In her 1997 history Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire, Jan Morris relays that, in 1870, the poet Huang Zunxian described what was then a colony as being “embroiled in a sea of music and song, its mountains overflowing with meat and wine.” If only Huang could have seen the city during this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong! The city had all that, plus a bounty of art—at fairs and auction houses, museums and galleries, many newly opened or expanded.
How does an artist stand out amid that kind of action? The German painter Katharina Grosse modeled an exemplary approach in a solo outing at Gagosian with a dozen large canvases, easily the hardest-punching of any new paintings on offer in the city. Wielding her trademark spray tools, Grosse shot thin bands of overlapping paint diagonally atop white grounds. Her attack was so quick that each tight mass of acrylic appears to be blazing across the surface, smoking at its edges. The paintings deliver an almost comic dose of wall power: Morris Louis’s “Unfurled” series at warp speed, unsettled and unfixed. Conservative? Sure. Also very satisfying.
Those seeking genuine Color Field work could venture one floor below Gogo in the Pedder Building, where Pearl Lam Galleries had on view attractive, atmospheric paintings made by the New Yorker Cynthia Polsky between 1963 and 1974 using Chinese ink brushes and sponges. Informed by her travels in Asia, these drippy, speckled, and generally bright all-over abstractions suggest hazy visions of distant nebulae or rough translations of hallucinogenic visions. Many dazzle at first glance, but then betray a disconcerting formlessness as you spend time with them. They are trying to do just a bit too much.
The most potent show of painterly force came not from a gallery but from an art advisory: Art Intelligence Global marshaled a bunch of heavyweight Gerhard Richter “Abstrakte Bilder” in a single gallery within one of the towers that line Wong Chuk Hang Road on Hong Kong Island’s south side. There were a couple certifiable classics by the Meister here, the chief one being a beguiling 8½-foot-tall example from 1990 with blues and reds smoldering through a scraped field of icy gray—a koan-like exegesis on the role of chance in determining what is seen and what is obscured. Some fraction of the pleasure came from the severity of it all: black-suited security guards, dramatic lighting, the sense of walking into an anonymous vault stocked with high-value assets.
After inhabiting such hypoxia-inducing environs, a little warmth, some evidence of human presence, is called for. Mercifully, the South Korean artist Kimsooja is an expert in such matters, and had an airy solo show a few blocks away at Axel Vervoordt, “Topography of Body.” It had just eight pieces, created through simple movements, like tiny clay spheres arrayed in a circle on a pedestal, and Korean rice paper that had been crumbled and then smoothed, its surface covered with craggy lines from the pressure. The main attraction was an 18-minute video, Thread Routes–Chapter III (2012), that intercuts sequences of intricate architecture in India, like the Sun Temple of Modhera, with artisans doing meticulous work: sewing, weaving, block printing, and more. In a neighboring room, Kimsooja displayed an installation from 2012–15, comprising cotton sheets used by block printers to cover their tables thin, slightly tattered, and stained with indigo—hanging from twine. What saved all this from becoming too precious (or Pottery Barn bland) was the reverence with which the artist treated her raw materials. Presenting these work surfaces just as they are, unaltered, she mounted a tender paean to the possibilities that result from joining skill and repetition.
Over at De Sarthe, the art stared back. Beijing-based Wang Jiajia printed tall glowing, glowering pairs of eyes on canvas and surrounded them with swirling waves of paint. A news release for the solo show (titled “A/S/L,” after the archaic chatroom introduction meaning “age, sex, location”) cleverly compared these menacing cartoon eyes to those of the final bosses that loom at the conclusion of video games. They are goofy, mildly endearing pictures, teasing fears about the identities and agendas that loom behind screens—and contemporary artworks. If they are also repetitive and one-note, well, so are most online (and art) experiences.
Over in nearby Aberdeen, at one of Kiang Malingue’s spaces, Guangzhou’s Liu Yin exhibited paintings that give Shōjo manga–like faces to pink roses, juicy pears, and (why not?) a gargantuan skull that sits on grass and winks at the viewer as butterfly-fairy hybrids flutter about. (The show’s title: “Spring.”) The cuteness level is off the charts in these charismatic pictures, which range from watercolors smaller than a sheet of paper to canvases almost 7 feet across. In one, a group of flowers has tears in their eyes; another has a pair sharing a passionate kiss. Liu hijacks kawaii tropes and lays bare how easily they can manipulate, even though (or because) these characters are generic and impossible to differentiate. Seductive artworks about seduction, they have their cake as they eat it. Liu also has a talent for slipping bizarre notes into otherwise benign scenes: one work contains a bunch of cyclopic bananas; cute for a minute, they’re likely to reappear in nightmares.
More discomfort was in store at Empty Gallery’s Aberdeen branch where new wall works by Tishan Hsu smashed bodies into digital space. Their inkjet-printed patterned surfaces teem with additional sculptural elements, such as unplaceable orifices and the odd body part, including at least one glaring eye. A rare sculpture from the New York–based artist took the form of a futuristic life-size hospital bed on top of which silicone molds resembling hunks of a person—a pale blue face, expanses of sticky looking tan skin—appear to be awaiting implantation. Surveillance-style images are embedded in some of Hsu’s pieces, like the 2023 pareidolia-conjuring screen-body-data, which sports a black-and-white still of footage from CCTV. It shows a man in a balaclava standing in an empty room and doing something on his phone—a slice of raw reality intruding into the artist’s harsh, unreal world.
While Liu toys with the coercive power of popular culture, Wang and Hsu channel the dark truth that someone or something is always watching these days, whether on social media or within a bureaucracy, and threatening to act. In Hong Kong the week of the fair, a theatrical run of the slasher flick Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023) was canceled under hazy circumstances (the adorable bear has been used as a caricature of Chinese president Xi Jinping, and censored in the mainland in the past), and the Sogo department store removed a video by Angeleno Patrick Amadon from a digital-art program running on its LED billboard after the artist revealed that it included information about pro-democracy activists jailed in Hong Kong.
It can be risky for dealers and artists to address anything remotely controversial when a fair is on—it is a time for selling, not activism—and a brutal political crackdown hardly helps matters, yet there were a handful of exhibitions engaging the difficult present.
In the tony H Queen’s tower, at David Zwirner, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija installed the kind of well-outfitted umbrella repair store that was once common in Hong Kong. Visitors walked through it to enter the rest of his exhibition (titled “The Shop”), which housed 3D printers manufacturing red sculptures of broken umbrellas and robot vacuum cleaners that cruised wall-to-wall black carpeting, tracing Chinese characters. An accompanying text explained that these various components referred to novelist Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy “Three-Body Problem,” but it was also tempting to read the show in the context of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, when protesters fighting for universal suffrage used umbrellas as shields against pepper spray and surveillance. In Tiravanija’s realm, nonfunctional umbrellas are being memorialized as machines try to maintain order and cleanliness; every single person walking through thwarts their efforts.
Meanwhile, at Blindspot Gallery, on the 15th floor of a Wong Chuk Hang Road warehouse, the Beijing filmmaker Wang Tuowas showing The Second Interrogation (also the name of his one-man exhibition), an elegant and incisive two-part video production that pits an artist and a censor against each other in a public forum and a private tête-à-tête. The two debate how artists should operate amid authoritarianism and why democracy has never taken hold in China. As their talks progress, they appear to switch positions. Wang trained as a painter, and he also hung vivid portraits of artists, musicians, and writers in China—a network operating outside or underneath the system. Some read books, one sings into a microphone. He titled the series “Weapons,” implying that the way one chooses to live can be a means of fomenting change or defending oneself.
A similar punk commitment was evident in scattered places around town all week. The magic of viewing art here is that marginal spaces still somehow endure amid extreme wealth. “Hong Kong is very small, isn’t it?” as Kitty Fane tells her about-to-be-ex-lover (with a dash of menace) in Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1925). And so you can be at the latest luxury mall one moment, and after a brief MTR ride, find yourself at the alternative space Current Plans, above a café in Sham Shui Po, where wig artist Tomihiro Kono and photographer Sayaka Maruyama, both Japanese, teamed up for a multifarious show centered on Kono’s outrageous avant-garde wigs, which suggest alien life-forms. Or you might stroll to the commercial Property Holdings Development Group, in a disused rooftop clubhouse high in the sky, and find Hong Konger Michele Chu’s “You, Trickling,” an experiential show about the traces that people leave behind, with heaters at the entrance, an invitation to hold incense, and emotionally loaded sculptures. One that would make Joseph Cornell proud involved a wooden drawer from the home of Chu’s family filled with salt, her fingernails, and cigarette butts, like the remains of an occult ritual.
But the most heartening and vertiginously exciting material I saw while traversing the Special Administrative Region was actually in the heart of officialdom, at Tai Kwun Contemporary, the former police station renovated in 2018 by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the local government. “Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III,”curated by Inti Guerrero and Chantal Wong, articulated a vast universe of LGBTQ art from Asia and its diasporas, via more than 60 artists spanning almost a century, some of it coming from collector Patrick Sun’s Sunpride Foundation. Among the highlights were a luscious 1941 drawing by the Filipino American Alfonso Ossorio of a nearly nude Job, resplendent and attractive despite the sores consuming his body, and alluring 2018 prints by siren eun young jung that collage images she acquired while researching yeoseong gukgeuk, a theatrical form in her native South Korea that emerged in the mid-1940s as a protest against the patriarchy of the country’s theater world. The show has already made stops in Bangkok and Taipei, and if no one brings it Stateside, it will be a shame.
Again and again, with humor, and mischief, and invention, the artists in “Myth Makers” make and remake history, cultural tropes, and even the Bible (who knew Job could be hot?). In an unforgettable little painting from 1962, Self-Portrait with Friends, Patrick Ng Kah Onn depicts a rollicking party in Kuala Lumpur. It is a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, as five people in ultra-chic outfits dance. The scene is—returning to the poet Huang—“embroiled in a sea of music and song.”