long term, and the city's institutional pull will only strengthen when the Hong Kong Palace Museum opens later this year.
While the art eco-system in Hong Kong is adjusting to a new normal, it remains a city to which artists, collectors, and dealers are committed; and there is a prevailing sense that once borders open, there will be no stopping the city.
Speaking on an online panel organised by Art Basel Hong Kong on the art market in the Asia Pacific region, Elaine Kwok, Hauser & Wirth Managing Partner Asia, responded to a question about whether she felt Hong Kong had a strong future.
Without missing a beat, Kwok pointed out the tax advantages, geographic advantages, and proximity to China, which, 'both culturally and geographically, are just too great.' —[O]