“They really exhibit all the nice stuff here,” said Amy Lo, Head of Wealth Management at UBS Hong Kong, by way of justifying the Swiss bank’s continuing sponsorship of Art Basel Hong Kong. That statement might serve as a succinct review of this year’s fair, but it’s actually a bit more complicated.
In the whirlwind of publicity that launches every edition of ABHK, one mind-boggling statistic could not be overlooked. At the same press conference Ms. Lo told us there are three new billionaires created every week in Asia, more than two-thirds of them in China.
With 150 new billionaires per year in Asia alone it’s no wonder the world’s über galleries have all opened branches in Hong Kong – the latest being Lévy Gorvy, who have invested in a pricey bit of real estate on Ice House Street. It opened with a group exhibition featuring everyone from Monet and Picasso to Zao Wou-Ki, who was the best-selling artist in the 2018 global auction market, with sales of $462 million.
Featuring 242 galleries from 35 countries, ABHK is a landmark in the international art calendar. It may be an orgy of conspicuous consumption, but because it’s art that’s being bought and sold there’s a lingering mystique that dilutes the aura of grubby commerce. The Art Basel management, and all the dealers, would like you to believe they are selling beautiful dreams, not commodities.
It’s a claim that can’t be entirely dismissed as one will see work of better quality and greater variety at a big art fair than at most biennales. If you’re wealthy enough, it’s all for sale.
At the press conference, along with the stats about billionaires, there was an acknowledgement of the unhealthy gap that has opened up between leading galleries and emerging ones. It’s a bit like comparing a multinational corporation with the local corner store. The leading dealers are selling individual works for prices in excess of a million dollars, the smaller galleries might sell everything they brought to the fair and still not cover costs.
The smaller galleries tend to depend on the popularity of two to three artists, making them vulnerable to cherry picking by bigger dealers. But the profitability of art fairs is ultimately dependent on a steady supply of dealers who can afford the price of a booth. This is one of the motivating factors in all the fair’s subsections and added extras: the film program, the lectures and forums, the section devoted to specially curated projects (Insights) and a platform for emerging artists (Discoveries).
The Encounters section, selected by Sydney’s Alexie Glass-Kantor, features 13 large-scale installations by international artists from participating galleries. The Aussie in the mix is Sullivan + Strumpf’s Tony Albert, whose installation, Native Home, was a trove of Aboriginal kitsch. The strange thing is how innocent it felt. In a museum one would get Albert’s point about the domestication of racist attitudes on all those plates and ashtrays, but amid the bustle of the art fair it was like a visit to the flea market.
The talk of the show this year was Richard Nagy’s solo exhibition of works on paper by Egon Schiele, which included many pieces that would be right at home on the wall of a museum in Vienna. It was Nagy’s first time at the fair, but he knew how to make an entrance.
Looking through the lists of sales after the first two days there were no surprises. The blue chip works were selling for high prices, and the usual contemporary stars were finding eager buyers. Lehmann Maupin announced they had sold Lee Bul’s massive sculpture of a silver zeppelin, from the Encountersdisplay; Hauser and Wirth told us they had sold everything from a Louise Bourgeois show at their H Queens premises. Galleries such as David Zwirner, White Cube and Pace, all reported strong sales.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ghebaly Gallery of Los Angeles sold ten quirky, mixed media pieces by Chinese-American artist, Candice Lin, for between US$2,500 – 8,000. It’s unlikely that her work will ever be that cheap again.
Australia was represented by the four galleries still standing from last year: Fox/Jensen, Roslyn Oxley9, Sullivan + Strumpf, and This is No Fantasy. All seemed to be enjoying themselves, although it’s hard work to match it with galleries that have branches on three continents.
The flag was also flying at the secondary fair, Art Central, where Art Atrium, M Contemporary and MARS Gallery participated. The latter reported very healthy sales and said it had been “a great experience”!
The question everybody asks at art fairs is: “Do you think it’s better than last year?” For the dealers the answer naturally depends on whether they made more sales this time around. To the impartial observer this year felt a little more subdued than 2018, which perhaps reflects a cautious approach to a year in which the Chinese economy – notwithstanding the billionaires – looks less bouyant.
Nevertheless, it was arguably a better, more consistent show, with fewer gimmicks. The same might be said of Art Central, which was more variable in quality, but noticeably stronger than last time.
The sheer quantity of art events competing for attention last week in Hong Kong makes it impossible to discuss anything in depth. It’s sobering to think that little more than a decade ago the island had only a handful of galleries and a few indifferent museums. Hong Kong is now overrun with art dealers: the big names in Central, the emerging galleries in the South. This year I visited two new public venues: The Mills, which is an old factory transformed into a cutting-edge textile museum and art gallery; and Tai Kwun, the former police and court complex, now a home for ambitious contemporary art projects.
And always, lurking in the background there is West Kowloon, speeding towards completion in 2020. The centrepiece is the M+ Museum, which will be the world’s biggest showcase for modern and contemporary Asian art.
Art Basel week has become so vast and overheated, such a blur of activity, that it’s hard to make clear assessments. When I left the fair and ventured to Sotheby’s I began to get more distinct impressions about the state of the international art market.
There was no shortage of paintings by last year’s auction favourite, Zao Wou-Ki, but the most startling example was a picture being deaccessioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York, with an estimate in access of AUD$14 million. Elsewhere in the same sale a classic Mark Rothko painting was being offered by the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, in the hope of even greater returns.
Nothing could indicate more clearly the continuing movement of international art from west to east than major American museums putting up works from their permanent collections to be bought by new wealth in Asia. Art in public galleries is generally considered out-of-circulation, but apparently not if the price is right.
Such sales also underline the power of private money in a world in which governments are handing over the responsibility of cultural funding to the private sector. As museums require ever increasing amounts of money just to keep their doors open, the sale of assets becomes a tempting option.
The other striking part of the Sotheby’s sale was an entire room devoted to KAWS, the former street artist who is now selling pop paintings and plastic, cartoonish sculptures for huge prices everywhere. There’s a lot of competition for the title of the most worthless, cynical, ephemeral phenomenon in contemporary art, but KAWS is unbeatable. Sotheby’s deserves some sort of award for being the world’s leading art pimps.
I’ve often wondered who was the audience for this stuff. Now I know: ‘millennials’ in (very expensive) baseball caps and sneakers. The millennials, this year’s UBS Art Market Report tells us, are the most likely group to spend a million or more on a single work of art. If this is an example of their connoisseurship they are also the most likely to go broke.
Art Basel Hong Kong 2019
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre,
29-31 March, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April, 2019