Is Hong Kong ready for contemporary art?
That is the question. At a time when our city has been taken over by art more passionately and comprehensively than ever before, Edmund Lee takes stock of the conflicting notions that are shaping our future.
In Hong Kong, circa May 2013, it seems reasonable to start the exploration of any topic with reference to a rubber duck. But in the context of our city’s art scene, it takes on a relevance all the more poignant than a mere passing allusion to Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s 16.5m-tall Rubber Duck, which is presently braving the polluted waters of Victoria Harbour. In the glorious days of our toy industry in the 1970s, rubber ducks were one of the major earners for Hong Kong, yet conspicuously absent from the homes of 99 percent of our population. And so it is the case with our abrupt rise towards the pinnacle of the global art market in the past few years, which certainly hasn’t been sufficiently reflected in the maturity of the art-viewing public. Hong Kong is a great gathering point for money, which art always follows. The odyssey for it to become a legitimate art capital, however, is only starting now. Here are some of the major issues that we must address, negotiate or generally begin to grapple with…
Being a leading art market vs Becoming an art-conscious city
As if you didn’t know, Hong Kong’s art market is flourishing. Some 67,000 people flocked to last year’s ART HK, compared to 19,000 during its first edition in 2008. There has been an expanding army of smaller fairs, like the recent Affordable Art Fair, to offer ‘cheaper’ pieces that are priced below $100,000. And our fair city has, somehow, grown to become the world’s third largest art market by auction sales. Indeed, in terms of business, it has been a period of exponential growth. But does this boom necessarily coincide with an increase in public awareness when it comes to contemporary art?
“Absolutely,” says Claire Hsu, co-founder and executive director of the Asia Art Archive. “When we began over a decade ago, we had to beg people to come to our programmes and were lucky to get 10 people for a talk. Now we can easily get a full house with one email to the mailing list. We had about 7,000 people visit the Song Dong exhibition in January in under three weeks, and the staggering [attendance] figures at the art fair every year show people’s hunger to see contemporary art.” Magnus Renfrew, the director Asia of Art Basel who has closely witnessed our evolving art market over the past few years, agrees that things are turning for the better: “One learns about art through having the opportunity to see it, and I think historically in Hong Kong, there had been very few opportunities to see modern and contemporary art in an institutional setting. But that’s changing.”
It is indeed a great time to be an avid art audience in Hong Kong. Aside from the fairs and auctions, local galleries specialising in contemporary art are growing more established by the year, while more multinational galleries are opening branches here than ever before. Just as an impressive diversity of non-commercial exhibition producers are emerging across the city (from the Asia Society to Oi!, the awkwardly titled new community art space at 12 Oil Street), the curatorial team behind M+ – the visual culture museum to be opening in late 2017 at the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District – has been making great strides in assembling a collection to rival some of the world’s best.
So all in all, what else could hold back Hong Kong’s ferocious climb up the art world ladder?
An open mind vs The legacy of Hong Kong education
When the M+ museum acquired 1,510 artworks from Swiss collector Uli Sigg’s legendary collection of Chinese contemporary art in September, the irrefutable coup was met with generally positive responses from most cities in which art matters – except right here in our city, where the reception was decidedly mixed and more than a few people questioned the quality of the works. Putting aside the debatable view that we might have overpaid for the collection, it’s hard to shake the impression that any informed and sensible discussion is simply way off the cards as our city continues to be run by generations of people who finished their education without ever encountering the notion of art history.
In the February 2 episode of leading channel TVB Jade’s programme News Magazine (which was subtly titled Art – Rubbish), the oil painter Lin Minggang – the chairman of the Hong Kong Oil Painting Research Society who issued an open letter to condemn the Sigg Collection as ‘rubbish’ – elaborated on his philosophy. “Some of these works are nonsensical. Some are the opposite of art. There are, however, some people who do their utmost to promote and push these works,” bemoaned the conservative artist, who later added: “An artwork should give pleasure to the viewer. It should make you feel comfortable.”
If Lin’s understanding of modern art is outdated by a century, so it appears to be the case of the television programme’s writer, who at one point enlightened the public by declaring – with reference to a Zhang Peili glove painting – that ‘one of the major characteristics of contemporary art is perhaps its incomprehensibility’. As if confirming that we’re indeed far behind the rest of the art world, the show then channelled Duchamp and played party pooper at this year’s Fotanian Open Studios by asking the visitors – including a bemused William Lim, the dedicated collector of Hong Kong art and co-chairman of Para/Site Art Space – if a mug for brushing teeth was an artwork.
The casual preference of this mainstream television programme to find a clear-cut definition of the object over considering its origin, context or even the creative process reflects the jarring lack of art knowledge even in the most prominent of media. To the cynics, this is but a natural extension of our ingrained culture to find a model answer in everything. You see a porcelain urinal and you get a porcelain urinal. Simple.
Artistic excellence vs Political consideration
The stilted perspective presented by the programme didn’t end with its meditation on a ready-made object, however. After highlighting the negative coverage on the Sigg Collection in the Mainland and the pro-Beijing local press, it went on to pull out a controversial quote from the respected cultural critic Oscar Ho, who went on camera to dismiss the importance of Chinese contemporary art. “With a collection of such things, how meaningful would it be to put them in Hong Kong?” he asked, before adding: “Not only to Hong Kong, but these works are meaningless to the Chinese people too. Most of the people in China have no idea what these works are about.”
The mainland Chinese population has certainly had little appreciation of the politically sensitive works on Mao and Tiananmen. But even if we pretend for a moment that artists such as Ai Weiwei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Peili weren’t already notable throughout the art world, is it by itself a valid reason to dismiss the group of historically important works that are finding a home here – precisely due to our freedom of expression – solely because they were severely censored in their place of origin over the decades? What are the odds that one can tie up art and politics in any constructive conversation when the country in question is still prohibiting the showing of iconic works like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of Mao – as is the case with the touring exhibition Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, which is currently at Shanghai’s state-owned Power Station of Art before its next stop in Beijing?
It’s disheartening to see the way our art development is scattered with comical putdowns by people in power, who, despite being well into middle age, may be coming across contemporary art meaningfully for the first time in their lives. Following the claim of Christopher Chung Shu-kun, chairman of the Joint Subcommittee to Monitor the Implementation of the West Kowloon Cultural District Project, that dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s middle finger to Tiananmen ‘can’t be considered art because even children can do that’, lawmaker Chan Kam-lam merely added to the idiocy by stating that political works ‘are not works of art’.
If half of these many outrageous claims were meant for building up Hong Kong art instead of putting it down, we could well be in for something special. In a society that’s accustomed to polite applause instead of true and informed critical voices, however, it’s reasonable to conclude that Hong Kong simply doesn’t have the mature cultural atmosphere for its own art scene to really blossom yet. At a recent forum in Wan Chai’s Foo Tak Building to discuss the obstacles facing Hong Kong contemporary art, artist/scholar Anthony Leung Po-shan cited the 2009 transformation of the Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition to the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Awards as an illustration of the effects of the colonial political principle of ‘fairness’. By turning the biennial into a competition, it ensures a sense of fairness to the selection process. And where will that lead us?
Artist development vs A lack of meaningful critique
While there’s an enviable degree of artistic freedom in Hong Kong when compared to the Mainland, what we lack sorely is a culture of professional art criticism that could effectively give the artists an honest assessment on their practice – an essential part of the art ecology to situate the art created into a larger discourse. Good critics usually make good curators, but when critics are largely absent and artists begin to regard staying in the profession as a triumph in itself, it becomes increasingly difficult for Hong Kong art to rise above its sideshow status to the city’s prospering market.
According to Cosmin Costinas, the executive director of Para/Site Art Space, there’s been a sense around here that the recent growth in our art scene ‘can lead to other opportunities – and not just in terms of [the operation of] commercial galleries’. “For some of the artists in Hong Kong, I think they need to make bolder decisions,” says the curator. “Now, both the galleries and all of us – including the non-profits and institutional – are trying to build something in Hong Kong. But I think it’s important to hear more loudly the voice of the artists.”
And it’s not like a platform hasn’t been set for Hong Kong art to finally take the spotlight. As the first major Hong Kong contemporary art exhibition outside the city since 2007’s Horizons at Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the recent Hong Kong Eye showcase at London’s Saatchi Gallery attracted more than 200,000 visitors over its duration. The show’s co-curator Johnson Chang, who famously brought Chinese contemporary art to the world with his landmark exhibition China’s New Art Post-1989 in the early 1990s, told us ahead of the London showing last December: “The ‘export’ of art suggests influence. It builds self confidence and builds bridges of connection, which are very necessary for Hong Kong art now.”
Speaking of the fundamental improvements that are required of our art scene, artist Lam Tung-pang says: “I believe the turning point could arrive when local entrepreneurs and private foundations – together with the support of the government – make a long-term goal to develop our local art and collecting culture.”
The good news is that a concerted effort to contextualise Hong Kong art looks to be happening through a variety of different channels. Of the 867 works of visual culture that M+ has acquired outside of the Sigg Collection and that may be exhibited prior to the opening of the museum building, 700 are from Hong Kong and are mostly either collected from the artists directly or through their local galleries. More than three books have been published inside the past 12 months on the subject of Hong Kong contemporary art, while the growing interest in writing about our art history has also seen the AAA and the Hong Kong Museum of Art collaborate on an Oral History project with Hong Kong artists.
Gallerists advocating conceptual art vs Prohibitively expensive overheads
It’s one thing for a gallery to focus on selling wall-hanging pieces that go nicely into any living room; it’s quite another to be dedicating your space to conceptual art installations which are sometimes practically ‘unsellable’. When we talked to Nigel Hurst in late 2012, the gallery director and chief executive of Saatchi Gallery observed that many of our homegrown artists are not ‘particularly market-engaged’, which ‘makes their works more appealing to the art market in the first place’. Tell that to the resolute gallerists who are striving to carve out a place for our emerging artists with limited international reputation and non-existent secondary market potentials.
“Hong Kong has a good, interested audience for contemporary art, but I don’t think there’s enough of an educated audience for conceptual art [yet],” says Pui Pui To, the Central Saint Martins graduate who founded 2P Contemporary Art Gallery in 2010. “We make exhibitions with works that nobody really needs or wants to buy. The biggest challenge is how you try to keep your gallery if you have nothing to sell – or if nobody wants to buy anyway. Our programme is extremely experimental, risk-taking and progressive. A lot of people who come by the gallery would be like ‘what’s this?’ The educated audiences are usually those who are already involved in the art world, like curators and writers; many of them come from overseas.”
While a whole heap of overseas galleries are expanding into Hong Kong, galleries which are more committed to Hong Kong or Asian contemporary art have seemingly found the need to adjust their strategies. Just as Gallery Exit moved from Central to Tin Wan and Osage closed its Soho space to concentrate on its Kwun Tong galleries, Saamlung ceased operating as a commercial gallery and will move forward as a non-commercial project. Magnus Renfrew of Art Basel describes the environment for young galleries in Hong Kong as being ‘very challenging’. “The overheads for galleries are very, very high here, and the price point for emerging artists or perhaps other conceptual artists tends to be relatively low,” he says. “So to make it viable, you need to sell a huge quantity of work.”
Given that it normally takes at least HK$2m to start a gallery, and that every exhibition costs about $15,000 to set up, a good and regular audience base appears to be the very least that a gallerist should be hoping for. “The rental in Hong Kong is just way too high for us to survive,” says To. “People can see that [2P] is not like those galleries on Hollywood Road. There are people coming to the gallery who want to know and take the time, listen to the audio, watch the video properly from the beginning to the end. Sometimes you put art in a context, and it’s not [about finding] any conclusion. Art doesn’t always have a conclusion. You can give the audience a direction but not a certain interpretation.”
Rubber Duck vs Complex Pile
Since late April, the imagination of the Hong Kong population has been ruthlessly captured by various large-scale inflatable sculptures around town. A few days after the exhibition Mobile M+: Inflation! was unveiled at the West Kowloon Cultural District, featuring such controversial pieces as Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy’s poop-like Complex Pile and Chinese artist Cao Fei’s roasted pig sculpture House of Treasures, Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck arrived at the harbour to put the snap-happy public into a craze. The number of visitors to the M+ exhibition had topped 100,000 at the time of press, whereas nobody can really keep count of all the duck photos floating – or, indeed, otherwise – on the internet.
The phenomenon for artists to scale up their works in order to grab attention is usually reserved for the more prominent art markets in the world, although, in Hong Kong’s case, the impressive sight couldn’t have planned for a better time to deputise here. To many people in the crowds, the question ‘is it art?’ may well be their first ever art awakening. “I think it’s a great show,” says Renfrew of Inflation!, probably no pun intended. “There’s a lot to debate about what art should be, what art could be. There had been other similar debates in other places around the world historically, as well. It’s a very important part of raising people’s awareness. It’s really quite an important moment.”
Now that everyone is going to see the gigantic works, does it matter if quite a number of them have no idea whatsoever that they’re actually looking at, uh, art? “That’s a very good question, very interesting,” says M+ curator Tobias Berger, who goes on to distinguish Inflation! from works of public art, such as Rubber Duck. “Public art is the kind of art you talk about, you encounter it on the way to work and you cannot get around it. It’s public, it’s there, and I cannot choose not to go there. [As for] what we do with Inflation!, everybody who goes to that exhibition, they [have to] go there on purpose. We don’t really talk about our exhibition as a public art exhibition; it’s a sculpture exhibition for us. It’s basically like going to a museum. You would not use Complex Pile as a public art piece, because people would misunderstand it. But you can show it in an exhibition.”
Ironically, the remarkable thing about our city’s burgeoning awareness towards art appreciation is that SK Lam – the AllRightsReserved creative director who has previously presented well-received showcases of the works by Yue Minjun and Yayoi Kusama for Harbour City’s marketing campaigns – has almost been forced to apologise for the inflatable duck’s immense popularity. “At first, we were only trying to avoid the typhoon season. We were also hoping to coincide with Art Basel and to take advantage of its momentum,” says the celebrity designer. “It’s an artwork after all. It’s not a toy or a prop. It’s not Doraemon. It’s not a licensed [cartoon] character.” He then turns whimsical: “It’s funny to say. Someone told me the other day that the rubber duck piece doesn’t inspire much introspection. I didn’t know what got into me but I just spontaneously replied ‘when it’s gone, you’d be thinking about it for a long time’.” Lam chuckles. “It’s not going to be here forever, you know.”
Is that a threat to the unsuspecting public, the local art scene, or the precious overlapping section of both?