A Walk Through the Art: Art Basel Hong Kong 2016


Frank Stella, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

Frank Stella, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016


As far as art fairs go, you don’t get bigger than Art Basel. And that’s saying something when almost every week in global calendar heralds some kind of major art event. Barely had the dust settled in Maastricht and Art Dubai when Art Basel Hong Kong opened its doors to the international art world. But the sheer mind-boggling number of exhibitions and events by galleries and institutions around the island – not to mention the presence of Art Central, a satellite art fair now in its second year and Asia Contemporary Art Show – made a trip to Hong Kong Art Month (as it’s not ambitiously called) worth every dollar.

But back to the main event: Art Basel. Notwithstanding recent news that the Chinese art market had shrunk by 23% last year, the incessant rain and gloomy skies that dominated the Hong Kong skyline for pretty much the entire week, the first couple of preview days hinted at a more positive week ahead for the fair. The beautifully dressed international griterati trickled into the gargantuan convention centre at a steady rate, booths were spacious and well-curated, conversations with gallerists flowed, and the mood, despite the weather and the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Belgium, whilst not buoyant was definitely defiant. Later on in the week, for the first time in the fair’s history, tickets on the public days were sold out.

The heavily protected Art Basel brand prides itself on being the best of the best and this 4th edition of Art Basel Hong Kong certainly didn’t disappoint. All the usual suspects of the Western blue-chip coterie such as Vik Muniz, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor – kept company with a number of established and rising Asian names including Zhang Ding, Zhang Xiogang, Luis Chen and Yeh Shih-Chiang. Of the 239 galleries hailing from 35 countries, nearly half of the exhibitors were Asia-based galleries, with an impressive 38 galleries from New York alone.


Wan Lee, 313 Art Project, Art Basel HK

Wan Lee, Colorful Wig Falls, 313 Art Project, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016


Figurative painting dominated the fair. Aesthetics reigned. Colour was king. Controversy kept to a minimum. Examples were Do Ho Suh’s simple but staggeringly beautiful display of threaded drawings and pastel rubbings of mundane interior objects on paper at STPI and Nevin Aladag’s heavenly-sounding Music Room series, featuring a chair, lamp, hat stand and side table which had been turned into musical instruments at Wentrup Gallery Berlin. Black stood out amongst the riot of colour. At Thomas Dane, Glen Ligon’s velvety-textured black smudged stenciled and coal dust drawings were inspired by the books of the African-American author James Baldwin.

The Vietnamese American artist Tiffany Chung stood out at Tyler Rollins for the political and social historical content of her project The Vietnam Exodus, examining the plight Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Cool, clinical cartographic drawings documenting refugee flows, statistics and the network of detention centres contrasted with individual memory garnered from inscriptions, images and videos. A refugee herself, Chung provided an unsentimental – and perhaps for this very reason – powerful and authentic insight into refugees’ experiences whilst highlighting the impact of ever shifting asylum policy-making on the already distressed. Potent viewing indeed.

The Taipei gallery TKG+’s project Mapping an Island Nation investigating the post-war modernisation process in Taiwan with the works of five artists was also something of an eye opener. Kitsch, kooky and kaleidoscopically colourful, there was a lugubriousness about the presentation which was strangely alluring.


Wu Tien-Chang, TKG+, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

Wu Tien-Chang, Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavillions, TKG+, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016


The fair’s various sectors were impressive and well curated. The film sector, which was showing feature-length films for the first time in addition to short films, made news for Micheal Schindhelm’s stunning film about Swiss art collector Uli Sigg in The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg. Sigg, a businessman turned ambassador, was one of the first Westerners to amass a behemoth collection of contemporary Chinese art. The 1,510 works will shortly be housed in a museum being built by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron in M+ Hong Kong.

Over at the Discoveries sector intended to showcase emerging artists from across the world with solo or two person exhibitions, the Japanese artist Yukihiro Taguchi shone for his thought-provoking, poetic stop-motion animation films, one of which featured a pyrotechnic trail at night. At the Encounters section showing large scale works, Nathalie Djurberg’s and Hans Berg’s colourful birds swallowing pills in A Thief Caught in the Act and Pae White’s Metallics and Modules made for dazzling viewing. Over at the Conversation and Salon sector, everyone flocked to the talk between Tracey Emin, Tim Marlow, director of Artistic programmes at the Royal Academy, and Sir David Tang. The irrepressible Ms Emin also enjoyed her first solo Hong Kong exhibition in not one but two galleries, Lehmann Maupin and White Cube, coinciding with the fair. Emin’s show I Cried Because I Love You deals on the seemingly non-exhaustive subject of her love life. But this time, perhaps to up the ante, the work featured Emin’s marriage to a large rock.


Li Quing, Art Central HK, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

Li Quing, New Kitchen, Art Central HK


Tracey Emin’s wasn’t the only popular talk. Elsewhere throughout the city, a multitude of other events were talking place. In Art Asia Archive, an non-profit which documents and archives art in the region, the programme included a fascinating talk by the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Entitled The Photo We Never Got, Gupta’s research based project on the friendships, love and associations in the field of art across three decades was refreshing, so too was the discussion with the Singaporean artist Simryn Gill. Gill’s talk on her unfinished photographic series Station Hotel, which has languished in her bottom drawer for years, was inspiring for the quality of her work as much as the artist’s thinking about her practice. In the frenzy of the world of the art fair, Gill’s talk provided an oasis of calm, a reason to remind ourselves why we’re all here.

Over at the satellite art fair, Art Central, it was a very different story. Now in its second year, the fair hosted about 100 or so galleries, three quarters of which were from Asia (Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong). The work was mixed in quality, although apparently it was a lot better than last year. There were some eye-catchers like Li Hongbo’s concertina paper sculpture Young Man in Dominik Mench Gallery, Li Quing’s almost hyper-real painting New Kitchen at Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Seungmo Park’s stainless steel mesh sculptures at Art + Shanghai Gallery, and Li Xiaofeng’s porcelain sculptures at Red Gate Gallery. The fair’s talks programme boasted an ambitious line-up of speakers such as Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the award-winning choreographer and visual artist Shen Wei, and Melissa Chui, director of the Hirschorn Museum. The public was also able to participate in round table discussions with a selected panel of art professionals.


Shi Xinning, M+ Sigg Collection, Artistree, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016

Shi Xinning, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, M+ Sigg Collection, Artistree, Art Basel Hong Kong 2016


If one had to pick a must see show after Art Basel, the clear winner was M+ Sigg Collection, Four Decades of Contemporary Chinese Art at ArtisTree. The exhibition comprises a selection from the new M+ Museum and is – surprisingly – the first-ever chronological exhibition about the emergence of Chinese contemporary art. Featuring 80 works by 50 artists including Fang Lijun, Geng Jianyi, Huang Yong Ping, Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiogang, the exhibition spanned from the cultural revolution to the post-Olympic era, and illustrated the enormous cultural change brought about by economic growth and urbanisation – from propaganda to political, from subtle commentary to open critique, from the communal to the individual. The question that one cannot help asking now is: Where is all going to go next?

Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on 22 – 26 March 2016.







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by Gowri Balasegaram
in A Walk Through The Art

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