The mascot for this year’s edition of Art Basel Hong Kong may very well be the 2005 mixed media installation by Korean artist Nam June Paik that fronts Gagosian Gallery’s booth. Golden Buddha consists of a Buddha figure watching itself on a TV monitor, behind which is a camera that films the Buddha and, naturally, anyone who stands behind the Buddha to look at the piece. The work, one of the most photographed works at the fair’s VIP preview at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on Friday evening, reads like a Zen koan for the Instagram age: the buddha is watching you watch yourself.
This is the third edition of this fair under the banner of Art Basel, the world’s largest art fair franchise, and it would seem that its transformation into an exemplar of the Basel brand is complete. (It was originally founded in 2008 as Art HK under different ownership.) Two factors—the rise of China as an art-market force and the continuing propensity of the world’s collectors to buy at art fairs—have converged to make this a blockbuster show with a bustling opening to match. Just over 230 international galleries, half of them from Asia, are taking part this year, and the galleries that have done the fair in the past want to do it again: it has a reapplication rate of 92.6 percent, with a 7-percent rise in applications over last year for the main “Galleries” sector. On opening night, the event attracted major Asian collectors of contemporary art like Yang Bin and Budi Tek.
Like the Basel fairs in Miami and Basel, Switzerland, it is anchored by ultra-blue-chip artworks—like an $18 million Picasso at Chicago’s Richard Gray Gallery and a $6.5 million Jeff Koons at David Zwirner—but it also has some quirky surprises. Around the corner from Gagosian, at Pi Artworks of Istanbul and London, the Turkish-born artist Nezaket Ekici, wearing a white satin negligee, was doing a performance in which she applied lipstick and repeatedly kissed a blank canvas.
It’s one measure of a fair’s success that major galleries like David Zwirner had already made sales less than an hour into opening night. Zwirner sold several pieces during the opening rush, by Yayoi Kusama, Oscar Murillo, and Wolfgang Tillmans. One wall of the gallery’s booth is given over to a brand new Neo Rauch painting, Die Frende, priced at $1 million. The centerpiece of Zwirner’s booth is one of the fair’s iconic juxtapositions: that $6.5 million Jeff Koons—the famous Buster Keaton-on-a-horse sculpture from 1988—in front of a small 1973 Warhol Mao, for $1.75 million.
A bulletproof artist on the market, Warhol has long been a favorite at this fair. Also on the Warhol bandwagon is Hauser & Wirth, which has a similarly sized one from the ’70s, Self Portrait With Skull (1977). That Warhol was “under discussion” by the end of the VIP preview, a Hauser & Wirth director said. Hauser & Wirth’s booth is a painting exhibition, and by the end of the evening they had sold four paintings by Zhang Enli for prices ranging from $250,000 to $350,000, three paintings by Jakub Julian Ziolkowski ($30,000–$165,000), and three paintings by Rita Ackermann ($75,000 each), with the works going almost exclusively to Asian collectors. (An anomaly in this painting show is a 2002 work by David Hammons. Untitled (Hidden From View) is decidedly not a painting: at first glance it appears to be an empty vitrine, but when you see two metal toes peeking out the bottom you realize a sculpture is hidden inside the plinth. The piece is there for a viewing by a specific collector, the gallery said.)
For three years, Zwirner has had a representative in China, Charlie Spalding, and it looks like Zwirner will soon open a Hong Kong branch; the gallery is actively looking at spaces in the city. It’s a move that appears to have paid off for American and European colleagues like Pace, Gagosian, White Cube, Perrotin, and Lehmann Maupin. During a meet-and-greet at her own Hong Kong space in the Pedder Building earlier on Thursday, Rachel Lehmann, of New York-based Lehmann Maupin, which opened its Hong Kong space two years ago, said she is now doing a significant amount of business in the city. She has participated in the fair for several years now, and said that over time, and with encouragement from Art Basel, she learned that the audience here doesn’t just want to see her Asian artists, like Do Ho Suh, but would rather see the gallery’s whole program. She now does a balanced display from gallery artists like Gilbert & George, Tony Oursler, and Mickalene Thomas. A large, eye-catching new painting by Thomas, festooned with rhinestones, sold just a little way into opening night.
Other veterans of the fair also said they are finally getting into the groove of exhibiting, and selling, to the audience here. New York’s Sean Kelly said he had a rocky start in 2011, the first year he did the fair, when it was under its previous ownership. Now he has fine-tuned his strategy: he brings just four artists–in this year’s case, Sun Xun, Mariko Mori, James White, and Hugo McCloud–and shows their work in depth, eschewing photography and works on paper in favor of painting and, to a lesser degree, sculpture. The standout in his booth is a sprawling recent painting by Sun Xun.
Galleries doing the fair for the first time this year include New York’s Andrea Rosen, which has gone big for its first year in Hong Kong. As part of its booth, the gallery is showing a billboard work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres depicting a seagull. The artist, who is being shown in Hong Kong for the first time, stipulated that when the billboard piece is exhibited, it must be shown in six places simultaneously, in highly public environments. Rosen teamed up with collector Adrian Cheng’s K11 Art Foundation to put up the billboards around town; one of the billboards is digital, the first time Gonzalez-Torres’s work has been presented in that format.
Rosen’s booth is dominated by an elegant, spare installation of works by Gonzales-Torres, Robert Motherwell, and Günther Förg. As though to balance that out, there is also a viewing station for frenetic recent video works by Ryan Trecartin, several of which sold.
In addition to pieces fresh from the studio, there are older works in the fair that take on a new resonance in the Chinese context. At Massimo de Carlo’s booth, a 2003 sculpture by Elmgreen & Dragset is a bank safe bearing the words “The Private Museum,” a tongue-in-cheek riff on the value of art in a museum. China has been going through a museum-building boom over the past decade, and many of these institutions, like Budi Tek’s brand new Yuz Museum in Shanghai, are run by private collectors. Priced at €75,000 ($78,700), the piece, one of an edition of three, was put on hold during the VIP viewing.
China has a long and strong history of ceramics, and it is not surprising to see a number of galleries bringing contemporary ceramic work to the fair. These works, executed unassumingly and on a modest scale, are some of the highlights of the fair and, excluding blue-chip mainstays like Sterling Ruby, who has a ceramic piece at Gagosian much like the ones that were in last year’s Whitney Biennial, they have modest price tags to match. Andrehn-Schipjenko of Stockholm brought a suite of ceramics with rich, bubbly-looking surfaces by Per B Sundberg. Some are abstract; others are of idiosyncratic objects involving mushrooms and tree branches. They are priced at $7,000 to $10,000. The booth of Melbourne’s Tolamo Gallery is guarded by a line-up of ceramics by Brendan Huntley, a group of works from a series recently shown at the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. They are just AUD 5,000 (around $3,800) apiece. And London’s Carl Freedman has ceramic works by German artist Sebastian Stoher, colorful, enigmatic objects with orifice-like openings priced from $7,000 to $10,000. Freedman admitted that the pieces were perhaps a risky choice for the fair. “It’s an experiment,” he said, “to see what people make of it.”
And yet, Freedman may stand a better chance at selling these works here than he does at another international art fair because, as he observed at the opening, people don’t tend to cluster so much at the booths of the international mega-galleries in the first VIP hours, as they do in Miami and Basel, but instead disperse throughout the fair, something of a refreshing sight.
After the preview, VIPs smoked stogies and ate suckling pig at a party on a tented deck at the Grand Hyatt thrown by Davidoff, one of Art Basel’s sponsors. Stay tuned for more Art Basel Hong Kong coverage in the coming days.