UNSCHEDULED: The World’s First Post-Covid-19 Art Fair Welcomes 2,836 Visitors Over 10 Days

UNSCHEDULED was held from 17 through 27 June at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
UNSCHEDULED organisers and curators. From left to right: Willem Molesworth, de Sarthe Gallery; curator Ying Kwok; Fabio Rossi, Rossi & Rossi; and curator Sara Wong. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Installation view, Liu Bolin at the booth of Over The Influence at UNSCHEDULED. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Installation view, Aruta Soup at the booth of L+ Lucie Chang Fine Arts at UNSCHEDULED.Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Installation view, Heman Chong at the booth of Rossi & Rossi at UNSCHEDULED. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
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THE 2020 SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE

 

Solo-artist booths, 12 exhibitors, an entrance fee of HK$80—did the envelope-pushing anti-art fair ultimately push the envelope enough?

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

In Hong Kong at least, we’re supposed to be experiencing what pundits have spent months predicting: the new normal. And guess what? It looks a whole lot like the old normal—just with more masks and sanitizer.

But while we’ve learned to scrub our hands, scrubbing the art world of its predilections hasn’t been so easy. Don’t be fooled by the barrage of digital initiatives that attacked your inbox like vultures at a carcass—before the government had indicated any easing of social restrictions, the guardians of the Hong Kong art world were hard at work planning the next bricks-and-mortar art fair, a small-scale foil to the cancelled Art Basel Hong Kong, appropriately named UNSCHEDULED. Art is, in the end, best appreciated when it’s in front of you.

 

UNSCHEDULED was held from 17 through 27 June at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

 

Amid the doom and gloom of thwarted openings and other happenings, UNSCHEDULED has been a beacon of hope for the industry and an opportunity to rethink the format of an art fair the way Hongkongers have come to know it; organisers have been mindful to position UNSCHEDULED as part of the whole museum-without-walls movement, appealing to the masses as well as monied collectors.

Format-wise, it’s already been a mind-trip for galleries, who were asked to submit proposals for solo-artist booths, no exceptions, featuring pieces that have some connection to Asia. The works were ideally to be priced affordably, either in deference to the economic downturn or in another attempt to democratise the work. The entrance fee was a mere HK$80, with visitor numbers totalling 2,836 across the 10 days it opened to the public. And the venue held but 12 booths over two floors of Tai Kwun’s Block 01 lower ground basement, meaning that fairgoers might actually have time to scrutinise each individual piece and learn something about the artists presented, as opposed to simply basking in the aura of being surrounded by lots of expensive artwork.

After being rescheduled once, UNSCHEDULED finally opened 18 June, with Ying Kwok and Sara Wong as fair curators, after having sat on the selection committee. Fair curation is a relatively young endeavour—despite fairs having existed for more than half a century—with a reverse process to typical curation, creating narrative from existing proposed elements. That said, with single-artist presentations the concept is more easily handled, particularly given that the pandemic and its associated phenomena make for an unspoken common narrative.

 

UNSCHEDULED organisers and curators. From left to right: Willem Molesworth, de Sarthe Gallery; curator Ying Kwok; Fabio Rossi, Rossi & Rossi; and curator Sara Wong. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

 

The duo was an excellent choice, given their relative independence from gallery affiliations and their approach, both holistic and cerebral, which has brought order to a format best known for competitive anarchy.

“My first impression was that it’s going to be a very cozy art fair,” says Kwok, “With no big aisles separating different booths. Wherever you are, there’s always one corner of your eye that can be looking at other work. [So] the connection and dialogue between the artists is very important, and was one of the key considerations when we designed how to distribute the booths.” The architecture of the fair was in and of itself notable, with a bird’s eye view of the lower floor of nine booths accessible from the upper floors, and high archways demarcating the edges of each mini exhibition, with directions to each gallery inscribed on the floor almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

The curators also divided the presentations into three categories: “Sort of related to what we’ve been through in this situation for some months,” explains Wong. “We are constantly being reminded to maintain a distance, and [the categories are] sort of a reflection of this. We were interested [in how] different artists have a different strategy with how they position themselves with their audience in different ways.”

In the category they loosely termed as “Indirect,” Kwok explains how artists such as Etsu Egami from Whitestone Gallery, Kitty Chou from Ben Brown Fine Arts, Mak Ying Tung 2 from de Sarthe Gallery and Liu Bolin from Over The Influence “introduce a mechanism to try to completely separate themselves from the subject matter.” She adds, “In the case of say Mak Ying Tung 2, even in the process of creating, she doesn’t take part in it.” Mak notably raises questions regarding authorship by having various Taobao-sourced painters create individual panels of triptychs that combine to form scenes inspired by life-simulation game The Sims.

 

Installation view, Liu Bolin at the booth of Over The Influence at UNSCHEDULED. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Installation view, Aruta Soup at the booth of L+ Lucie Chang Fine Arts at UNSCHEDULED.Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

 

Other artists, the curators perceived as being “Engaged”: Frog King Kwok from 10 Chancery Lane, Huang Dan from Galerie Ora-Ora, Irene Chou from Hanart TZ Gallery, Ng Chung from Contemporary by Angela Li and Aruta Soup from L+ / Lucie Chang Fine Arts. “They are engaged with the motif, the audience, their surroundings,” says Kwok. “The [last] group is ‘Detached.’ It’s how we see them: they will not completely separate or put up a barrier, but the motif and relationship is quite detached.” Falling under this category are Duan Yifan from Leo Gallery, Chou Yu-Cheng from Edouard Malingue Gallery and Heman Chong from Rossi & Rossi.

That the curators have been considerate to a fault might have been lost on many fairgoers, but it is a fact that remains nonetheless, with thought applied to juxtapositions and even lines of sight. Though Irene Chou and Aruta Soup fall under the same category, for example, they were placed sufficiently far enough so that their wildly differing aesthetics would never be gazed upon at the same time.

One might argue that even the most avid fair-attending collector would fail to grasp the nuances of these groupings without guidance—a curatorial statement was distributed to press via email, but an overarching statement that rationalises the programme would surely have been a welcome addition for those present (or, in the interest of trees, perhaps a QR code option? After all, the art world is so very digital now…).

And perhaps, since Kwok notes that they had taken to terming each gallery presentation as an “exhibition” rather than a “booth”—it wouldn’t have hurt to show a little bit of context to guide the audience, who might not understand why Liu had been painted into his environment, or how Chong’s book titles related to their graphic representations, or even, say, why Frog King was sitting at a desk giving out masks he’s drawn all over.

 

Installation view, Heman Chong at the booth of Rossi & Rossi at UNSCHEDULED. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Image copyright and courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

 

These extended captions, of course, are not mainstays of an art-fair format—more, perhaps, the whimsical musings of one writer. But one might stroll past Egami’s portraits without a second thought without Wong’s insight from the gallery’s initial proposal: “The proposal was [created] in response to the situation,” says Wong. “The process is, [Egami] gathers images from CCTV systems, and then she picks up images of human figures as a source for the painting. I think that is definitely an experience that is so relevant to what we are seeing now—how people rely more and more on digital devices in social life and in connections with other people. This is something the artist is looking into as a main motif.” Explanations like these are essential in making the art world more accessible, in closing the distance between a painting on the wall and the pairs of eyes that can look upon it without seeing.

That said, given the short timeline the curators and fair organizers had in executing UNSCHEDULED, it was a success—intimate enough to be personal, with a strong beating heart and good intentions, right down to the idea of paying forward some of the fair proceeds to NGO Hands On Hong Kong.

The gripes mostly surround wasted opportunities—there’s a preponderance of palatable items, i.e. paintings that are easily transported and fit neatly on most walls, with a line-up of artists that is best termed as solid, rather than truly ground-breaking (even up-and-coming hot property Mak had static work on show rather than some of her more conceptual meanderings, even if much of it was created as ironic commentary on the art world’s lust for paintings and sketches).

And yet, there is something to be said for this Little Fair That Could, whether it is a one-off experiment or a long-term disruptor to the model—and hopefully, it is the latter, because this is an initiative that could have even greater impact in future editions.

“Being international, diverse and big is interesting to sponsors, and for tourism as well. So that’s why scale seems very important with all international art fairs,” says Kwok. “But this is a time, whether by choice or not, to really try to look at what is around us, and to respond to the region. “Let us not follow what is the winning formula,” she emphasises. Keep it up, and it might be one soon.

 

UNSCHEDULED
17 – 27 June, 2020
Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

 

 
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