Journey of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism, 1997, c Lee Wen

Lee Wen, “Journey of a Yellow Man No.11: Multi-culturalism” (1997) (courtesy Lee Wen and iPreciation Gallery)

HONG KONG — Art Basel Hong Kong, formerly ART HK and brought into the fold of the Art Basel franchise last year by director Magnus Renfrew, is primarily about place, though it thinks it’s about selling art. The fair sticks a noncommittal toe into the murky and fractious waters between mainland China and the economic powerhouse of Hong Kong, whose relationship is becoming too ominous to ignore.

This year’s edition of the fair wound down on Sunday with a note of bone-chilling caution. Singaporean artist Lee Wen, who has just won the 2014 Artist/Scholar/Activist Award (AVA) given by the board of Performance Studies International and was showing at the iPreciation Gallery booth, attended Hong Kong City University and Osage Art Foundations Art Basel–affiliated symposium “Art and Values.” According to various sources, Lee mentioned Chen Guang, a Tiananmen Square soldier who later became an artist and was recently arrested. Commenting on Chen’s arrest, Lee said that something inside China had to change. Afterwards, he went to the restroom, where he was then found bruised and unconscious on the floor and rushed to the hospital.

One report says that Lee cannot remember the details of his attack; another says he isn’t discussing it. As of this article’s publication, the exhausted and frail artist, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, has issued a final statement in his own words, saying he will “not pursue the matter as there are [sic] no evidence.” Whatever actually happened, the news highlights the ever-present tensions between this tiny, semi-autonomous part of China that retains uncensored internet and the ability to assemble and protest, and the rest of the mainland, which does not allow such freedoms.

Line to get into party at Grand Hyatt, snaking along the top down to the foyer

The Sedition and K11 Art Foundation party for “Déjà Vu: Chinese Artists in Moving Images” had a line snaking down to the foyer of the Grand Hyatt. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Before Sunday’s incident, the fair had been marked mostly by mammoth parties like the one thrown at the Grand Hyatt by Sedition in conjunction with the K11 Art Foundation to celebrate their “Déjà Vu: Chinese Artists in Moving Images” digital collection. Over 1,000 attendees strove to one-up each other in their glitzy designer gowns while sipping champaign (no bohos need apply here, thank you).

Carsten Nicolai, "α (alpha) pulse," presented by Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin, Pace Gallery, and Studio Carsten Nicolai MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

Carsten Nicolai’s audio-visual installation “α (alpha) pulse” (image courtesyGalerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin, The Pace Gallery, and Studio Carsten Nicolai MCH Messe Schweiz [Basel] AG)

Art Basel Hong Kong has glamour, pizzaz, and the clout of big collectors, big money, big spending, and big names, with this year’s event hosting over 65,000 visitors. It also helps that in Hong Kong no tax exists on the import and export of art, as well as no sales tax, making the city-state the world’s third largest art auction market after New York and London. The fair racked up more than 100 events over four days, with 245 galleries representing 3,000 artists from 39 countries, including 25 based in, or with offices in, Hong Kong. Half the galleries were from the Asian-Pacific region.

There was a “Discoveries” section of 27 younger galleries; another called “Encounters,” showing 17 large-scale sculptural installations curated by Yuko Hasegawa of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; a film program featuring 41 artists, hosted in collaboration with the Hong Kong Arts Center and curated by Li Zhenhua; and intriguing talks filed under “Conversations” and “Salon.” Artist Carsten Nicolai lit up Hong Kong’s skyline with an audio-visual installation, and “Apocalypse Postponed,” an Absolute Art Bar installation by Nadim Abbas in Causeway Bay, turned a club into a faux wartime bunker. Cocktails were served out of blood bank drip bags.

Drinks on the house, from An Absolut Art Bar Installation by Nadim Abbas

“2666: A Space Cocktail,” drinks from “Apocalypse Postponed,” An Absolut Art Bar Installation by Nadim Abbas

The fair also reached out to the local art scene by running sponsored buses that shuttled attendees to remote galleries and artist-run spaces scattered throughout the city. The tour featured 15 galleries in the Aberdeen area of Hong Kong Island. Highlights included Rossi & Rossi, a well-known gallery from London; the Spring Workshop Artists Residency, which hosts a gallery and residencies lasting up to a year; Yallay Gallery, with an exhibit of Indonesian art curated by Rifky Effendy, the organizer of the first Indonesian pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale; and Peking Fine Arts, one of the first galleries of contemporary art in China. The tour also included lesser-known spaces in extremely remote but soon-to-be-accessible-by-MTR areas like Gallery Exit in the village of Tin Wan and toof {contemporary] on the island of Ap Lei Chau.

Chai Wan Mei is yet another cultural district in the eastern section of Hong Kong Island’s industrial belt. It also hosted events for the fair, spread across 15 different manufacturing buildings. The Artist Pension Trust (APT) Institute teamed up with Latitude 22n to showcase local artists in force. Over 40 galleries, design, art, and music studios, bookstores and cafes opened their doors. Among them were Platform China from Beijing, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, the Moving Image Archive of Contemporary Art, and agnes b.’s LIBRARIE GALERIE.

Artist Pension Trust Institute exhibit at Latitude 22N, Chai Wan Mei Eastern District

Artist Pension Trust Institute exhibit at Latitude 22N, Chai Wan Mei Eastern District

The shuttle bus effort, which neither Art Basel nor Art Basel Miami Beach offers, also included Wong Chuk Hang Art Night, co-organized by the South Island Cultural District (SICD). The southern part of Hong Kong island is somewhat off the art world’s radar and not that accessible; however, starting in 2015, Hong Kong’s MTR subway is opening a series of new stations to connect the Southern District to the rest of Hong Kong. These new stations will be a real game changer. The spaces in the south are enormous, especially in relation to the tiny galleries that dot Central, the main business district. They are on the verge of birthing a new arts district.

South Island Cultural District street art at night

South Island Cultural District street art at night

To read more about the art on view inside the fair, look for part 2 of our coverage, coming later this week.

Art Basel Hong Kong took place May 15–18 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (1 Expo Drive, Wanchai, Hong Kong).

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.