JUST A WEEK BEFORE THE OPENING of ART HK 09, hundreds of international travelers were quarantined at the Wanchai Metropark Hotel—a stone’s throw from the Convention Center hosting the fair—and most passengers landing at HKG were having their temperatures screened by hazmat-suited officials. Luckily, the specter of swine flu didn’t faze most players in an Asian art market stricken with its own ailments. The hordes descended on the city as planned, perhaps reassured by a statement from ART HK promising “hand sanitizers at the entrance and at strategic points within the fair.” Or maybe, as one Beijing artist joked, people were just hoping to get quarantined at the five-star Grand Hyatt.
At the vernissage, the mood was cautiously buoyant; the fair’s unofficial motto of “better than last year” seemed to hold up at first glance. Near the entrance, new additions Gagosian, Lisson, and White Cube were working big and splashy looks (with Lisson showing wall-to-wall Julian Opie), while farther back, usual Beijing suspects such as Boers-Li, Galleria Continua, Urs Meile, Red Gate, and ShanghART mixed with a host of pan-Asian galleries like Kukje, Tomio Koyama, and Eslite, each of which showed consistently polished work. Prominent collectors and local visitors all nodded their heads approvingly and tossed about buzzwords like quality, professional, and potential. The only complaints were about the white walls (plastic instead of wood) and the white wine (undrinkable).
Better alcohol was on offer at Gagosian’s opening-night afterparty at the Pawn, which sadly seemed a victim of its own exclusivity. The historic Wanchai pawnshop-turned-lounge actually had elbow room at midnight—all the better, perhaps, for the dedicated few dancing to the’80s playlist put together by the gallery’s Nadia Chan. (Though Gagosian opened a local office last year, there’s still no word on when they’ll launch an actual gallery.) At a slightly livelier Pawn party hosted by Schuebbe Projects the following night, a few attendees offered their early assessments of the fair. Beijing/Lucerne dealer Urs Meile remarked that ART HK’s ambition to become the Art Basel of the East is not out of reach. He compared Hong Kong to Switzerland (“Same population, very practical people, forced to become very international because they are so small”) and also explained why it’s a good contrast to Beijing: “Beijing is hell––interesting hell, but hell.” Of course, art sold in China is also burdened with a 34 percent luxury tax––one advantage that tax-free Hong Kong holds.
A highlight of the fair’s programs was the Asia Art Archive’s “Backroom Conversations,” a series of screenings and panels that aimed to give an intellectual counterweight to the market madness. The afternoon premiere of the AAA’s new documentary, From Jean-Paul Sartre to Teresa Teng: Contemporary Cantonese Art in the 1980s, was standing-room-only, and even Sir David Tang (founder of Shanghai Tang and the China Club, art collector, and general cultural pundit) was in attendance. In her introduction, AAA chair and art historian Jane Debevoise discussed the “complex and important reasons” that Guangdong is overlooked in art-history books. It’s a topic close to the hearts of the Hong Kong artists, curators, writers, and dealers who have also felt left out of the narrative (and/or bubble) of Chinese contemporary art. When Sir David in effect called Hong Kong artists lazy for relying on the government to support an arts scene while the ’80s Guangdong artists created their own, an irate woman shouted him down, telling him he didn’t know anything about Hong Kong art.
The state of Chinese contemporary art was clearly on everyone’s minds, and it was specifically explored in another panel, “China Focus: Reinvesting in Contemporary Chinese Art.” Moderated by dealer Johnson Chang, critic Hu Fang, artist Qiu Anxiong, collector Uli Sigg, curator Pauline J. Yao, and Artforum’s own Phil Tinari, the group weighed in, agreeing on certain points: Everything is in flux, artists will be tested, and Mainland criticality has to step it up. In a more combative panel later that evening, the London debate forum Intelligence Squared made its Asian debut with the polemical topic “Finders, Not Keepers! Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin.” Inspired by the recent YSL auction debacles regarding the Old Summer Palace bronze animal heads, several distinguished men with British accents (including Sir David, again) spoke for and against the motion, which was moderated by CNN anchor and Twitter enthusiast Kristie Lu Stout. In the end, the audience voted 110 for, 247 against; apparently, people like the Elgin Marbles just where they are.
As the fair plunged into the weekend, visitors were lured farther afield by various openings: Li Qing at Hanart TZ, Yan Lei and MC Yan at Tang Contemporary, and two interrelated shows at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery: photographs by Dinh Q. Lê at the Soho space, and, at the gallery’s annex in the Chai Wan Industrial district, a group show of young Vietnamese artists curated by Lê and Zoe Butt. The latter’s warehouse after party stretched late into Saturday night, mixing young Hong Kong artists like Lee Kit, Chow Chun Fai, and Warren Leung Chi Wo and his wife, Sara Wong Chi Hang, who compared the annex space with the sizes of their own studios with artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Michael Lin.
By Sunday evening, the fair was all but over––except for those who were staying for the opening of the Louis Vuitton exhibition, “A Passion for Creation,” opening at the Hong Kong Museum of Art several days later. News circulated about big purchases of works by Damien Hirst, Opie, and Gilbert & George, but most galleries went home with few sales. Robin Peckham of Boers-Li Gallery twittered a glum summary of the scene: “Art HK winners: major Western galleries, local Hong Kong galleries. Big losers: major mainland galleries.”