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ART BASEL HONG KONG 2024: WHERE IS ALL THE GOOD ART?

The average East Asian collector has deeper pockets, broader (dare one say… better?) taste, and less hang-ups about artist identity than their Western counterparts. Which begs the question – why is Art Basel Hong Kong not giving them the option to buy good art? writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

Image courtesy of Sebastian Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


Following a four-year hiatus, Art Basel Hong Kong has finally returned to its pre-pandemic scale. This year's participation surpassed last year's by 37%, totalling 242 galleries from over 40 countries. Works have sold, satellite exhibitions were well-attended and the city’s art scene is seeing a massive renewal - helped partly by Phillips opening a new showroom in 2023 and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s launching new salerooms and headquarters this year. According to this years Art Market Report, published by UBS/Art Basel earlier last month, “significant numbers of new, young and ambitious collectors are entering the market, particularly in China, with events like art fairs forming a pipeline of business for dealers and gallerists”. Even amidst an overall economic slowdown, China, encompassing both mainland China and Hong Kong, has surpassed the UK to become the second-largest art market, with a share of 19% compared to the UK's 17%. According to McAndrew, sales in China experienced a 9% increase, reaching an estimated $12.2 billion for the year, while Hong Kong itself saw art exports rise by nearly 60% in the first quarter compared with the same quarter in 2022.


Looking around the VIP evening of the event, the figures are not difficult to believe: there are very few Westerners milling around, and those that do generally work for American or European galleries. This might be a natural result of the fact we are, after all, in Hong Kong, but the average European Art Basel event will see a much stronger relative presence of East Asian collectors and a much lower relative presence of East Asian galleries. It’s also not difficult to determine what sort of art these collectors are interested in: the rise and subsequent fall of the ‘Hypebeast’ collector has been well-documented, but something like his more enlightened younger brother is heading sale efforts in Hong Kong. Young Asian collectors headed the weekend with the likes of Youngho Kuk and Ruby Huang making major purchases from European galleries like Galerie Mai 38 or David Zwirmer (who sold the vast majority of their preview-day sales into Asian-based collections). These are not young people blindly throwing money at spray-painted canvases of Mickey Mouse smoking a joint: collectors like Alan Lo, Lin Han, Ella Ma, Matthew Shieh, Leo Shih, Pierre Chen, Victor Ma, Leslie Sun, Robert Tsao, Jay Cho and Yan Du have been developing genuinely sophisticated and lucid collections including works from Aaron Curry, Louise Lawler, Michael Asher, Liu Xiaohui, Maria Lassnig, Seth Tane, Chris Martin, Cheikh Ndiaye, Phil Tinari, Amalia Ulman, Sean Raspet, Mami Kataoka, Samson Young, So Yo Hen, Cy Gavin, Wu Chi-Tsung, Cy Twombly, Li Yuan-Chia, Mark Bradford, Gabriel Ritter, Gregor Muirs and more that span mediums from painting to installation to sculpture to photography to video to sound. It’s a starkly different scenario from that of the mid-2000s, where collectors (mostly interested in painting and sculpture) residing in Asia typically fell within the age bracket of their mid-50s.


  Image courtesy of Keith Tsuji/Getty Images


One of the biggest differences between these youngblood collectors and their Western counterparts is that, according to Shana Wu, art adviser specialising in the Chinese art market, East Asian collectors born after 1980 are purchasing artworks “without particular attention to the age, nationality, or background of the artist”. I have touched upon young Western collectors’ obsession with the ethnic, sexual, religious and gender identity of their artists in an article about art market attitudes to female artists last month. It’s a facet notably lacking from ABHK: I don’t see the word “queer” mentioned once, even by the more liberal Western galleries like mother's tankstation limited or Venus Over Manhattan. Even London’s Victoria Miro, who sold three Yayoi Kusama’s works, made no mention of the fact that the Japanese artist is the only woman in the top 50 top-selling artists in the world. It’s a deeply refreshing attitude. I ask Hong Kong-based collector Ella Ma whether the identities of her artists ever play a role in her decision to purchase an artwork. “No,” she laughs as she gestures at me, “I think this is something more for you guys [in the West].” I ask if she thinks this has helped or hindered the Asian market, and she shrugs, “I look at the art, not the artist.” 


A Taipei-based collector I speak to at the Gagosian booth concurs; “I get very long emails asking if I want to buy from artists, and they say nothing about the art, no photos, just texts about the childhood and the type of… they do.” He pauses to make the finger-in-hole gesture, “I have to tell [the sellers] I don’t care. I want to know about the money! Am I going to like owning this piece as [an] investor? Show me pictures! Show me numbers! I don’t want to know this stuff.” Tokyo-based collector Sean Sato puts it a little more elegantly: “Of course we do market research to see how well artists have performed in the past, but what will always be the primary deciding factor is the first impression that an artwork gives.” he tells me. “[American artist and writer] Robert Irwin teaches us to develop our own sensibilities and tastes and to figure out what we like across history and time. That is something immediate, it is not something gained by learning about the artists, it is something achieved through ourselves and our own knowledge of art.”


While some might cynically expect little from any Art Basel event, I was pleasantly surprised by Paris+ par Art Basel 2023 in Paris last year. There were of course the usual duds – Tom Sachs, Anish Kapoor, Joel Mesler, Michael Kagan, Javier Calleja, the neverending litany of artworks emulating mobile phone screens – but some genuinely impressive works were on display too. BLUM and Massimodecarlo’s booths were excellent, touting some extremely good works like Rob Pruitt’s Suicide Paintings series or Lonnie Holley’s sculptures inspired by black American civil right struggles. Of the artworks sold during the fair itself, Georg Baselitz’s fantastic Sommer in Dinard (2023) and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 2008 glorious deep red reimagining of her sculpture All That Rises Must Converge (1973) showed that Art Basel exhibitors are very much capable of pulling together some really delicious pieces that still have financial value, alongside some more demure but nevertheless stellar modern works like Alfred Courmes’s Saint Sébastien aux fléchettes (1934) and Michel Parmentier 18 février 1968 (1968), both sold by Galerie Loevenbruck. Paris+ had 154 exhibitors to ABHK’s 243, so it was not unreasonable to expect at least some quality works to have been on offer to the lucrative and educated East Asian market.


This was, sadly, not the case. I will not sit here and list all of the bad artworks; to do so would be as mean as it would be meaningless. There were the usual Western suspects: Kapoor, Drexler, Salvo, Alex Israel, and, of course, more Javier Calleja (although I perhaps understand how his saccharine figures might appeal to an East Asian market). There were some disappointing East Asian artists too, who appear to be leaning into the Zombie Formalism revival (can the dead rise twice?): Grotto Fine Art, one of Hong Kong’s only galleries devoted solely to local artists, was championing deeply bland works like Wai Pongyu’s A Rhythm of Landscape 9 (2019), Thaddaeus Ropac’s Heemin Chung’s Marigold in June (2023) or Pace Gallery’s Mika Tajima’s Negative Entropy (Seishoji Priest Prayer Drumming, Mustard, Quad) I (2024) (really, the names should tell you everything you need to know) - a shame, as other booths featured Chinese talent like Song Huai-Kuei (better known as Madame Song), Bai Yiyi, Ching Ho Cheng, and Liang Hao with moderate success.


Alex Israel and his AI video installation REMEMBR at Art Basel HK 2024. Image courtesy of Victor Cheng/BMW


Considering the recent expansive (and well-deserved) coverage of Koon’s bubble-burst I was surprised to see so many figurative sculptural artworks, including works by Hans Op de Beeck and George Condo, although especially egregious were the horrifying anime “lolitas” by Takashi Murakami's protégé Mr. Indeed, scale appeared to be the primary focus of the fair, with the Encounters section dedicated to large works, often taking up rooms worth of space. It’s a tell-tale sign of art fairs’ growing desire to appeal to the selfie crowd, as well as attempts to secure the much-sought-after virality championed by stunts like Cattelan’s Comedian banana at Art Basel Miami in 2019 or, as Vulture puts it, “pranks” like MSCHF’s infamous ATM leaderboard. Berlin-based neugerriemschneider’s press liaison Jonathan Freidrich Stockhorst asked last year of Art Basel Miami: “where is the threshold between the highly regarded art canon and the highly accessible?” This year's ABHK seems to answer: there isn’t one.


This is not to say that there was no good art at all. Los Angeles-based gallery David Kordansky pleasantly surprised after a rather meagre booth in Paris last year, having picked up the pace with some charming pieces from the likes of Hilary Pecis and Martha Diamond. In fact, a stronger focus on the abstract seemed to be a winning formula for many of this years galleries: Junko Oki’s installation for the Kosaku Kanechika booth is a cogent ode to motherhood comprised of Edo-period clothing and taut materials that capitalises extremely intelligently of the resurgence of textiles as a gendered art form. 


From left to right, top to bottom: Wai Pongyu, A Rhythm of Landscape 9 (2019), Heemin Chung, Marigold in June (2023), Junko Oki, installation view in Kosaku Kanechika’s booth. Image ourtesy of Kosaku Kanechika.





There are some pieces that appealed to my own Irwin-esque sensibilities: despite all my feminist tendencies I still love a good Hajime Sorayama sculpture, presented this year by Tokyo-based gallery Nanzuka, and I was impressed by Kasmin’s collection of figurative works including Walton Ford’s Minotaura (2013) and two large-scale Diana Al-Hadid works. Cao Yu’s towering neon I Just Don't Want You to Live Btter Than I Do (2021) is a nice departure from her more puritanical works, and seeing Shi Hui, one of the first Chinese artists to engage in contemporary fiber art in the 1980s propped up against Madame Song’s impressive woven goat wool and sisal wall reliefs from the 1970s was an excellent curatorial choice from MABSOCIETY’s BANK booth. Overall, however, there was a total paucity of good or even interesting individual works.


Installation view of BANK’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy of BANK/MABSOCIETY.


By their very nature art fairs have never been the natural home of narrative, but it’s a genuinely impressive feat to cover all 91,500 square metres of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre without managing to say a single thing. Beijing-born artist Lí Wei’s large-scale sculpture Once Upon a Time (2020-24), composed of wax figures of Putin, Merkel and Bush as children sitting on an automated playground is possibly the closest any of the artworks get to becoming overtly political, or even politics-adjacent. I don’t believe contemporary art has to be ostensibly political to be good (and here I purposefully sidestep the ‘well actually all art is political’ debate for the sake of all of our sanities), but Wei’s piece is a bland, flavourless rip-off of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Old People’s Home (2007). It's extremely telling that Art Basel has chosen the most diffidently milquetoast of artworks to check off the ‘socially aware’ box.


From left to right: Lí Wei, Once Upon a Time (2020-24), Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Old People’s Home (2007)


In an era of sinophobia it would be easy journalism to attribute this to censorship fears and tensions concerning the current political condition of the city state, especially in the cultural wake of the arrests following the Hong Kong protests. Artists, we may fret, simply aren’t even allowed to be radical in Hong Kong. News outlets from CNN to The Art Newspaper certainly haven’t shied away from insinuating that the fair would be affected, nay, devastated by the ins and outs of Hong Kong politics. It’s understandable to a certain extent: American artist Patrick Amadon had a billboard containing names of jailed activists taken down in 2023, and Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt has claimed there has been a warrant out for his arrest following the Hong Kong government’s alleged seizure of his artwork The Pillar of Shame commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre since 2021. But have these events really affected the sort of art being made in the contemporary sphere?


“Plenty of [contemporary] artists have been greylisted because of [their involvement with the protests], it’s true,” admits Adrienne Lyuang of Hong Kong-based art advisory OtherDay. “But it’s not as sinister as it sounds. Galleries don’t want to work with artists who have been involved with the law, if it’s protesting or drunk-driving it’s the same. It’s for reputation[‘s sake]. At Paris Art Basel [a well-known contemporary German artist] was greylisted from [a European gallery] because [they] supported Palestine. You see it a lot in Germany. The government won’t fund artists if they have even differing political opinions. You don’t see [them] being called fascists or accused of controlling the media.” She is referring, of course, to Berlin’s proposed implementation of a new funding clause that would not allow those critical of Israel to receive financial support from the city under the guise of ensuring artists renounce “any form of anti-Semitism”. When I ask if she believes that there's a parallel to be drawn between the two situations, she says, “It’s like that here but it’s a free-market, personal choice from gallery owners. It’s not great but it’s not just Hong Kong. And it’s certainly not just Hong Kong authorities. So I think actually there are parallels but it’s better in Hong Kong because at least here it’s just about money, not morals.” 


From top to bottom: Patrick Amadon's "No Rioters” over Causeway Bay during 2023 Art Week.

A child sits in front of Japanese artist Fuyuhiko Takata's "Cut Suits". Image courtesy of Louise Delmotte/AP


In terms of pure finance, a Beijing gallery owner tells me the Hong Kong government “doesn’t have time for art like this,” while gesturing at Fuyuhiko Takata's video work Cut Suits, a large video installation of men slicing up worn clothing in the style of Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece behind a stack of sartorial detritus that can be interpreted as being critical of Chinese society and masculinity. I mention Hong Kong’s newly instated security law, widely known as Article 23, which is aimed at curbing dissent, as well as Amadon and Galschiøt. He comments (rather pointedly) that “it is always gweilo [the Cantonese term for ‘white devil’]” coming to Hong Kong to “push big buttons” and that “the Dutchman is a liar and attention-seeker” before asking me if I work for an American or European magazine. When I tell him Fetch is British, he claps his hands in delight and says, “They will arrest you [in the UK] for just saying things online! But because we are Hong Kong, you think our art is being stopped by [some] big evil government.” He leaves, grumbling, but I run into him at an after-party several hours later where he proudly tells me he has sold several Hong Kong-produced works to the Tate. We pick up our conversation and after several of Foxglove’s extremely tasty but viciously potent Big Apple cocktails he is more open to discussion. I press him about the greylisting, and he gestures at the glittering city below. “Some [kid] does some ugly graffiti and gets arrested. He is not arrested because he [is] threatening the government, he’s arrested for breaking the law. Art is art, government is government. Everywhere has rules. Whatever!” 


Outside of Art Basel the city’s art scene is very much thriving, as it always has: from underground sound installations-cum-concerts beneath flyovers in Kwun Tong to sketching sessions hosted by White Cube and Tunji Adeniyi-Jones in Soho House, the vast majority of Hong Kong artists that aren’t graffiting the names of dissidents on the side of John Lee Ka-chiu’s limousine have all the regular opportunities afforded to artists in metropolitan areas. Some might even argue they have more: statutory bodies like Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme as well as private collectives like the K11 Art Foundation or the Asia Society Hong Kong’s Arts and Culture Promotional Fund are also dedicated to supporting the professional development of emerging artists from Greater China and Hong Kong - and, unlike Berlin, there are no qualms about funding controversial figures with even more controversial messages (see Recalling Disappearance: Hong Kong Contemporary Art efforts dedicated to sieving through the city’s cultural archives, allegedly including police reports on the ‘King of Kowloon' graffiti artist Tsang Tsou-choi). Clearly, then, Article 23 had about as much impact for the broader implications for artistic freedom as America’s 2001 Patriot Act following 9/11 - that is to say, not a lot unless you chose to self-victimise. It is simultaneously racist and shows a base misunderstanding of art finance to insinuate that the Hong Kong authorities are directly responsible for the sort of art being made - or, indeed, being sold at fairs like Art Basel.


Guests view an artwork by Yu Minjun. Image courtesy of Keith Tsuji/Getty Images.


Katya Kazakina posed the conveniently open-ended question of whether it was “the end” for contemporary art’s perceived appreciatory market role in an article for Artnet last month. She’s not the only one showing growing concern about the liquidity of investment-grade art, with prices plummeting and reselling becoming increasingly difficult. There's been a noticeable disconnection between primary and secondary markets since the end of the pandemic, with primary prices reaching unsustainable levels for many artists, making it challenging to resell for a profit. Whereas Western collectors are reconsidering their approach to buying art and some opting to support young or overlooked artists rather than focusing on potential returns, East Asian buyers are driving a market based on a balance of taste and investment strategy.


So where does this leave large fairs like Art Basel? As pointed out in Janelle Zara’s response to the insufferable interview clip of Josh Baer decrying the supposed overabundance of “decorative and commercial” artworks present at ABHK during a “time of climate change and war”, fairs have never been representative of what artists are making, or indeed of what collectors are seeking: rather, they show what dealers are selling. Hong Kong’s latest edition of Art Basel is further proof that no matter how well-meaningly tasteful, affluent or educated the demand is, the art market will always be dictated by supply - not the collectors, and certainly not the artists. 


 

Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a is a London-based critic and contemporary arts writer.

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