by Alison Kubler
I recently travelled to Hong Kong for ARTHK10 (27 – 30 May 2010) http://www.hongkongartfair.com/. Although the fair is still in its infancy (celebrating its third birthday) compared to other international events such as Basel (on now) or Cologne, it has quickly emerged as a serious contender. The official figures being touted for visitation are upwards of 46,000, which is staggering over five days. This year 155 galleries from 29 countries participated representing a significant increase from last year, and it would be expected that this will grow again in 2011. There were noticeably more punters this year and more Veuve Cliquot trollies cruising the laneways, which was a happy coincidence as lining up in the VIP bar to BUY a drink was well, unpleasant. To paraphrase Warhol, if everyone’s a VIP then no-one is. Case in point, at the VIP preview, most of well-heeled Hong Kong seemed to jostle alongside other art world VIPs to see the art.The presence of serious galleries such as Gagosian, White Cube, Pace, Lisson and Lehmann Maupin this year added a touch of art world glamour as well as fierce fashion and just as fierce European/New York gallery staff who are vaguely terrifying. The opening night was wall-to-wall Birkin bags and Louboutins, proving that art is still a luxury ticket. In short, ARTHK makes Melbourne Art Fair seem, well, lack lustre. The costs to galleries are almost equivalent too so given that MAF is biannual and HK is annual, it will be interesting to see who wins out. It will be difficult for MAF to retain its relevance biannually. Certainly there were more Australian galleries represented in Hong Kong this year and no doubt more will follow suit. Exhibition is of course by invitation, and apparently over 300 entries were received.
Damien Hirst, The Inescapable Truth and art fair goer
All indications were that the GFC had lifted even though at the very same time the art fair was launching in Hong Kong the press in Australia was foreshadowing a new downturn. It is difficult to get a clear idea of the fiscal success of this year’s fair, and in essence it hardly matters. Traditionally collectors and galleries brace for the vernissage, which is when most of the serious buying is done, but as with ARTHK9, many buyers seemed to hang back in contemplation and wait for the close, rushing to make final purchases. One exception was Damien Hirst, whose work filled one of the large front galleries as part of a special presentation by London gallery White Cube. Hirst triumphantly sold his work The Inescapable Truth for 1.75 million pounds sterling to prominent Chinese collector Thomas Shao on the opening day. Hirst’s dove suspended in formaldehyde above a human skull is at once memento mori and a fabulous pun about the nature of the art world; the impermanence of life versus the longevity of art, or as Hippocrates far more eloquently expressed it, “Ars longa, vita brevis.”
Everything about Hong Kong is big. It is a financial hub and one of the most romantic ports in the world. One part hedonistic expat playground and one part traditional China, Hong Kong is hardworking, restless and exhausting. As is the art fair, which is a week of back-to-back parties, lunches, cocktails and dinners, all of which may superficially appear as so much art luvvie froth, yet this is where the real business is done. Art and money go together, however much artists may rail against this awkward truth. Wealthy people buy art – this is why Veuve Cliquot has a stall and the accompanying catalogue has full-page advertisements for Van Cleef & Arpels and Louis Vuitton. Even the watchmaker Glashütte has a stall amongst the galleries, which is a little disconcerting. I had to do double take at the luxury real estate stall and double check that it wasn’t an ironic art installation. No, they really did want to sell me a villa in Repulse Bay.
Art fairs really are curious events; they can be compared to the experience of eating several different flavours of ice cream all at once so that you can no longer discern one key taste and the overall effect is sickly sweet and vaguely nauseating. There is so much to see that it is most often the case that art as spectacle triumphs over quietly contemplative works, as is the case with most of Hirst’s work. That said the delicate paintings of Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander won the official prize demonstrating the larger intellectual intent of the art fair. Curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine was special guest this year alongside sculptor Antony Gormley, both of whom participated in a jocular and witty debate about the nature of artistic ability, demonstrating that the real success of the art fair relies on more than just sales.Certainly curators add art fairs to their must see lists because they are often the quickest way in which to see who is making what now. Ultimately I like the immediacy and madness of it all. Good art makes itself audible above even the brashest din.
As usual, at every art fair there is discussion about different ‘models’; debate about the outmoded nature of traditional stall displays with suggestions of virtual art fairs, yet these seem to me to be flawed models too. While seeing so much art en masse can cause indigestion, the veritable feast of ideas on display from all over the world is something that would be difficult to replicate online. It is true I believe that seeing art in the flesh is a completely different experience to viewing it on a computer. There is a place for both of course.
Finally, it may be a uniquely Asian approach to art viewing but the overwhelming theme of the art fair was the art paparazzi, that is the thousands of people taking photos of art. I estimate there are some 46,000 images of Hirst’s dove in existence now, taken via iPhones, mobile phones and cameras. I have never witnessed so much photography of art, ever. Indeed, the vast majority of viewers seemed to be shooting first and looking second, viewing the art through a lens. Maybe that’s the argument for an online fair? It would seem that outside the rarefied realms of the museum it’s a free for all. Some galleries tried in vain to protect the intellectual property of their artists putting up signs requesting no photography, but these were ignored. Where will all these images end up? On Facebook? On a blog? Apparently, yes.