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Art Basel Vernissage: The Lowdown

By Diana d'Arenberg  |  Hong Kong, 17 May 2014

The second edition of Art Basel kicked off Wednesday with a VIP preview that saw no shortage of collectors streaming through the doors. It felt like a Swiss banking conference in the VIP lounge, as Julius Bar, UBS representatives and financiers all milled around waiting for the doors to open for the preview at noon.

Come 12pm, the VIP lounge emptied as collectors scuttled to snap up art works. “Well, this fair isn’t for seeing, it’s for buying. Other fairs are for seeing,” remarked one Art Basel representative.

Although the fair is held at the same venue as last year, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, this time around the fair was so slickly done that several visitors commented that it felt like a luxurious art shopping mall.

Notable collectors including Uli and Rita Sigg, Budi Tek, and Max and Monique Burger, stalked the aisles of the fair as well as British architect David Adjaye, and artists including Takashi Murakami, who was keeping it low key sans entourage as he visited the booths at the afternoon preview. Chinese artist Zeng Fangzhi was attending to an audience of admirers in front of his painting at Acquavella Gallery while Japanese artist Kohei Nawa was spotted at Tokyo’s SCAI The Bathhouse, posing beside his glass bead coyote.

Many art galleries this year have brought out their big guns. New York gallerist Christophe Van der Weghe presented a collection of blue chip works including Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat and Picasso, while Hammer Galleries presented a collection of modernist and impressionist works including paintings by Renoir, Picasso and Chagall. Annely Juda Fine Art from London presented a series of David Hockney paintings that no doubt created a flurry of activity on instagram. And Princess Michael of Kent was holding court at  Zurich Galerie Gmurzynska, with yet another Botero exhibition.

There was plenty of work from Asian artists too, reaffirming Art Basel’s commitment to Asian art. Hanart TZ had a fantastic display of works by Chinese artist Gu Wenda, whose hair installation is suspended as part of the Encounters section. While Beijing’s Long March space presented works from Xu Zhen, Liu Wei and Wang Jianwei, and Berlin's Arndt gallery put together a selection of Indonesian and Filipino artists including Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo and Rodel Tapaya.

Art fairs can be more taxing on patience and relationships than a Berlin swingers club, particularly when you can’t get what you want. What’s that? You wanted this painting? Any painting? Sorry, all spoken for. "Art dealers don’t have friends. They only have clients” one collector huffed as he marched out of the booth of a London gallery after failing to secure the object of his desire.

And what would an art fair be without the rumour mill in full grind? Whispers of another Art Basel set to open in Moscow seem to be just that, although talk of a Design Miami fair in Hong Kong abounds as does chatter that the founders of Art Hong Kong will create another satellite art fair in Hong Kong, adding to the evolving art landscape of Hong Kong.

The vernissage after party seemed to be all about the Absolut Art Bar this year. Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas created an apocalyptic bunker complete with sandbags and zombie mixologists as guests sipped red vodka cocktails from bloodbags. Queues snaked around the block with some party-goers waiting up to an hour in the humidity and heat outside to be let in to the already packed space.

Inside guests were met with a saucy burlesque death dance by local performer Julie Shah, a dark and moody rock set by Hong Kong duo The Belfies (self promoting hussy I am), and Singaporean artist Ming Wong put on a Blade Runner inspired performance in manga costume and corset.

While others were sensibly making a reasonably early night of it, we legged it to a Japanese whisky bar, a couple of architects and art world impressarios in tow, and then for a regrettably late night-cap at Kee club where the party was still in full swing. Resultant looks of hangover despondency were etched on numerous gallerists faces the next morning. Two more days of this and not even the Moldovan underworld will have a use for my liver. —[O]

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