Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hong Kong Art Fair 2009

Photo by Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An Artistic Quest in High Gear

HONG KONG — Martina Navratilova, looking tanned and fit, bounced a tennis ball a few times hard on the ground, as if preparing for a serve. But the balls were covered in paint, and her target was a canvas.

The tennis-as-performance-art took place next to a champagne bar. The scene summed up the Hong Kong International Art Fair — part of this city’s quest to become a global hub for luxury goods.

Sales of art, jewelry, antiques and wines have made Hong Kong the world’s third-largest auction market, after New York and London. ART HK 09, which attracted more than 27,000 visitors over the four days that ended Sunday, was as much a trade show as a cultural event.

The first thing visitors saw was White Cube, one of a handful of London galleries whose presence was something of a coup for a fair only in its second year.

The organizers had literally built a big white cube through which viewers walked to see the Antony Gormley installation “Transubstantiate.” “It’s the first fair we’ve ever done in Asia, so it’s quite important to us,” said Neil Wenman, a director at White Cube. “The Chinese collectors are now looking at Western artists, mostly the ‘blue-chip’¦ very recognizable names.”

One comment from visitors there was that they were seeing Damien Hirst’s butterfly paintings for the first time, after viewing endless catalog reproductions. (At one of the sales held on the sidelines, Seoul Auction sold “Tranquility,” from the butterfly series, for 13.37 million Hong Kong dollars, about $1.71 million, making it the most expensive Hirst piece sold in Asia.)

If limited to the fair’s prime real estate, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking it was a retrospective of the fashionable and the British. White Cube had works by Hirst and Tracy Emin, plus one of Marc Quinn’s Kate Moss sculptures. Lisson Gallery was there with Julian Opie’s pieces. Much attention was paid to Ben Brown Fine Arts, which was offering two Francis Bacon portraits estimated at 32 million Hong Kong dollars each.

Gagosian Gallery was around the corner with a line-up of modern and contemporary stars: Picasso, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons, Giacometti.

But they were not representative of the participating 110 galleries, chosen from about 300 applicants. There was a wide range, as one might expect from a group of exhibitors from 26 countries.

Refreshingly, the Asian selection was no longer dominated by the big, laughing Mao faces, neon colors and flying babies of the Cynical Realism movement that first made Chinese contemporary art so hot. Some of the best pieces were rather quiet, like the delicate bronze trees by Wu Jian’an or Xinning Shi’s black and white paintings that play on 20th-century political leaders. Xu Bing, long known for his elegant, clever plays on Chinese calligraphy, had a tiny gold-hued metal cage with a mechanized bird inside.

Magnus Renfrew, the fair’s director, told reporters there were works from 8,000 to 80 million Hong Kong dollars.

Tucked in the back were lesser-known names like Gallery Exit, which had modestly priced ink-on-paper works by Lin Xue, one of the few artists actually based in the city. Others included Simon Birch, a British-born artist, and Konstantin Bessmertny, a Soviet-born artist based in nearby Macao.

“You can’t be a cultural hub without a good local art scene,” said Claire Hsu, founder of the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of research materials on Asian contemporary art. “The art fair is a good thing,” she said. “But we’re not going to become a cultural center because of one art fair.”

There was a sense that the art market, affected by the global economic downturn, might offer opportunities for smaller companies, newer collectors and bargain-hunters.

The second Asian Auction Week coincided with the fair, a collaboration among the auction houses Larasati of Singapore, Shinwa of Tokyo, K Auction of Seoul and Kingsley Art of Taipei. Daniel Komala of Larasati called its ambitions “very modest.”

The Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming’s “Tai Chi” works was among the few iconic pieces known in the West. (Though they did throw in one token Warhol print). In the end, 146 lots sold for a total of 17.33 million Hong Kong dollars.

“This collection is not going to impress anyone with its big names,” Mr. Komala said. “These are up-and-coming artists, maybe for newer collectors.”

Publicity materials for ART HK 09 used a surreal photo by Zhang Ding, a 20-something not to be confused with a veteran painter of the same name. Some of the components were distinctly Asian and rural: a young Chinese man with a crew cut walking a bicycle, with a horse’s head attached to it, in front of a pile of dried grass. But he’s wearing a showy white tuxedo. In the background are the faint lights of the big city, framed in garish red velvet curtains.

Called “Great Era,” its message — especially when paired with ubiquitous ads, posters and brochures — was clear. Asia may be developing and unrefined, but it is ready to step into the spotlight.