Hong Kong Eye
As Hong Kong contemporary art takes over London’s Saatchi Gallery for one of its most important showcases ever, Edmund Lee talks to the three curators behind the historic occasion.
“The interesting thing about a lot of the works we saw is that [they aren’t] particularly saleable,” says Nigel Hurst of his observation on our art scene. The gallery director and chief executive of Saatchi Gallery is by no means being sarcastic – certainly not when his prestigious London gallery is about to host Hong Kong Eye, the first major showcase of contemporary art from our city in the UK. “The really refreshing thing about the works is that I don’t think the artists are particularly market-engaged,” he continues. “In some ways, [it] makes their works more appealing to the art market in the first place.”
Curated by Hurst, Johnson Chang and Serenella Ciclitira (CEO of Parallel Contemporary Art), the exhibition represents the latest project of the Eye initiative, which was founded by Ciclitira’s not-for-profit organisation and has previously launched the projects Korean Eye and Indonesian Eye before the current one on our art scene. “With this opportunity I want to try and recast the narrative of Hong Kong art,” says Chang, director of Hanart TZ Gallery. “Hong Kong art is seen to be a minor corner of the art of mainland China, and inconsequential compared to Taiwan. We need a fresh take in order to put Hong Kong in a bigger picture.” Ciclitira agrees: “We strongly felt that it was about time to give Hong Kong contemporary art the chance to come out of its Cinderella-status, especially vis-à-vis Chinese art.”
Eighteen ‘emerging Hong Kong artists’ have been chosen to exhibit at the Saatchi exhibition, although it’s clear from the selection – which ranges from the 1950s-born veteran Lui Chun-kwong to the Portuguese artist João Vasco Paiva, who has been based here since 2006 – that a loose definition is adopted to provide an embracing overview. An accompanying book, titled Hong Kong Eye: Hong Kong Contemporary Art, is also concurrently published by the esteemed publisher Skira. The hugely informative volume is edited by Chang and Ciclitira and features the works by a wide spectrum of Hong Kong artists spanning several decades. “This is the first major book published by a major European house and [the Saatchi exhibition is] the first high profile show to go to the West,” says Chang, “so it’s a great boost for the local art scene.”
According to Ciclitira, the curatorial process had been a matter of ‘casting [the] net wide’. Apart from communicating with the artists who were already known to them, the three curators had also consulted academics, galleries specialising in Hong Kong art and local curators, professors and entities such as the Sovereign Art Foundation and the Asia Art Archive. “We received over 150 portfolios,” she says. “With the high standard of the works [we] received, the choice was not an easy one but we curators concurred on the final choices for both the exhibition and the book.”
“We started off with about 120 artists and we saw roughly 1,000 pieces of work”, says Hurst, who made it a primary criterion to ‘choose the most visually arresting works’. He continues: “We also wanted to choose works that [comprise] a real blend and not necessarily a repetition of materials because we only have this opportunity once to showcase Hong Kong art for a month in London. So really, it’s not a comment on the quality of the work. It’s really what we thought represents the real breadth that’s going on in Hong Kong at the moment.”
On the morning before our interview, the Saatchi director met with artist Amy Cheung, whose monumental ‘Toy Tank’ from 2006 is one of more than 50 works exhibiting at the gallery. “Amy said from her perspective that she found our selection of works quite eccentric,” says a clearly bemused Hurst, “and that this isn’t a group of artists who would [normally] choose to show together. But that’s part of the joy for us: [coming] from the outside, we can actually create a different environment for the works. It’s an opportunity to show a really raw spectrum of what’s being made here.”
The Hong Kong Eye presented by Prudential exhibition is at London’s Saatchi Gallery, Dec 5-Jan 12, and at Hong Kong’s ArtisTree, May 1-31, 2013. The book Hong Kong Eye: Hong Kong Contemporary Art is published by Skira, priced £46 ($571).