Editor’s note: Read part 1 of our report from Art Basel Hong Kong here.
HONG KONG — On the first day of Art Basel Hong Kong 2014, Pearl Lam Galleries (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore) reported strong sales of new LED works in Chinese by the artist Jenny Holzer in the range of US$180,000–300,000. White Cube (London, Hong Kong, São Paulo) sold a piece by Christian Marclay, “Smak Splsh Squish (No. 6)” (2013), with an asking price of US$375,000. Gajah Gallery (Singapore) parted with Ashley Bickerton’s mixed-media “Anyone with the Heretical Gall to Ask an Ironist What He Actually Stands For” (2014) for SG$220,000. And that’s just a smattering of the activity. More than US$1 billion of art was for sale, according to fair insurer AXA ART.
The fair did manage to look beyond sales, holding a series of “Salon” talks over three days. “Activism Utopia” was especially relevant in light of the alleged Lee Wen incident. Moderated by Lee Zenhua, the curator of Art Basel’s film program, the talk brought together Kwang Sheung Chi, a Hong Kong artist and activist who won last year’s Hugo Boss Award, and the Chim↑Pom artist collective from Tokyo. Chim Pom has staged interventions that range from hilarious (catching rats in the garbage-strewn areas of Tokyo) to tragic (using decoys to lure crows from the radioactive ruins of Fukushima). Kwang discussed the cruel and unusual use of pepper spray by the police to damage the eyes of political protestors in Hong Kong. To counter those abuses, he made a home-style cooking video called “Doing It With Mrs. Kwan.” In a folksy manner, Mrs. Kwan instructs viewers on how to make their own brand of home-cooked pepper spray.
The fair also displayed a number of serious counterweights to the frenzied acquisitive impulse. These included Sun Xun’s “Jing Bang: A Country Based on Whale” in the well-curated Encounters section. The piece mocks wealth disparity by fabricating a country where citizenship can be purchased for the measly sum of $10,000. That entitles the bearer to a passport, ID card, animated DVD, aluminum briefcase aka “Citizenship Box,” national flag, and a hand-printed and bound book about Jing Bang. The “immigration officials,” actually part of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, were given a mandate to process up to 100 checkpoint registrations. Apparently 50 passports sold at the VIP preview, co-sponsored by ShangArt Gallery. Sun, using the laws of supply and demand, then raised the passport price to $13,000.
There was also “Betrayal, The Story of Zhang,” a book of movie scene paintings, a movie theater installation, an actual film, and a collection of theater props by painter and storyteller Qui Jionjiong. The work recounts the life story of Zhang Xianchi, who spent 23 years in prison for being a “rightist.” It’s a hard-hitting piece about dictatorships, the history of China, Mao, Lenin, and Chiang Kai-Shek, and the corrupt narrative of the dream of a new China.
Using his training in textiles, Jakkai Siributr explores conflicts of traditional beliefs and rituals with political realities. “78” is a commemoration for the Muslim men who died in the southern Thai village of Tak Bai, where they were protesting what they believed was an improper detention of their fellow villagers. Hundreds were stripped by the police, stacked in vans, and driven to a military camp. 78 died en route. The cubed form of “78” is based on the Ka’aba, the most sacred structure inside the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca. Stacked bunks inside “78” inside are wrapped in a kurta with the numbers 1–78 embroidered on them in Arabic script.
Gu Wenda’s “United Nations Human Space,” comprised of 188 flags made of human hair, greeted fairgoers when they entered one of the exhibition floors. With the hair acting as a symbolic reference to “cultural colonialism,” the body becomes a political statement removed from its owner’s possession.
Happily, there was whimsy as well. Artist Anastasia Klose set up her “One Stop Knock-Off Shop” booth, where she sold art world send-up T-shirts. Some favorites were “Jay-Z vs. Abramovic” and “Art Blasé” in the style of the Art Basel logo.
Rebecca Baumann’s rolodex/flipboard piece “Automated Colourfield (Variation V)” was slow-changing and mesmerizing, and it caused viewers to slow down and contemplate its colors. Every few seconds one of the flipboards would change, introducing a new color scheme into the deck. Her next step should be to make this installation into a public art project on football stadium screens to change the battlefield mentality.
When confronted by the work of 3,000 artists over two days, one thing becomes clear: fresh vision is timeless. I happened upon a neon and fluorescent piece by the late Nam June Paik, pumping out the minimalist tones of Phillip Glass while a simple generative video played inside the TV screen. When I first saw “Diamond Sat,” I didn’t know who it was by, but it instantly caught and held my attention. Made in 1998, the work is as relevant now as when it was first created. Good art never dies; it just sleeps inside collectors vaults.
Art Basel Hong Kong has announced that, starting in 2015, it will hold the fair in March instead of May, so as not to overlap with Art Basel (in Basel). The momentum is there to make Hong Kong into a real global art hub. Let’s just hope that all those monitoring the Lee Wen incident realize that shooting this international economic engine in the foot is not in their best interests.
Art Basel Hong Kong took place May 15–18 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (1 Expo Drive, Wanchai, Hong Kong).