The impact of Art Basel on the local Hong Kong art scene was palpable during ‘Art Week’, 21 – 25 March 2017. Every gallery and institution was opening a new show or hosting an event, hoping to capitalise on the huge number of visitors drawn to the city by the fair. In its fifth iteration under the Art Basel brand, this year the fair included 242 galleries from 34 countries and territories. Notably, the fair expanded its curatorial displays and program, including talks and films, attracting the participation of prominent art world specialists. The focus of these programs was on themes relevant to contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region. Considering over half of the participating galleries are from or have a presence in the region, this focus provided useful context to the works on display.
The introduction of the ‘Kabinett’ section, first seen at Art Basel Miami Beach, was a highlight of the fair. Here galleries had the opportunity to present a small solo or group exhibition, with an art historical take on key artists or themes, in a separate space within their booths. Standout showcases included work by Etel Adnan at Galerie Lelong, Lee Kit’s recent video installation It Was a Cinema (2016) at Massimo De Carlo, Bettina Pousttchi’s ceramic sculptures at Buchmann Galerie, and collages, drawings and illustrations by Keiichi Tanaami from the 1970s at Nanzuka. Particularly strong was Rossi & Rossi’s presentation of renowned Iranian film director, poet, screenwriter and photographer Abbas Kiarostami’s Snow Series (2002). Hidden behind a petition at the back of the Rossi & Rossi booth, numerous black-and-white 57 x 90cm images of cinematic snow-covered landscapes were arranged in a tight gridded formation from the floor to ceiling. Surrounded, the experience of slow looking at the exquisite hyper-real details of Kiarostami’s images, was unforgettable.
As one explored the different booths, a few key trends became apparent. The most notable was that every third gallery seemed to exhibit at least one heavy abstract impasto painting. Another recurrent theme was the focus on Pop Art. Highlights included Roy Lichtenstein’s major large-scale painting Cosmology (1978), presented by Lévy Gorvy, and Mizuma Art Gallery’s display of Amano Yoshitaka’s equally large diptych 2017 (2017). Some artists were popular, with, for example, many galleries exhibiting examples of Lucio Fontana’s iconic slash paintings, Lee Ufan’s minimalist paintings, Alexander Calder’s abstract sculptures and Takashi Murakami’s iconic super-flat stylised characters.
The 2017 Encounters section shifted the focus away from the commercial side of the Fair, with a selection of thought-provoking political artworks. This included seventeen large-scale sculptural installations scattered throughout. Curator of the section for the third consecutive year, Alexie Glass-Kantor stated that she ‘was interested in exploring the relationship between time and experience, specifically, how time is related to encounters’.1 Artists featured included Pio Abad, Rasheed Araeen, Katharina Grosse, Gonkar Gyatso, Joyce Ho, Hu Qingyan, Bingyi, Kimsooja, Waqas Khan, Alicja Kwade, Dinh Q. Lê, Li Jinghu, Sanné Mestrom, Michael Parekowhai, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Shen Shaomin and Wang Wei. Chinese artist Shen Shaomin’s installation Summit (2009-10) was the most overtly political, and teeming with visitors. Raising questions about the relevance of political beliefs today, the installation included a striking arrangement of ultra-realistic, life sized wax figures of key communist leaders in glass sarcophagi, accompanied by Fidel Castro asleep in a hospital bed. Another standout was Pio Abad’s Not a Shield, But a Weapon (2016). The installation covered a huge expanse, and consisted of 180 newly reproduced handbags, modelled after Margaret Thatcher’s Asprey purse. The identical bags, laid across the floor in a gridded formation, echoed the displays of street vendor’s counterfeit handbags. Questions raised by Abad about globalisation, politics and trade, drawing parallels between the United Kingdom and Philippines, were particularly pertinent to the context of Hong Kong.
A unique aspect of Art Basel Hong Kong 2017 was the interest and focus on developments in the use of virtual reality, which appeared in a number of contexts throughout the fair. One such example was the collaboration between the Asia Art Archive and Nonny de la Peña, which examined the potential of the medium for expanding the experience of performance art. For the project Peña recreated Chinese artist Lin Yilin’s performance Safely Manoeuvring across Lin He Road (1995). Wearing VR glasses, the participants had ten minutes to re-enact Yilin’s ninety minute performance, building a wall across a busy road in Guangzhou, China, as oncoming traffic manoeuvres around them. In addition to this project the fair’s Collectors Lounge provided visitors with access to the results of the artists-in-residence programme, organised by Art Basel and Google Art & Culture. The artists involved, including performance artist boychild, Yang Yongliang, Robin Rhode, Sun Xun and Cao Fei, had the opportunity to experiment with virtual reality to create art. It will be fascinating to see the ongoing results as artists continue to engage with this medium.
Overall the 2017 iteration of Art Basel Hong Kong highlighted a number of key trends in the art world, supported by the move to incorporate critical content. Right now Art Basel Hong Kong is at the top of the Hong Kong art calendar. Leading up to the opening of the major museum M+ and a number of other contemporary art spaces, the next few years will certainly see the fair and its relationship with the city of Hong Kong develop.
Shen Shaomin, Summit, 2009-2010. Detail. Mixed media: silica gel simulation, acrylic and fabric, 145 x 260 x 130cm each. Courtesy the artist.
Shen Shaomin, Summit, 2009-2010. Detail. Courtesy the artist.
Pio Abad, Not a Shield, But a Weapon, 2016. Courtesy Art Basel.
Abbas Kiarostami, Snow Series, 2002. Courtesy Art Basel.
1. Sutton Art Basel Press Release. See http://suttonpr.com/releases/encounters-at-art-basel-in-hong-kong-2017/?r=hong-kong&