In the days following Friday evening’s opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, which runs through Tuesday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, dealers continued to report sales. Pace parted with a Chuck Close tapestry and an Alexander Calder standing mobile. Zwirner sold two paintings for Neo Rauch, for $1 million each. Beijing’s Long March Space sold a work by Yu Hong for $207,000.
But the part to pay attention to are the very early sales, at the fair’s very first viewing on Friday evening. A major change at the fair this year is that the pace at which business is done is faster. As reported previously on ARTnews, sales were brisk in the fair’s opening hours. While that may be the norm at Basel’s fairs in Miami and Switzerland, it is, dealers said, somewhat novel in Hong Kong, where collectors have tended to take their time. Now, these same collectors clearly feel some pressure to buy works quickly, lest they lose them to someone else. Arthur Solway, who has run New York gallerist James Cohan’s Shanghai branch since it opened in 2007, said a Chinese collector told him he would decide on a work in 75 minutes. That was a first, said Solway, who generously told the collector to sleep on it. “What I noticed this year,” Solway said of the fair, “was a lot of activity right off the bat.”
Another change is that more dealers are eschewing flashy, shiny, hyper-colorful, attention-grabbing “art fair art” for subtler pieces. In Basel and Miami, “art fair art” is largely a relic of the market boom of the mid-2000s, but here you still see it in the form of a preponderance of round monochrome works by Anish Kapoor, and generally pieces with mirrored surfaces or a splashy Pop aspect. During previous editions of this fair, largely before Basel took it over, this kind of art has seemed somewhat calculated to appeal to what has been perceived to be the local taste. This year, there were smaller, quieter works like paintings by the young artist Helene Appel at Cohan, trompe-l’oeil depictions of scattered rice, and a modestly-sized Kai Althoff painting being shown by Gladstone.
What does grab attention at this fair is Encounters, the section devoted to large-scale works, which has a new curator this year in Alexie Glass-Kantor, executive director of Artspace, Sydney. (This section is, essentially, an iteration of the Art Unlimited section of Art Basel, but spread throughout the fair’s two floors instead of centralized in one location, as it is in Basel.) The pieces she chose hardly had a Pop aspect, but instead tended, in places, toward the dark and broody; highlights included machines that gripped trees and shook them, by Siobhán Hapaska, from Dublin’s Kerlin gallery, and the immense black stoves by Sterling Ruby, from Gagosian.
In fact, one of the splashiest works in the fair was no larger than a carton of milk: the Japanese artist known as Mr.’s brand new, cartoony action-figure-like sculpture of Pharrell Williams, complete with the singer’s signature hat and titled Happy, after his hit song. The piece, which is mounted in a vitrine on an outside wall of Perrotin Gallery’s booth, is in an edition of 30, and by the second day several had sold to international collectors, for $20,000 each. Happy received a publicity boost by fellow Perrotin artist Takashi Murakami, who could be seen walking around the fair carrying a camouflage tote bag, and who gamely Instagrammed it.
But Pharrell hardly stole the show. As The Art Newspaper reported earlier this week, this fair has also become a place to discover emerging artists. And like Art Basel in Switzerland, with its Bâloise Prize given to one of the solo booths of emerging artists in the Statements section, Art Basel Hong Kong (and Art Basel Miami Beach) now has an associated award. On Saturday, BMW announced the three nominees for its art prize, Mika Tajima, Trevor Yeung, and Samson Young, all of whom had solo booths in the fair’s Discoveries section. They were by selected by Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Claire Hsu, the director of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong; Matthias Mühling, director of the Lenbachhaus in Munich; Shwetal Patel, a curator in India; and Pauline J. Yao, the curator of visual art at M+, Hong Kong. In the hours following the announcement, the artists’ booths were mobbed by photographers and interviewers.
Art Basel has already begun to transform the art scene in this city. One sign of that transformation is, ironically, a satellite fair, which, far from competing with the main event, serves to complement it. Art Central, the 77-gallery satellite fair started this year by Tim Etchells, who sold his three-year-old Art HK fair to Basel in 2011, may not be the highest-quality, but features more affordable art, and its significance is its very presence. The art inside the fair, which is about a 20 minute walk along the harbourfront from the sprawling convention center that houses Art Basel, is decidedly uneven, but the fair’s presentation is highly professional and welcoming: its tent has decent lighting, wide, carpeted aisles, and a lively street-food court complete with picnic tables. On Saturday, those wide aisles were well-populated, and sales were being made. While a 20-satellite “Miami effect” seems unlikely for Hong Kong, this satellite is proof that the art scene here has room for growth.
During the fair, Hong Kong had an air of possibility, a feeling that was made concrete by Art Basel’s commission from Chinese artist Cao Fei, who created a light show referencing 1980s video games that ran along all four sides of the city’s iconic ICC building. The building is in the Kowloon area, across the harbour from the convention center; it drew eyes to the site where, in 2019, Hong Kong’s long-anticipated, 645,000-square-foot, Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum of contemporary art, M+, which has an acquisition budget of some HK $1.3 billion ($170 million), will finally open its doors. During an evening viewing of the piece from a balcony of the convention center, where champagne was served and attendees included fixtures of the international art world like Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Art Basel’s director, Marc Spiegler quoted Chicago’s urban planner Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans.”