Asia Life

Hong Kong: Asia’s New Art Capital?

With the city’s first Art Basel event, Hong Kong is cementing its status as one of the world’s leading art centers.

Jonathan DeHart

Since May 2, visitors to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour who have come to take in the stunning view of the city’s magnificent skyline and mountainous backdrop have been greeted by an eye-catching addition: a 16.5-meter-tall inflatable rubber duck bobbing in the bay.

After being deflated for “maintenance” for a week, prompting a bout of collective despair, the giant inflatable fowl is back. The aptly named Rubber Duck Project is a quirky art piece set free to float in the bay until June 9 by Dutch artist Florentijin Hofman as part of the city’s massive art week – month, really – currently underway.

The month of May is shaping up to be an annual artistic tour de force for Hong Kong, with galleries across the city displaying increasingly sophisticated and globally relevant exhibitions, both catering to the city’s burgeoning art market and elevating the overall aesthetic consciousness of the city.

Aside from catching the eyeballs of visitors to Victoria Harbour, Hofman’s duck alludes to a deeper point. During Hong Kong’s manufacturing heyday in the 1970s, rubber ducks of the bathtub variety were a major revenue generator for the city. Today, the blown-up version plying the polluted waters of the harbor heralds the arrival of a different market force: modern art.

Hong Kong’s presence in this mega-market is growing by the year. It will receive another massive boost today with the kick-off of the first, hotly anticipated Art Basel fair.

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“The turnout at this time of year has always been strong; however I think that the buzz around Art Basel Hong Kong will have a significant effect on the caliber of international collectors,” Mark Saunderson, co-founder and Director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show, told The Diplomat.

Our-Soil,-Our-Homes_-by-Birdy,-Chu-Shun---100-x-80-cm---Acrylic-with-Photograhpy-on-canvasArt Basel is but one of Hong Kong’s many epic shows currently underway. A number of other galleries – both local and non – also hold numerous satellite shows this week, selling art that ranges from the traditional to the bleeding edge. A list can be seen here.

The Asia Contemporary Art Show is one of the largest. Inaugurated last year, it managed to bring together around 60 galleries and attract more than 5,500 visitors. This year’s show, to be held on four floors of the JW Marriott, will feature more than 70 rooms with 2,000 artworks produced by young, emerging and mid-career artists, aimed at slightly more budget-conscious collectors. The show is one of many, and more will come.

“The arrival of international auction houses, followed by the international ‘big boys’ Gagosian, White Cube, Perrotin have changed the landscape from sleepy Chinese contemporary back water to one of the most exciting frontiers for art – the market is in the East,” Saunderson said. “With rear guard action by government and playing regional catch up, with M+ and development of West Kowloon Cultural District, the Asia region offers an established base of serious buyers and collectors.” And importantly, he adds, there waits “in the wings a broader educated and aspiring public.”

_A-Walk-in-Rousseau's-Forest_-by-Mitsuru-Watanabe,-A-Gallery,-2012,-33.4-x-45As Time Out notes, Hong Kong is the world’s third largest art market in terms of auction sales. The number of visitors streaming through the doors at last year’s ART HK event – taken over and replaced by Art Basel – is an indicator to the market’s recent growth. In 2008, ART HK’s first year, 19,000 showed up. By 2012, the number had jumped to 67,000. This year is likely to continue the trend.

While Hong Kong’s strength has traditionally been Chinese modern art, there is a growing presence of Western artists. Even if it was a slight drop in sales, Sotheby’s Hong Kong still raked in HK$2.05 billion ($263 million) in sales from one art and wine showing last autumn.

“For a long time Hong Kong has been the market point of entry of mainland Chinese contemporary artists – and while they have had mass appeal in the last decade, some local Hong Kong and regional artists are being recognized,” Saunderson said, mentioning Halley Cheung (winner of the Young Artist Prize at the Asia Contemporary Art show last year) and Jims Lam (who won the Hong Kong Art Prize this year).

With today’s inaugural Art Basel event, Hong Kong will cement its reputation as an art hub. The four-day event is considered the world’s premier art show – only held in Switzerland and the U.S. until now – in which more than 3,000 artists from across the globe and 245 top galleries will come together to exhibit some of the world’s most progressive art. The event takes up where ART HK left off.

But having a large art market does not equate to having refined sensibilities. As Time Out suggests, Hong Kong’s art scene is held back to a degree by a handful of niggling factors. Namely, the city’s art community has a conservative streak, carries political baggage linked to the Mainland, suffers from a lack of meaningful critique and is prohibitively expensive for gallery owners paying rent in one of the world’s frothiest real estate markets.

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Asia-Contemporary-Art-Show-2012-(6)“Hong Kong has a good, interested audience for contemporary art, but I don’t think there’s enough of an educated audience for conceptual art [yet],” said Pui Pui To, founder of 2P Contemporary Art Gallery. “A lot of people who come by the gallery would be like ‘what’s this?’ The educated audiences are usually those who are already involved in the art world, like curators and writers; many of them come from overseas.”

Still, momentum is building and Hong Kong is coming into its own, thanks in large part to the massive art happening each May, which grows by the year.

“One learns about art through having the opportunity to see it, and I think historically in Hong Kong, there had been very few opportunities to see modern and contemporary art in an institutional setting,” Art Basel Asia director Magnus Renfrew told Time Out. “But that’s changing.”

In a separate interview, he adds, “I think the cultural ecology of Hong Kong is really starting to come together.”