A week of memorable highs and lows, and at times crashing expectations, kind of like the contemporary art market, really.
I was Brainwashed the Friday before Art Basel Hong Kong kicked off. French street artist, Mr. Brainwash, was holding court—to an audience full of Hong Kong society types, complete with bodyguards, and media—with a spray can in a graffiti decorated shell-space in Lan Kwai Fong. It was one of several property developer-artist ‘collaborations’ taking place over the course of the week, largely meant to sexify a building project. Hey, this is Hong Kong. It’s all about the property (developers).
The main performance, sorry … intervention, of the evening involved Mr. Brainwash spray-painting a small group of guests, including yours truly. Donning white lab coats like we were Maison Margiela shop assistants, Brainwash proceeded with his shtick and spray, covering us with colourful hearts in front of the audience. ‘What? Is that all?!’ Sometimes the thoughts in my head escape unintended. I felt duped, like I was at a Scientologist convention where they promise you a cure for all your loneliness and alcoholism and instead all you get is an egg sandwich and a bill for two thousand dollars. ‘What do you mean is that all?’ The Frenchman sounded irate. I wasn’t going to get my lab coat signed after all. Exit through Lan Kwai Fong.
Over in Quarry Bay there was a Para Site preview to check out, and it didn’t disappoint. Titled Afterwork the group show is the strongest and boldest yet from Hong Kong’s oldest non-profit art institution. Through the works of domestic workers and established artists like Alfredo Jaar, the exhibition aims to tell the stories of Hong Kong’s and Asia’s growing population of migrant domestic workers. A powerful and moving exhibition that couldn’t be more timely in a city where economic and social disparity is hidden and often left unaddressed.
Later that weekend over a few drinks I caught up with artists Joel Morrison (who came bearing two of the finest bottles of Mezcal); Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai; flipper favourite, Oscar Murillo; New Zealand artist Simon Denny and Serpentine director Hans Ulrich Obrist who chatted about Proust, Joyce, technology, and his 10,000 book library in Berlin. You need Google and Adderall to keep up with the man. Later I fashioned a fictitious rock band with Korakrit and Serpentine’s Amira Gad, who it emerged as well as being a talented curator is also a drummer. Coming to an Art Basel party near you.
Though it was beating down with torrential rain, and I had forgotten my umbrella, we made our way on foot to Edouard Malingue Gallery to see Laurent Grasso’s beautiful solo exhibition, Élysée. The exhibition, which is an oasis of serenity and resplendence, centres around the artist’s new film which was shot in the office of the French President in the Élysée Palace. Next we hit The Mill’s Gallery for Social Fabric, a stellar exhibition by Berlin artist Marina Hahn and Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung-chi. Put together by UK curator, David Elliott, the exhibition grapples with Hong Kong history, identity and politics. Hanging from the ceiling in a section of the space were salt-water hardened silk dresses, which looked like colourful skins. In another section of the space, visitors had to walk over a carpet of what looked like Chinese flag pins—but in fact was the Hong Kong Bauhinia flower—into a white angular room which opens into another small claustrophobic white room, monitored by surveillance. I commented to Elliot that it felt like walking into the Chinese embassy. He responded with a knowing smile.
Across the road, in the Cosco Tower, the K11/Serpentine gallery exhibition, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad, was in full swing. Titled Hack Space and featuring a dozen artists, including Simon Denny, Cao Fei, Xu Qu and Firenze Lai, the exhibition was an exploration of hacking culture, innovation, shan zhai (the culture of fake or pirated products) and a dollop of politics. Xu Qu, who I had spoken with in his Beijing studio some months before, presented a series of metallic columns crushing yellow umbrella spokes (a symbol of the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution of 2014). The message was none too subtle. Nonetheless, a Swiss collector friend summing up the exhibition commented, ‘The exhibition was great, but quite conceptual. I don’t think a lot of people will get it’. Standing before a Simon Denny work beside a Hong Kong socialite, I was asked: ‘I don’t get it. Like, why is there an alligator here?’
Dinner that evening was an elegant affair hosted by Richard Chang and MCA Australia’s Liz Ann Macgregor to celebrate Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s (who was sporting one of his number shirts) installation illuminating the ICC building’s facade. The evening was attended by a bevy of Japanese art world luminaries like director of Mori Art Museum, Fumio Nanjo; collector Mr Takeo Obayashi; and football star Hidetoshi Nakata (aka the David Beckham of Japan) whose sake (at USD1000 a bottle) we were all enjoying. Art world mover and shaker (and CEO of Intelligence Squared which was holding a debate later that week on whether the art world has sold out) Yana Peel, and ICA Executive Director, Gregor Muir were also there for the celebration.
Tuesday afternoon the doors opened to the VIPs. There was no elbowing of one another or racing down the aisles like it was a Black Friday sale. The atmosphere was calmer and a welcome relief to the preview openings of Basel. There was celebrity spotting galore: Adrian Brody (now an artist, having sold a dinosaur painting for 100k at amfAR’s Saturday benefit auction); Leonardo di Caprio (not yet an artist but you never know); actor Owen Wilson; and race car driver Lewis Hamilton who, as he walked past us, was given the thumbs up by my companion as well as an enthusiastic congratulations on his last album. Awkward silence. To be fair he was dressed like a back up dancer from a Yeezy video.
The layout of this year’s fair differed, and it was all the better for it. Booths were more open and the configuration less formulaic. There were fewer overall exhibitors than the previous years, but quality was up, and there was, as Asia Director Adeline Ooi promised, more of a presence from Asia Pacific exhibitors and artists. I loved the delicate meditative fine line drawings by Li Huasheng at Beijing’s Ink Studio, and Take Ninagawa’s selection of resin and chromogenic print works by Shinro Ohtake.
Around the booths Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery showed a solo presentation of William Kentridge’s work; Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi presented a couple of welcome discoveries in the Insights sector with works fusing Malevich with Persian miniature mosaics by Farhad Ahrarnia, and a thought-provoking and moving series of works by Shahpour Pouyan exploring memory and destruction.
David Zwirner showed five paintings by artist Michaël Borremans, which were all sold during the first day of the VIP preview, including to China’s Long Museum. A revelation for me was gb Agency, which premiered an intense and unmissable screening of Omer Fast’s Spring (2016), a multi screen projection that explores longing and loss with a narrative that loops in on itself. It also features a rather catchy song that I wouldn’t attempt searching for online unless you want to be considered a permanent flight risk (or worse).
David Kordansky Gallery injected a bit of LA cool with a great acrylic on canvas and neon piece by Mary Weatherford. Hauser & Wirth had a couple of crowd pleasing Louise Bourgeois works, including a large sculpture of a couple of spiders, and a fantastic Mark Bradford collage. One of the most beautiful booths, Milan’s Francesca Minini, was a walk in installation with works by Matthias Bitzer and Francesco Simeti. I bumped into Israeli artist Arik Levy, whose Instagram account I have been stalking for some time, who confessed that he wanted to take a photo of my dirndl braids for his friend, artist Gideon Rubin. Rubin was showing a series of his faceless portraits at Karsten Greve. I traded him the photo for a Biesenbach selfie.
I peeled myself away from the Davidoff party that evening, where Craig David was playing poolside at the Grand Hyatt, to make it to dinner at the Upper House with UTA and Swire in honour of Larry Bell, who had created an installation of red Perspex boxes for Swire’s Pacific Place mall. The evening was attended by the artist wearing a pajama top; Asia’s answer to Howard Roark, German architect Ole Scheeren; tech entrepreneur Abdullah Alzabin; Paddle 8’s Alexander Gilkes; and head of UTA, art and luxury world marriage broker, Josh Roth, who officially became my favourite person of ABHK week after telling me he confused supermodel Karolina Kurková with me: ‘I told her how happy I was she was taking part in our panel discussion. I thought she was you’. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the Ari Gold of the art world.
I don’t know who’s to blame, but we ended up at Kee Club for Tolga’s party night afterwards, pogo dancing (in 6 inch heels no less) in a packed room along with Art Basel director, Marc Spiegler, on a vodka soaked dance floor. In the corner of the red-lit, packed and smoky room, there were rumours that Rita Ora, or some other blonde pop starlet and entourage were in the house; I have no idea who, and neither did anyone else apparently. It was enough to mention the name of a celebrity to send a wave of electricity through the room. That reminds me, the last time I was in the same room as Rita Ora there was much eye rolling as my entourage nearly got kicked out of the Chateau Marmont after a couple of friends enthusiastically celebrated the end of rehab with an oversupply of martinis and a large bowl of non GMO organic kale. No doubt the eye rolling continued as I leapt into the splits on the floor—after 20 years of gymnastic inertia—and had to be helped back to my feet by a friend. Flat shoes and bruises would be sported at the fair the next morning.
Wednesday afternoon I chatted with Art Basel 'Encounters' curator Alexie Glass-Kantor about her selection of the fair’s curated section, and the conquering of the art world by cool Aussies to an audience at the UBS lounge where the food was infinitely better than anything on offer at the fair. I was loading my plate like I was at a Michelin catered Star Wars-themed Bar Mitzvah. Kantor’s second year edition of 'Encounters' was a particular highlight of the fair this year. On show were 16 playful, political, socially conscious and beautifully seductive works. There was something to engage visitors’ every sense. My favourites were Pae White’s metallic tapestries and chandeliers filled with Chinese herbs sourced from Kowloon herbal shops; and Kyungah Ham’s woven installations produced in collaboration with North Korean weavers. The drawing and collage blueprints for the tapestries were smuggled across the DMZ—sometimes the finished product would make its way back across the border, sometimes not, mirroring the struggle and dangers of those trying to defect from the DPRK. Australia-based Indonesian artist, Tintin Wulia’s installation Five Tonnes of Homes and Other Understories (2016) was a poignant commentary on Hong Kong’s domestic works, who gather every Sunday across Central with their temporary cardboard shelters to socialise, in the absence of any community centre. Encounters' first Indigenous Australian artist Brook Andrew, created a large-scale photo based installation referencing his Aboriginal ancestry and colonial history. It was a diverse and intelligent selection of artists.
Later at David Kordansky’s dinner I kept it sober in preparation for an early morning panel discussion I was moderating, and as a result was nodding off like Donald Trump at a Linda Nochlin lecture. It wasn’t the company; David is a mensch, a true art world gent, but art fairs are fuelled by booze the way Burning Man is fuelled by Silicon Valley and MDMA, and I was hitting a wall. I sheepishly left early, but not before Paris Hilton was spotted leaving the restaurant’s bathroom. She was heading out to nightclub 'dragon-i' later that evening to plug in her USB stick for a postprandial ‘Art Basil’ set (it’s not a typo; that’s what was written on her promotional poster). Due to my catatonic state I could only muster a brief visit to the Tobias Rehberger party at the MCM, celebrating the German brand’s collaboration with the artist. Yes, another collaboration, in case the dozen luxury brand collaborations and shopping mall exhibitions and events taking place that week weren’t enough. Gucci was doing their thing for #Guccigram, an instagram collaboration with Chinese artists including Cao Fei; Shanghai Tang with Hong Kong performance artist Frog King Kwok (who seemed to be making as many appearances as the Hiltons and Emin); Landmark shopping mall inexplicably hung a Rubens from a futuristic plastic caterpillar suspended above Celine; and practically everyone else had teamed up with street artists in an effort to gain some street cred and art world glamour. Rehberger filled the space with a dizzying display of lines making for great posing backdrops for all the socialites, bloggers and Hiltons in attendance. We got a sticker for taking a selfie. The bloggers got swag. Sometimes the payoff for being an art writer just doesn’t feel right. No discounts on a Richter, no free art swag.
On the topic of art and fashion collaborations, Thursday morning I was moderating a UTA and Swire panel discussion between Jeffrey Deitch, Alexander Gilkes and William Zhao, on the collision of art and luxury post Murakami, and the branding of visual culture. Another panelist, a certain fashionista ‘walker’ to the beautiful people (look it up, it’s a thing, like ‘Conversation Architect’) and author of a best selling book on etiquette (oh, the irony) was a last minute cancellation, claiming conflicting travel schedule, although he was spotted around the fair later that day. Deitch is an endless well of entertaining anecdotes and information. Did you know he was the first to bring a Warhol exhibition to Hong Kong in the ‘80s? On the phenomenon of artists as brands Deitch opined, ‘I find it disconcerting and amusing that the artists I began working with have started talking about themselves as a brand. This would have been anathema to the Abstract Expressionist. Could you imagine de Kooning talking about his brand? But this has become a part of how visual culture is being communicated’.
Hanging out on Wan Chai streets in the rain is never a good idea. The area historically has a seedy reputation, being the first port of call for visiting sailors and horny middle aged English and Aussie men, and the setting of Suzie Wong. But I was on a mission, waiting for my interview with Joel Morrison. Standing out the front of a Vietnamese restaurant bearing the sign ‘Com Banh Mi: By Chef Phuc Dat Bich’ (I have the photo in case you don’t believe me) I seemed to attract the attention of two spotty prepubescent sailors who I had managed to shoo away with my best Leonard Cohen bass voice (easy to do after several days of passive smoking with French curators); they wanted Miss Saigon, they got The Crying Game. In a random bar playing Tupac Shakur, and serving surprisingly good martinis, I chatted with Joel about his latest body work on notorious artist, Carl Andre, and the state of the art world and musical reinvention. ‘Great artists and great musicians will always be great and most of them will always hover to the surface ... but the art of the slow burn, the art of reinvention, and the art of being an artist, mastering your craft, or perfecting your instrument is crushed under this paradigm’. At Carbone that evening art host with the most, collector Richard Chang, pulled together a crowd as only he can for an intimate dinner with Vito Schnabel, including Maria Baibakova, Silas Chou, Robbie Antonio, and Paris Hilton who was getting more exposure than … err, nevermind.
In the absence of the annual Chai Wan Mei or Peel party, where artists rub shoulders with curators, collectors, fashionistas, and fabulous Hong Kong creatives, Central Police Station cultural complex director, Tobias Berger, and artist Yuk King Tan hosted a small affair at their home on Friday night, packed full of local artists, curators, friends and critics. I chatted with Hong Kong artists Lee Kit and Angela Su, and curator David Elliott about the best Berlin clubs and our mutual love of Araki’s photography. It was a nice relaxed contrast to the schmoozy rubber necking affairs that dominated the week’s calendar. As we readied ourselves to leave, Berger brought out cheese platters, freshly flown in from wherever cheese is sent from, and the Euros descended upon it like Roman Polanski upon school-aged girls. Within minutes there was nothing left but rinds.
Over the weekend, I checked in briefly one last time at Art Basel. Big mistake. The aisles were heaving with visitors. Over the course of five days the fair had attracted a record number of 70,000 visitors, most of whom seemed to arrive on the last two days. Tickets sales had to be stopped. It was a frenzy that made dealers nervous of their art works. Announcements were going off every ten minutes reminding visitors to not touch the works, to no avail. I peeled two children off a painting as their parents stood idly by, and watched one man screaming at a bemused German dealer for telling him to not touch the artwork. Several galleries I had spoken to had work moved out of harm’s way as visitors bumped into art works taking selfies. We sought refuge in the Davidoff lounge where we plopped ourselves in front of Jamaican-French artist, Olivia McGilchrists’ VR video while depleting their champagne and peanut supply.
Over at Art Central, it was a weekend culture carnival. I was greeted by a long queue of screaming children, irate and restless in the midday sun (the first appearance of sun in a week) before entering the schvitzing tent. I visited the Sundaram Tagore booth and was confused to see what looked like a moving sculpture on the pedestal. On closer inspection it appeared the work was moving from passersby bouncing on the elevated floors. Works and walls were shaking. I had to leave soon after my shirt started sticking to me like a victim of a wet t-shirt contest at a Perrotin party, but not before grabbing a taco at the fair’s street food café. It may have been all square feet at Art Central, but unless you had a UBS lounge pass for Art Basel, the food was definitely better.
The week wrapped up at Fly with the unofficial Art Basel party to tunes spun by DJ duo David Evangelos while Adeline Ooi and Marc Spiegler danced behind the decks. Gallerists that had stayed on after the end of the two VIP preview days (many left) were crammed at the bar desperately trying to get the attention of the staff for much needed alcoholic relief and chatting each other up. One newly minted art dealer was trying to seductively sell me a modernist artwork I didn’t want (but at a ‘good price’ and of course a ‘guaranteed investment’) while quickly removing his wedding ring. Multitasking at its finest. They promise you the world, and then as soon as the transaction is complete, like a bad one-night-stand you never hear from them again.
Hottest dinner place in town during ABHK? Tsui Wah, where the mighty and the fallen rub shoulders, forgetting their woes and digging into a bowl of char siu at 4am. I assured my companions they would be met with the glamour of a Wong Kar-wai film, I may even have mentioned that Maggie Cheung hangs out there. All lies, of course, but this seemed a better option than the McDonalds down the road, which was a river of vomit and broken glass. Instead my companions got floating fishballs in grey soup and fried rice. A week of memorable highs and lows, and at times crashing expectations, kind of like the contemporary art market, really. —[O]