Art Basel Hong Kong Ends On A High Note, Have They Struck The Winning Formula?

Art Basel Hong Kong 2021 Genearl Impression. © Art Basel.
Staff at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021 reminding visitors to adhere to social distancing regulations. Photo by CoBo Social.
Lehmann Maupin at Art Basel Hong Kon 2021. Photo by Daniel Murray. Image courtesy of Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London.
Anat Ebgi at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. © Art Basel.
Ora-Ora at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. © Art Basel.
MASSIMODECARLO at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Photo by Michele Galeotto. Image courtesy of the artists and MASSIMODECARLO.
David Zwirner at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Image courtesy of David Zwirner Paris, Hong Kong, London, New York.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

Even with travel restrictions and social distancing measures still in place, Hong Kong’s annual fairs—Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central—returned last week with solid sales and strong attendance further proving that the live art fair experience is irreplaceable—although it might take us a while to get used to seeing that many people again.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

As we enter a new week, and the 9th iteration of Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) comes to an end, my Instagram feed is brimming with posts and stories from friends and acquaintances celebrating getting through yet another Art Basel manic affair, and more importantly, what appears to be solid sales and good financial turnout.

After a one-year hiatus, ABHK returned to the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre (HKCEC) from 19 through 23 May (if you include private viewing) with 104 galleries hailing from 23 countries and territories. Of these, more than half were presented as satellite booths (otherwise known as “ghost booths”) manned by interlocutors hired by the fair. There were a few kerfuffles getting in, with staff and visitors alike all unfamiliar with new health and safety protocols in light of the ongoing pandemic but one settled, it felt like business as usual inside the fair hall.

 

Art Basel Hong Kong 2021 Genearl Impression. © Art Basel.
Staff at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021 reminding visitors to adhere to social distancing regulations. Photo by CoBo Social.

 

Admittedly, I was utterly unprepared for the bustle of the VIP preview, which opened coinciding with a public holiday making it unusually busy for a first day—a great thing for the galleries, but less so for us who had been spoilt and accustomed to quiet first-afternoon visits. Perhaps adding to that, the past year of socially distanced living meant that being in a crowd sent a shock to my nervous system. Nonetheless, a few Red Bulls and a couple of laps of the fair later, I was able to again focus on seeing the art on display. Overall the quality of artworks this year was high, and while galleries largely took a less risky approach by bringing their best-selling artists, many of the works were new or rarely seen.

Among my favourites was Lehmann Maupin. Based out of New York, Seoul, London and Hong Kong, the gallery has also just recently announced a pop-up space soon to open in Taipei next month. Their artists are also making headlines with museum and institutional shows around the world from Tony Oursler’s retrospective at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (2021) to Lee Bul’s major exhibitions in Saint Petersburg, Russia (2020), and more recently, in South Korea at Seoul Museum of Art (2021). While Bul’s paintings and sculptures were central highlights of Lehmann Maupin’s presentation, it was Los Angeles artist Lari Pittman’s painting Vanitas #3 (Semper) from his new body of works with symbols of hope, new beginnings and rebirth that really made me stop for a second look. Meanwhile, on the other side of the booth walls hung two evocative paintings by London-based Iranian artist and former Turner Prize nominee Shirazeh Houshiary who was recently the subject of a solo show at the gallery’s New York space. Created using pigment and pencil on black aquacryl on aluminium and canvas, the works, in their lush blues, gave off a sense of serene energy as I walked by, inviting a moment of pause amid the hustle.

 

Lehmann Maupin at Art Basel Hong Kon 2021. Photo by Daniel Murray. Image courtesy of Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London.

 

Other booths I pleasantly enjoyed discovering include ITALIANS, the collective booth showcasing eight Italian galleries presented by the Italian Cultural Institute, which had names familiar to me such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Lucio Fontana, Elisa Sighicelli and Giorgio Morandi and others new on my radar.  To my surprise, there were several satellite booths that really set out to impress (and impress they did) such as P.P.O.W’s dedicated Elizabeth Glaessner presentation from which 18 paintings were sold; Los Angeles gallery Commonwealth and Council’s duo showcase of Kang Seung Lee and Carrie Yamaoka; David Kordansky Gallery’s sold-out Huma Bhabha presentation; Anat Egbi’s eye-catching colourful booth of paintings by Greg Ito, several of which sold to private collections in Taiwan and Hong Kong for between US$15,000 and US$50,000; and Danh Vo’s symbolically charged installation, updated from an earlier iteration shown at the 2019 Venice Biennale, at Taka Ninagawa’s booth. In hindsight, much of the cynicism surrounding the operation of satellite booths seem to be dispelled. True, some booth minders were less than enthusiastic in conversing about the art on view, but many were proactive and attentive, even if their knowledge was somewhat lacking and visitors really needed to make the first move to ask questions. When it came to sales, while it’s hard to have a fully transparent picture, there seemed to be healthy activity going on and genuine interest across many satellite booths. On the whole, Art Basel may have landed themselves a winning formula for organising fairs in a time of limited global mobility, albeit with a few tweaks for improvement next time.

 

Anat Ebgi at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. © Art Basel.

 

And lest we forget, Art Central also returned, ditching the harbourfront tents for a spot in HKCEC. Although as a fan of its past iterations I’m glad to see its return, this edition just didn’t quite cut it. Being in the HKCEC next to ABHK and Christie’s rather spectacular Spring Sales previews made it convenient, but that’s where it ends. Booths and aisles were so unnecessarily crowded on both my visits to the fair, making the viewing experience much less enjoyable, even thought there were noteworthy art on show. One might argue a busy fair is a successful one, but spatially there was much to be improved in the fair layout especially if they wanted to keep reminding us of social distancing. When it came to sales, one could easily spot lots of stickers floating around next to wall captions. However, while some galleries told me they had sold well to visitors, others noted that sales were largely secured pre-fair, and in-person transactions were sorely lacking.

Looking back on the week, it is clear that doubts over Hong Kong’s strength in local and regional buying, given its traditionally high dependency on overseas galleries and collectors, may no longer hold water. Even with some wrinkles that need to be ironed out for improved visitor experience, Hong Kong galleries were aplenty this year and strong sales further proves localisation may very well be cementing itself as the next modus operandi.

Among Hong Kong galleries, Gallery Exit placed Grand Tour in Google Earth: Machu Picchu, a new large landscape painting by rising star Stephen Wong Chun-Hei for US$28,000 into a local private collection. Blindspot happily reported a nearly sold out booth with works selling in the range of US$5,000–70,000. On the other side of the fair, Ora-Ora also reported good sales made including Juri Markkula’s hard-to-miss—and heavily Instagrammed—pigment works in blue and in green, selling for US$40,000 each. The gallery also sold Zhang Yanzi’s series of masks painted while the Beijing-based artist was under quarantine in New York last year, for US$75,000. A few stops down, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery expressed very positive results with overall sales adding up in the range of HK$3 million. One Hong Kong gallery that made a remarkable impression on visitors and collectors alike was unquestionably de Sarthe Gallery who sold works by local artists Andrew Luk, Mak Ying Tung 2 and Chinese artist collective Double Fly Art Center in the range of US$10,000–18,000. The booth had a never-ending stream of visitors, as did Luk’s large-scale installation nearby which was originally intended for the Encounters sector of last year’s cancelled fair. Willem Molesworth, director of de Sarthe Gallery said, “We have had a very successful fair, selling over 25 artworks to important collections across Asia. In particular, we were thrilled to place Andrew Luk’s large-scale installation Haunted, Salvaged with K11 Art Foundation. It’s been wonderful to have Art Basel back and see collectors turning out so strongly. Their support for our contemporary roster of young artists has been amazing.”

 

Ora-Ora at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. © Art Basel.
MASSIMODECARLO at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Photo by Michele Galeotto. Image courtesy of the artists and MASSIMODECARLO.
David Zwirner at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Image courtesy of David Zwirner Paris, Hong Kong, London, New York.

 

Many international galleries with physical locations—and therefore staff on the ground—in Hong Kong reported strong sales during the fair, further reinforcing the stance that local and regional buying power is solid, and an indication that Art Basel Hong Kong may very well continue strength to strength here. Several galleries enjoyed the glory of first-day success. Lévy Gorvy sold Joan Mitchell’s circa 1962 painting 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock for around US$19.5 million soon after the fair opened for VIP preview. The iconic three-metre-tall abstract painting was first owned by prolific American artist Sam Francis until his passing in 1994, and was last auctioned off at Christie’s New York in 2018 for US$14 million. MASSIMODECARLO sold Maurizio Cattelan’s provocative work Night—an all-black American flag perforated with bullet holes—for €950,000. Other galleries who basked in major sales on the first day include Hauser & Wirth whose George Condo painting, Blue in A flat, which made its debut at the fair, was snapped up by an institution for US$1.75 million. Iwan Wirth, President, Hauser & Wirth commented, “90% of our first day sales of works by our artists have been placed in truly superlative collections across the region which shows that the art market in Asia is on a high.”

Similarly echoing this sentiment, Uli Zhiheng Huang, Director of Perrotin noted, “Buying art in person is still a format preferred by collectors in Hong Kong who possess strong purchasing power.” Perrotin presented works by Korean artists Lee Bae—all of which were acquired—and Kim Chong-Hak in the range of US$10,000–500,000. Ben Brown Fine Arts remarked being very happy overall with the fair, successfully selling works in the range of US$38,000 to €150,000 while White Cube sold 13 pieces bringing in some US$2.9 million. David Zwirner sold more than 10 works on the first day and all four new works by contemporary Belgian painter Harold Ancart, the highlight feature artist of the booth, were sold including three oil paintings which were snapped up by an art museum in Asia for US$300,000 each. At Lehmann Maupin, Lari Pittman’s Found Buried #4 (2020) sold to a private collection in Malaysia for US$300,000 while Vanitas #2 (Aternum) (2021), sold for US$225,000, and will soon be housed in a prominent museum in China. An emotionally evocative work, Shirazeh Houshiary’s Fission (2019), in a deep electric blue, was snapped up for £150,000 while Lee Bul’s Study for Light Tower (2019) sold for US$115,000, both to private collections in Hong Kong.

As the adrenaline of art week passes, we can walk away from the experience with renewed confidence in Hong Kong’s position as the art trading hub of Asia and with fresh hope that we are indeed making strides forward in building a strong local and regional community. As Shasha Tittmann, Director, Lehmann Maupin so aptly put it, “There is something really special about seeing the art and our community in real life—all under one [roof].”

 

 

 
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