Hong Kong’s art scene needs more than just Art Basel

Calls for Hong Kong to get more creative


Hong Kong saw a creative surge when Art Basel came to town, but there was a push for a more per­ma­nent change to the vis­ual land­scape of the city bet­ter known for its busi­ness hus­tle than its art scene. Asia’s largest art fair un­veiled its first pre­view on March 21 and boosted Hong Kong’s artis­tic cre­den­tials since it first launched in the city four years ago.

A vi­brant, wide-rang­ing “art week” of free ex­hibits and events has grown up around the fair. But for the rest of the year, some feel the city puts too much em­pha­sis on sell­ing, rather than view­ing, with the fo­cus on com­mer­cial gal­leries rather than pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble shows. Hong Kong cur­rently lacks a world class art mu­seum, and mar­quee ex­hi­bi­tions rarely make a stop in the south­ern Chi­nese city. “Ev­ery­thing is about the (com­mer­cial) gal­leries— ev­ery­thing is about it be­ing ex­pen­sive and if you can af­ford it,” said Na­dia Cu­ve­lier, 22, who works in event pro­duc­tion and grew up in Hong Kong. “There’s a cou­ple of walls and a few mu­rals, but it’s so con­tained.” Free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher Jaffa Ho, in his 50s, agrees. “See­ing more art would be bet­ter—Hong Kong would have more cul­ture and in­no­va­tion, more joy and an at­mos­phere of cre­ativ­ity,” he said.

Red Tape

The high­est pro­file public art show to come to Hong Kong in re­cent years was Bri­tish sculp­tor Anotony Gorm­ley’s in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned “Event Hori­zon,” a tour­ing out­door exhibition of shad­owy, life-size male fig­ures, which were scat­tered around the city, some perched on its tow­er­ing rooftops. It was a land­mark show and a big hit with the public, but or­ga­niz­ers say Hong Kong needs to re­duce the red tape.

While it does have a spe­cific arts body, the Hong Kong Arts De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil (HKADC), ob­servers say a more ef­fi­cient ap­proach to hold­ing public ex­hi­bi­tions is needed.It took six months to re­ceive ap­proval for the Gorm­ley show and one statue re­quired mul­ti­ple ap­pli­ca­tions to sev­eral gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, Hong Kong-based co­or­di­na­tor Lev­ina Li-Cad­man told AFP. She likened the pro­ce­dure to ap­ply­ing for a full build­ing ex­ten­sion. Cities like Lon­don and New York have their own public art de­part­ments to stream­line the process, she added.

Hong Kong art com­men­ta­tors say author­i­ties are too cau­tious, for both po­lit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal rea­sons. With con­cern grow­ing in the semi-au­ton­o­mous city that Bei­jing is tight­en­ing its grip, artists in­stalled a dig­i­tal light dis­play run­ning down Hong Kong’s tallest build­ing in 2016. It counted down the sec­onds to 2047—the year the han­dover agree­ment be­tween Bri­tain and China guar­an­tee­ing the city’s free­doms comes to an end. That in­stal­la­tion was re­moved by the HKADC, which said it “demonstrated dis­re­spect.” The dis­play co­in­cided with a highly charged three-day trip to Hong Kong by top Chi­nese of­fi­cial Zhang De­jiang.

Author­i­ties are also hes­i­tant about the

phys­i­cal chal­lenges of in­stalling art in the densely packed city, says art pun­dit John Batten. “The ap­proach to public art is sort of like: okay it has to be safe, se­cond it can’t get in the way,” he said. Batten hopes the city’s new con­tem­po­rary art gallery M+, which is due to open in 2019 but has been mired in de­lays and con­tro­versy, will be a sig­nif­i­cant public art of­fer­ing. But, he says, Hong Kong also needs to change on a deeper level, in­clud­ing em­brac­ing more spon­ta­neous street art and even dec­o­ra­tive store­fronts to im­prove the vis­ual pal­ette.

Artis­tic En­deav­our

Sky-high real es­tate costs can make it hard to find space for pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble art and some pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies are now step­ping into the breach, keen to bur­nish their own creative cre­den­tials. One of the top shows that came to Hong Kong dur­ing Art Basel was a col­lec­tion of early paint­ings and draw­ings by the late Iraqi-born Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did housed at Ar­tisTree—a huge space for vis­ual and per­form­ing arts, which is part of a com­mer­cial com­plex owned by prop­erty de- veloper Swire. A large-scale in­stal­la­tion by Ger­man mul­ti­me­dia artist Julius Popp, in which a cur­tain of wa­ter droplets forms dif­fer­ent words, was also shown at Swire’s Pa­cific Place mall as it says it wants to help in­cor­po­rate art into ev­ery­day life.

The Ha­did exhibition was brought to Hong Kong by Lon­don’s Ser­pen­tine Gal­leries, whose chief ex­ec­u­tive Yana Peel says col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween public and pri­vate sec­tors is key to im­prove the “po­lit­i­cal and phys­i­cal” space for art and idea to thrive. “It’s about part­ner­ships—not just pri­vate, not just public—mak­ing sure that ev­ery ac­tor in this pro­duc­tion re­ally cham­pi­ons the kind of en­vi­ron­ment which val­ues creative and artis­tic en­deavor,” she said.

A visi­tor peers into US artist John Baldessari’s “Beethoven’s trum­pet ( With Ear) Opus #133.” Be­low: Hong Kong Art Basel fea­ture by Liz Thomas is Cock­tails in­spired by the works of Andy Warhol.

Op­po­site page: A man looks in­side the sec­tion of Chi­nese artist Zhu Jin­shi’s “Boat” art in­stal­la­tion at The Ro­tunda in Hong Kong.

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