Art Basel returns to Hong Kong, scaled down but playing the long game
Asia’s biggest art fair is back. This is the message that the organizers of Art Basel want to convey. But after enduring two years of pandemic-related difficulties, this year’s Hong Kong edition – its second hybrid version – was a very different event from the one that drew exceptional crowds in 2019.
For one, it was smaller with the number of galleries on display around half of pre-2020 levels. It was also much more low-key.
The fair has long been an integral part of the arts calendar, especially among the region’s wealthy elite. But in the face of strict border restrictions – Hong Kong is subject to some of the strictest Covid-19 measures in the world, including a mandatory one-week hotel quarantine – many international art collectors and dealers have chosen to stay away. More than half of the participating galleries opted for satellite booths – or opted to have a local representative on the ground instead of flying in their own staff.
People visit Art Basel Hong Kong 2022 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on May 25, 2022. Credit: China News Service via Getty Images
And despite using live streams, virtual tours and online viewing rooms to help reach wider audiences, many galleries have curated their selections with the important local market in mind.
“That’s why you think the size, volume and price (of works) are more moderate than before,” said Danqing Li, lead international partner of Levy Gorvy Dayan Rohatyn Gallery (LGDR), who has offices in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong.
Andy Warhol’s “Mao” (1973) hanging on the LGDR booth. Credit: Courtesy of LGDR Gallery
For the collectors present, the reduced version had its advantages. Navigating the fair has been made easier, with 130 galleries spread over one floor of the city’s exhibition center, rather than the roughly 240 over two floors as in the past. Another notable feature was the focus on Hong Kong galleries and artists, both of whom were able to claim a greater place in the spotlight.
Larger pieces by Hong Kong artists such as “Fidgety” (2018), an edgy sound installation created by musician GayBird and “Deconstructing” (2004-2019), a knitted sculptural piece made of shredded magazine papers by Movana Chen, were exhibited by Hanart TZ and Flowers Gallery respectively.
“Fidgety” (2015) by GayBird Credit: Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery
Elsewhere, Hong Kong-based Galerie de Sarthe, which also has offices in Beijing and the United States, reported that just over two dozen works by local conceptual artist Mak2 were sold on the first day, his striking paintings ranging from $18,000 to $30,000. Gallery founder Pascal de Sarthe said he didn’t expect the stand – which featured works by Chinese artists Zhong Wei and Lin Jingjing – to be “pretty much sold out” in the first few hours of the show, overseas-based buyers viewing the artworks via WeChat and WhatsApp video calls.
“Home Sweet Home Too Hot To Handle 11” (2022) by Mak2 Credit: Courtesy of Sarthe Hong Kong
Another trend this year has been the large number of galleries opting to exhibit solo presentations, a format according to Art Basel Asia director Adeline Ooi, which offers collectors “more to chew on”.
“When you see a work by each artist, it’s like a word. And sometimes it just doesn’t make sense,” she explained. But when you see a whole piece of work put together, it’s a paragraph…that way it looks more focused.”
Hong Kong-based Rossi & Rossi, for example, presented several works by Tsherin Sherpa, who has been selected to represent Nepal at the prestigious Venice Biennale this year. A Thangka painter by training, the artist often explores themes of identity, injecting a modern twist on traditional Buddhist iconography.
“Skippers (Kneedeep)” (2022) by Tsherin Sherpa Credit: Courtesy of Art Basel
In the Discoveries section, Seoul-based Jason Haam presented a number of moving paintings by Senegalese artist Cheikh Ndiaye. Also featured in this section were the eye-catching reproductions of archival photographs by Xavier Robles de Medina – and although the artist was unable to fly, an iPad screen placed next to an improvised sign reading ‘come talk to the artist and the gallery owner” sitting at the table at the Catinca Tabacaru stand with Robles from Medina and founder Tabacaru from Bucharest, Romania.
“As a young gallery you climb the ladder and for art fairs, Art Basel is the pinnacle,” said Tabacaru, delighted with the inclusion of her namesake gallery in this year’s event. “Performing at this level is worth it,” she said, adding that whether Robles de Medina’s works sell or not, “it’s about being part of the conversation that matters.”
“Gorillas in the mountains of southern Nigeria: World’s rarest great ape pictured with babies, BBC News, July 9, 2020” (2022) by Xavier Robles de Medina Credit: Gallery Catinca Tabacaru
Hong Kong’s strict travel restrictions and terse political environment have cast doubt on the future of the event, especially as other Asian cultural hubs like Singapore go from strength to strength. Although the viability of the global art fair concept has also been debated in recent years.
“Companies are really checking the number of trade shows they do, the returns they get from them, the costs and even from a sustainability perspective and don’t want to travel all the time.”
“The Shape of Light” (2022) by Ellen Pao, a moving image work co-commissioned by Art Basel and M+, presented on the museum facade. Credit: Courtesy of Art Basel
“We spent 10 years in Hong Kong…and if you think about our journey together, it’s been brilliant,” Ooi said of the fair’s commitment to the city. “Of course there were a few bumps, but we are not fair weather friends.”