2020 Wrapped: The Art World in Hindsight, A Personal Reflection

Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy and copyright of Art Basel.
Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains 2012-2020, 2020, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin, dimensions variable. Installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist, White Cube and Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia.
UNSCHEDULED was held from 17 through 27 June at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Aerial view. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Christie’s New York saleroom during the 20th Century Evening Sale on 6 October, 2020. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

2020 has certainly been a year to remember. As the new year quickly approaches, CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui looks back on the past 12 months of headlines and events that shook and shaped the art world.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

What an unprecedented year it truly has been. As we approach the end of 2020, I started to ask myself the question of what exactly have we achieved this year; did anything happen as predicted; and, more importantly, what attitude should we take into 2021. It seems more appropriate than ever to look back at these 12 months and how they panned out through the penned words of our dedicated contributing writers and the CoBo Social team. It was a year of fluctuating emotions—an unpredictable rollercoaster ride that had us sacrificing circadian rhythms, taking on new technological challenges, adapting to unthinkable change and learning crisis management. Nevertheless, we have come out the other end now, and in reflection, we certainly should give ourselves a big hug, indulge in well-deserved sleep, and adopt a positive energy entering the new year. Although just scraping the surface of the myriad of events and headlines that happened, here’s my year in review.

 

Art Basel Hong Kong. Image courtesy and copyright of Art Basel.

 

The Shockwave That Got Us All

In January, CoBo Social sought out seven predictions on the Asian art world by industry professionals. Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald’s prediction came eerily true, for reasons otherwise changed by the circumstances of COVID-19. He wrote, “The 2020 Art Basel Hong Kong and the accompanying auction season, will set the tone for the rest of the year. There are huge vested interests that want the market to remain strong, so if it fails this early test we can expect a rocky road ahead.” And how right he was.

When Art Basel Hong Kong officially announced its cancellation in February, the global art world was indeed shaken. With so much uncertainty, and even more curiosity, we took to thinking about how COVID-19 might reshape the art world in addition to the role collectors may play in this. Art fairs cancelled, postponed or turned digital. By April, the global art calendar became a mess to say the least. Biennials, exhibitions and forced closures were happening left, right and centre. Online Viewing Rooms became the dominant format for fairs, but by October, many of us—myself included—had come to agree this was not the solution anymore. But we still haven’t found the answer (hint: that’s a challenge for 2021).

As COVID-19 spread to become a true pandemic, wreaking havoc on all fronts, the shock seemed to propel the art world to fiercely speak up critically and unleash a reckoning that we are still yet to settle. Museums globally have been making headlines, forced to confront matters of discrimination and inequality, called out by those usually silenced. While sustainability, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter continued to trend, unemployment and problems in top-down leadership became a very hot topic.

 

Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains 2012-2020, 2020, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin, dimensions variable. Installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist, White Cube and Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia.

 

Still, Art Must Continue

Despite the daily mood-shattering headlines, and rather depressing reports that inundated my inbox, I’m grateful to look back and see that we were still able to experience some great exhibitions and art this year; and most importantly, the valuable studio visits and conversations with artists continued, just often in adapted methods. In so many ways, these were my saving grace this year, bringing me back to the core of what matters at heart.

Studio visits are certainly a favourite thing of mine. While little could take place due to the pandemic, I was personally very fortunate to still have studio visits and enlightening conversations this year with Chris Huen in Hong Kong, and David Griggs and Kirtika Kain in Sydney, among others.

Before COVID-19 swept Australia off its feet, I was able to see a major show bringing art world darlings Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat together at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria. The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, whimsically titled “Monster Theatres” reminded us of the power of storytelling and narrative. In Sydney, the Biennale of Sydney was led, for the first time, by an Artistic Director who is both an artist and of First Nation heritage. These remain true 2020 highlights and I’m sure we each have our own list of what made our year in art. While all these exhibitions suffered temporary or early closure due to the pandemic, they quickly created virtual and online programmes, a feat that shows determination and perseverance in tough, unprecedented times.

We also made it to exhibitions in Taiwan, Japan and Singapore—all before March. In January, at the same time as Taipei Dangdai, S.E.A. Focus and the annual Singapore Art Week took place. There was also Louis Ho’s tightly curated exhibition “Strange Things” at an open, derelict warehouse at 2 Cavan Road. In Tokyo, Julia Tarasyuk saw a retrospective of Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga and a survey of Yasumasa Morimura—a master of role play self-portraiture.

As travel bans and border closures took effect, less of us could physically see exhibitions outside—or even in—our home cities. But that didn’t mean all was lost. Still, the Taipei Biennial opened in November, and Bangkok Art Biennale in October. Renowned Chinese artist Zhang Huan became the first Chinese contemporary artist to host a solo exhibition at The Hermitage. Lee Mingwei held his solo exhibition at Gropius Bau in Berlin and Clara Tang spoke to the artist via Zoom, while Franco-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa had a solo exhibition in Hong Kong, later travelling to Greater China, all the while he garnered worldwide attention for his web-based artwork Screen Talk, which became an uncanny omen to COVID-19. There were also many, many conversations with artists, including Christina Ko’s interviews with Jes Fan and Leelee Chan, just to name two.

There were also moments in the year where being in Hong Kong felt lucky—if I may say so. In June, thanks to the hard work of dedicated people rallying together, UNSCHEDULED was realised. Although compact in size, it was the world’s first post-COVID-19 art fair. We also saw, among a nonstop line-up of exhibitions, Mark Chung’s artist residency, a new exhibition by Leung Chi Wo, Microwave New Media Arts Festival and deTour 2020. By year end there had been so much action in the city it almost felt like COVID-19 may just be coming to an end (wishful thinking indeed). Late November also welcomed Fine Art Asia and Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel—bringing back just a bit of that old art fair chatter.

 

UNSCHEDULED was held from 17 through 27 June at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Aerial view. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Christie’s New York saleroom during the 20th Century Evening Sale on 6 October, 2020. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

 

Resiliency is in the (Asian) Market

Questions of the post-pandemic future no doubt has been the most discussed topic of the year. Trying to settle inner anxieties of a crumbling art world, I spent countless hours learning to follow the happenings of the art market, especially the traction of auctions, looking for some semblance of hope. And it did happen. First, Hong Kong’s spring auction season, which finally took place in July after months of delay, showed some promise of survival. Art Basel and UBS released a mid-year report in which Dr. Clare McAndrew of Art Economics sought to survey the impact of COVID-19 on the commercial sector. Although somewhat flawed, the report demonstrated recovery and rebound was possible—just that there was a long road ahead. While we really cannot predict yet how soon the art world economy will make a full comeback, if at all, the year ended on a relatively high note with Hong Kong’s autumn auctions. But it wasn’t without its share of problems. I saw increasingly inflated prices for younger artists, a reflection of a changing collector taste, or perhaps, investment strategy. On a more positive spin, livestreaming also became the embraced format, a way to make auctions a truly global affair. Most vital of all, while on a whole the art market reported a contraction, I want to be optimistic—and a tad cheeky—to think Asia is staying strong and carrying on ahead of the US and Europe.

And, although the tables can turn quickly, I do think that’s a very telling sign for the coming year.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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