Art Basel Hong Kong 2015

Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center
15 – 17 March 2015

The third edition of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2015 signaled the increasing prominence of this event in the Asian and international art fair calendar with an impressive coterie of participating galleries, collectors, artists and curators, including a relatively strong Australian presence. While the rebranding of this Fair in 2013 under the Art Basel embrace (together with annual fairs in Basel and Miami) raised concerns about it losing its distinctive Hong Kong/Asian identity, this latest edition proved the brand’s strategic mobilisation of power in a city which has long prided itself as a gateway for East-West trade. This edition was also the first under Malaysian curator Adeline Ooi as Director Asia Art Basel (replacing Magnus Renfrew), an appointment aligned with the fact that half of this year’s 233 participating galleries came from Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. 

Located over two sprawling floors of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre overlooking Victoria Harbour, Art Basel Hong Kong is, like any other large-scale international art fair, a cacophony of visual stimuli, a step into a largely contemporary art candy store-cum-warehouse, where excess and brashness can both delight and disorient. In many ways it is the complete antithesis of the art museum experience, where order and context, in terms of curatorial and exhibition design, is the key to accessing the art object. And yet, despite their overarching commercial drive, art fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong increasingly cater to a broader curatorial and art educational/development sector, with related programs at this event including talks and conversations, film screenings, curatorial projects and numerous offsite and satellite events. This year saw the first iteration of BMW Art Journey, which will see an emerging artist chosen from the Fair’s Discoveries section, given the opportunity to develop new work and ideas anywhere in the world. The three shortlisted emerging artists included Mika Tajima (Eleven Rivington, New York), Trevor Yeung (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong) and Samson Young (am space, Hong Kong), who has been announced the first winner. 

The Fair itself is a tightly curated event with the selection of participating galleries assessed by a curatorial panel, reputedly based on the nature of their proposed work for exhibition rather than just their capacity to pay. And there is order too within the overall presentation with four distinct sections in 2015: Galleries (the main section, representing 179 galleries); Insights (curatorial projects representing 34 galleries from Asia/Asia-Pacific region, and including Australia’s diane tanzer gallery + projects with a pointed, poignant display of glass works by Yhonnie Scarce); Discoveries (solo and two-person exhibitions by emerging artists, representing 20 galleries); and Encounters, perhaps the most ambitious section, which was curated by Alexie Glass-Kantor (Executive Director of Sydney’s Artspace, replacing Yuko Hasegawa) and which realised twenty large-scale sculptural installations, throughout the two floors, by artists from thirteen countries, drawn from the Fair’s participating galleries. 

The sole Australian artist among Glass-Kantor’s selection was Mikala Dwyer (Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery) with her voluminous and materially discursive installation Square Cloud Compound, a suitably big and beguiling work which was first shown at Berlin’s Hamish Morrison Galerie in 2010. The installation was well positioned at the Fair, less crowded-in by neighbouring work and yet itself appearing like a magnetic inversion of the event’s very visual and conceptual overload. Chinese artist Zhao Zhao’s Wood Block installation (2013-14) for Encounters held a similar material allure with its cryptic, almost furniture-scale assemblage of shiny steel embossed wood block forms — totemic and temple-like — the wood riddled with age and industry. Wood Block felt more hemmed-in though, as if preferring to be encountered more in isolation and with more space for one to move around and take in its components (as was the case when previously shown at Osage Gallery Hong Kong in 2014, albeit, seemingly, with more components). Just over half the Encounters installations were premiered at the Fair, including Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho’s Lot Lost (2015), festooned with embroidered banners hung over a floor-based mural, and which made an upbeat entrance to the upper level of the Fair. Nugroho, represented by Berlin-based Arndt gallery, was also upbeat about the Fair’s potent commercial and critical blend. ‘Not just about selling art’, he said ‘the fair takes into account the big potential of art development in Asia, including in Indonesia.’1

Just down from Dwyer’s work in the Discoveries Section was a body of paintings by Melbourne-based artist Jon Campbell presented by Darren Knight Gallery, showing at Art Basel Hong Kong for the first time. Although hardly ‘emerging’ in an Australian contemporary art context — like Dwyer, Campbell has been honoured with a major Melbourne Art Fair commission — Knight explained that Campbell is emerging for an international and Hong Kong/Asian contemporary art scene. In this respect, Knight considered the Fair a success with strong interest shown in Campbell’s work, despite some uncertainty about whether the Australian slang-based text in/of his paintings would carry to a Hong Kong and international audience. In this show of eleven paintings, bearing titles such as Up Shit Creek and Fuck Wit, the corresponding text was so beautifully abstracted as to read overall more like pop-inspired essays in smooth colour and pure geometry. The exhibition was also met with a modicum of sales (including ironically to one of Knight’s Sydney clients), with Knight in no doubt about the need to return, at least over a number of years, for his artists to make a lasting impression — on collectors, curators and general public alike. This year’s attendance figures amounted to a busy 60,000 over just three days. 

The pre-Fair visitation (and sales) were also reportedly busy, even before the official vernissage, while the post-Fair publicity made an opening point of the many first-time attendees from around the world, its list of leading galleries, private collectors and art institutions in attendance, singling out several from Australia including Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (which benefited directly from the Art Basel buzz as part of the Fair’s crowdfunding initiative) and the Australia Council for the Arts which also directs funding towards the participation of Australian galleries at such events through its Art Fare: Australian Art Export program. The Australia Council (as I have long argued) could do well to extend its Art Fare support to lift the presence of Australian art publishers at such a prestigious international and regionally significant platform for the trade of both art and critical debate. 

Eko Nugroho, Lot Lost, 2015. Mural, machine-embroidered banners, bronze sculptures; banners include slogans 'Mayoritas dihalalkan minoritas' (Majority is accepted, minority is banned), and 'Negeri kaya yang miskin moral' (Rich but morally poor). Photograph M. O'Riordan. 

notes: 

1. Steve Emilia, ‘ART Basel Hong Kong Made in Indonesia’, Jakarta Post, 2 April 2015, online. See http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/04/02/art-basel-hong-kong-made-indonesia.html

Australian galleries participating at Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 included Anna Schwartz Gallery, Darren Knight Gallery, dianne tanzer gallery + projects, Jensen Gallery, Murray White Room, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sullivan + Strumpf, and Tolarno Galleries. New Zealand gallery Starkwhite presented a show of recent work by Brisbane-based artist Michael Zavros. 

Maurice O’Riordan’s travel to Art Basel Hong Kong was enabled through a Gordon Darling Travel Grant.