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Sales, Sales Sales: Money, Money, Money: A Wild Fox Market Report

By Stephanie Bailey  |  Hong Kong, 25 May 2013

You’ve got to love Hong Kong. If there’s one thing about this city, it isn’t afraid to show its love for money. Take a walk down Canton Road or any shopping mall in the city’s heart and you’ll see – Louis Vuitton, Longchamp, Armani? These shops are as common as rain, here; just like the shopping malls and the people willing to spend their fortunes on all things fabulous.

This is all part of Hong Kong’s unique ecology, you see; the reason why the mighty IFC (International Finance Tower), Hong Kong’s own Colossus (of Rhodes), has been designed to look (at its peak) like two hands (or claws) reaching up into the sky, waiting to receive heaven’s fortunes.

Indeed, Hong Kong is a city where Andy Warhol’s statement on being deeply superficial rings true, which made Dominique Lévy Gallery’s decision to present a booth entirely composed of Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs at ABHK a pretty great statement, just for the balls of it. It was the clearest statement on what Art Basel really is, which, as Amy Cappellazzo noted in the Intelligence Squared Debate (arguing for the motion that the market is the best judge of art’s quality), is a trade fair.

From an art historical perspective, Art Basel is always a good space to look at blue-chip art. The third hall is a veritable tour de force, with the big guns out in their droves: Basquiat, Haring and Warhol, as well as Lee Ufan, Lucio Fontana, Kusama and Cragg. Spaces like Acquavella and Long March Space have brought out the best of the best when it comes to modern and contemporary staples: from Pissarro, Picasso, Johns to De Kooning, and Zhan Wang to Liu Wei respectively. 

But in thinking about abstraction’s prominence and the continued popularity of painting in general within the art world, one cannot help but think of John Yau’s prolegomenon to an exhibition by painter Mernet Larsen, in which it was stated that painting had become a dead and obsolete practice. Pondering this, it was somewhat refreshing (and deadpan) to chance upon Mark Flood’s Another Painting (2013), stating, on its magenta surface, just that.

Painting is always a fair favourite; particularly abstract painting. And ABHK is no different. There is the spectacular abstraction on show at Pearl Lam Galleries, with Zhu Jinshi’s oily clumps, Su Xiaobai's lacquered surfaces and Jason Martin’s luminous aluminium surfaces. Of course, abstraction in general is popular fair fodder when it comes to the two disciplines fairs trade in: sculpture and painting. Hans Mayer has brought a specific kind of taste forged from a Dusseldorf scene – Carl Andre, Imi Knoebel, Jürgen Klauke, Robert Mangold and Mariko Mori, intermingling with works pertaining to a more figurative, pop-infused palette, Kenny Scharf, included.

But in thinking about abstraction’s prominence and the continued popularity of painting in general within the art world, one cannot help but think of John Yau’s prolegomenon to an exhibition by painter Mernet Larsen, in which it was stated that painting had become a dead and obsolete practice. Pondering this, it was somewhat refreshing (and deadpan) to chance upon Mark Flood’s Another Painting (2013), stating, on its magenta surface, just that.

But of course, paintings – as strange as they might seem to those in the art world who have an interest more in the practice of art as a social enterprise rather than a commercial one – are always beautiful to look at. And there have been some beautiful moments so far; Jumaldi Alfi’s Melting Memories, The Beginning of the End (2012), at Edwin’s Gallery, Roxy Paine’s PMU No.45 (2011) at Kavi Gupta, Lee Kit at Lombard Freid, Hong Kong’s current darling given his impending Venice Biennale collateral “pavilion” currently being set up as we speak (Kit’s cardboard paintings are also on view at ShugoArts). Lombard Freid also presented works by the iconic King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou Choi, which begs the question (as it was raised at the Intelligence Squared debate), as to whether the market is indeed a good judge, given “The King” was largely ignored in his lifetime, as incredible and as potent as an artist as he was in life.

Then there is of course local heavy weight Osage, a staunch supporter of a particular kind of painting, including Lee Kit’s teacher at the Chinese University, Lui Chun Kwong, and young artist Au Hoi Lam, whose exhibition, My Father is Over the Ocean, showing at Osage Atelier to 30th May, has pretty much made everyone who has visited it cry – this writer included. 

In terms of art fair trends, sculpture follows a similar trajectory to painting, with a mixture of abstract and figurative and everything in between. This year, highlights include Nandan Ghiya’s incredible one-man presentation at India’s Exhibt320 as part of the Insights sector, showing glitch-crafted renditions of traditional wood carved sculpture depicting Hindu deities. In Discoveries, Sullivan+Strumpf have highlighted the exquisite work of Penny Byrne. It is the kind of work and presentation – produced from manipulated ceramic and porcelain figurines – that appeals to a very specific kind of jaded romantic.

In truth, I did wonder if Byrne’s work sold and for how much, but it can so often feel crass to report on the price of a work that activates a subjective feeling. Besides, even if I did try to report on the market, I would end up sounding like a “Wild Fox,” a nickname in Chinese for those who use a language they do not understand in order to appear knowledgeable.

And so, given the sheer number of market reports that go on in an art fair, and the fact that prices (and speculation) of art works so often dominate the discussion (as Georgina Adam of the Financial Times noted), I will leave the monetary listings (of real and factual worth) to the professionals.

But for those of you who are interested, here’s what I know. On the first day, Victoria Miro reported a sale of a work by Yayoi Kusama to an Asian collector, a Botero was sold at Galerie Gmurzynska to a Malaysian collector, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac sold a Robert Longo, and a Tom Sachs, Hauser & Wirth sold, Sterling Ruby, Bharti Kher, Thomas Houseago, Zhang Enli and Rashid Johnson, while HanartTZ reported a sale of four pieces by Qiu Zhijie for a total of HKD 1million. Blum & Poe, Lehmann Maupin, Casa Triangulo (an excellent booth of works by Sandra Cinto, Marianna Palma and Joana Vasconcelos) and OMR also reported positive sales.

In a further update, I learned that Tina Keng sold eight works from a series by Xu Jiang and Paul Kasmin Gallery (with one of my favourite series of images in the whole fair and possibly ever by Tseng Kwong Chi) sold a lot of Ivan Navarro. Meanwhile, Arndt, Mendes Wood, De Sarthe, SCAI, ShanghART all reported happy sales.

To go all Jerry Saltz, I’ll say this was: Good! Great! Amazing! Because let’s face it. The art world (and the art market) needs to survive, so that people like me, and those of you reading this, might survive with it.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the Intelligence Squared debate as I conclude my coverage of ABHK, and whether the market was seen at the end of this discussion as the best judge of quality in the contemporary art world, though I suspect we already know the answer. As Matthew Collings noted: the market is indeed a judge, but it is only one judge of many.

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