Never has brand power been more in evidence at an art event than at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. This was the seventh incarnation of this popular fair, but only the second under the ownership of the company responsible for the two biggest contemporary art fairs in the world – Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.
As you can see, the primary brand is “Basel” itself: a name synonymous with the growth of the art fair phenomenon. Nowadays it seems that every medium-to-large city has to have an art fair, with prominent examples in New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Chicago, Cologne, Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai. Yet in terms of global reach Basel, Miami and Hong Kong forms an unbeatable triumvirate.
On the surface there is little resemblance between Basel, a staid, Swiss banking town, and vibrant, chaotic Hong Kong, but both cities have a healthy respect for money and the things it can do. To Hong Kong, Basel represents European expertise and reliability; for the Swiss, Hong Kong is the entry point to an Asian market with vast potential for growth.
The Swiss touch was in evidence this year with an improved level of presentation. Both the gallery spaces and the corridors seemed remarkably spacious and uncluttered. It may also have been reflected in the amount of blue chip works priced at more than a million dollars, which challenged Chinese buyers to abandon their habitual preference for auctions and do some serious shopping.
A second level of branding came with the big sponsors: UBS, the Swiss bank that has been collecting art for 50 years, accumulating some 35,000 works; Davidoff, purveyors of those expensive cigars Joe Hockey likes to smoke; and Audemars Piguet, a leading name in the competitive watch market. The last two companies have both sponsored special art projects.
The UBS collection is itself an anthology of leading brands: Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky, Tracey Emin, and so on. The other sponsors sell luxury goods, and this is exactly the way Art Basel would like us to think about contemporary art. When you’ve already got the share portfolio, the watch and the cigars, why not acquire some art for the home or office? The ultimate lifestyle accessory, it lends a pleasing air of cultural sophistication to any aspiring business.
Does this sound cynical? It’s merely the mechanisms of a market place constantly searching for new clients, trying to turn small collectors into major ones. Nevertheless, the art business is not like any other. Regardless of the price tag there are few works of art produced solely as commodities. Even the most successful artists are engaged in a struggle with their own little demons, trying to renew sources of inspiration. Few of them have the marketing instincts of Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons – they prefer to leave the business angle to their dealers.
Those dealers know that for an artist to be a successful on an international level it’s not sufficient to sell works to private collectors. Above all they crave the patronage of the public museums that confers an air of historical importance. This is the reason why Art Basel Hong Kong puts such emphasis on curatorial projects, lectures and forums. The art must be deemed important for reasons other than price. Monetary value is portrayed as a logical corollary of aesthetic value.
In some instances this a useful fiction. Most people who buy a Damien Hirst spot painting (a recent catalogue identified almost 1400 of them) are simply acquiring a status symbol, a recognisable luxury item. Yet in the majority of cases there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the artists or the curators who are motivated by a range of considerations.
Part of this value-adding came from a component of the fair called Encounters, which featured 17 large-scale sculptural installations and performances by well-known artists, selected by Yuko Hasegawa, Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Another section, Insights, consisted of curatorial projects from 47 Asia-Pacific galleries. The most prominent Australian contributor was Jan Murphy from Brisbane, who hosted a sell-out show of work by Danie Mellor.
The final special component was Discoveries, which featured one and two-person shows by emerging artists, presented by 27 galleries. There was a US$25,000 prize awarded by an international jury. This went to a gallery called Experimenter, from Kolkata, for paintings by Tunisian artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, exploring “the notion of confinement”. Like so many committee decisions it seemed a strange choice. For more adventurous work they might have looked at two extraordinary machines by James Capper, at London’s Hannah Barry Gallery, or the painstaking graphics of Nadia Khawaja, at Thomas Erben, New York.
In the same section, Australian artist, Noel McKenna, enjoyed a successful solo show, hosted by mothers tankstation of Dublin. It was a reminder that in a globalised art market galleries are not obliged to show work by local artists. It also capped a very positive fair for Australian artists and dealers.
There were nine Australian galleries included in a total list of 245: Anna Schwartz, Dianne Tanzer, Jan Murphy, Jensen, the Murray White Room, Roslyn Oxley9, Sullivan + Strumpf, Tolarno and Utopian Slumps. Almost every one seemed satisfied with the response they received.
Apart from Murphy’s sell-out with Danie Mellor, Sullivan + Strumpf found buyers from New York and Singapore for Sam Leach’s work, while Tolarno did a brisk trade in paintings by Ben Quilty. On the other side of the Tolarno stall, Anastasia Klose set up a satirical T-shirt shop and rapidly disposed of her entire stock of a shirt labelled “Art Blasé”. Among her best customers was the fair’s director, Magnus Renfrew.
Nine from 245 may not sound impressive, but it was an infinitely better representation than Australia achieves in Basel, where no-one was accepted last year. It should also be noted that New Zealand quadrupled its representation, if one accepts Andrew Jensen as both a Sydney and Auckland dealer. He was joined by Michael Lett, Hopkinson Mossman, and Starkwhite – the latter standing out with a compact, museum-quality survey of abstract painter, Gordon Walters.
Looking at the fair in more general terms, searching for trends and emerging stars, I’ll venture a few tentative observations. One of the surprises was the miniscule amount of video work being shown this year. This may have been because audio-visual pieces were included for the first time in a separate film program, but it was also a tacit acknowledgement that private collectors prefer paintings and sculptures.
As Noel McKenna found, there was a healthy market for small paintings. There was also a range of innovative brush and ink works, including an impressive solo show called Letters from a Distance, by Chinese painter, Peng Wei, at Hong Kong’s Galerie Ora-Ora. There were an unusual number of tapestries, and a resurgence in narrative art. These tendencies combined in the massive Map of Truths and Beliefs, by British artist, Grayson Perry, sold to a Taiwanese corporation by London dealer, Victoria Miro.
There were also exceptional one-offs. An artist such as Francois Xavier Lalanne may not be a familiar name in Australia, but British dealer, Ben Brown, had little difficulty in selling a stylised metal sculpture of a gorilla for a million euros.
Shanghai’s Pearl Lam continued her long march to prove that the Chinese invented abstract art, with a lively, eclectic display that attracted a lot of attention. But if one had to nominate a single artist who will come out of Art Basel Hong Kong with his reputation and prices enhanced, it is Zhang Enli, a new generation painter whose work would have been unthinkable in China even ten years ago. Zhang is unusual in both the crudeness of his paint application and the way his subjects sit poised between figuration and abstraction.
International heavyweights, Hauser & Wirth, sold ten of Zhang’s pictures for prices in excess of US$200,000, while Chinese gallery, ShangART, disposed of everything by Zhang they brought to the fair. This success is no surprise because Zhang’s star has been rising for some time, but it is one thing to do well, and quite another to be seen doing well. For maximum visibility with collectors and curators from both Asia and the west, there is no place like Hong Kong.
Art Basel Hong Kong 2014
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 24 May, 2014