The great paradox of Hong Kong is that it has no history of contemporary art museums, so much so that some gallerists at Art Basel Hong Kong credit their need for “Please Do Not Touch” signs and stanchions inside their booths to a lack of local museum culture. Over the last five years since Art Basel’s arrival, however, the fair’s visitors and collector base have been steadily acclimating to an infiltration of foreign contemporary art. “For us, at the beginning it was Nara, Murakami, and nothing else,” says Ashley Rawlings, director of Blum & Poe’s Tokyo outpost. “But over the years, as we’ve stabilized, we have a bit of room to play around.” Mounted in the collective play space this year were works by, among many others, Pia Camil, Julian Hoeber, and Henry Taylor alongside zen-inducing monochromes by Dansaekhwa artists Kwon Young-Woo and Lee Ufan.
Art Basel Hong Kong opened to the public Thursday with 242 exhibitors from 34 countries, with 29 new exhibitors equally split between Asia, Europe, and the Americas showing for the first time. “What really happened in Hong Kong that’s fascinating is the degree of pressure and traction among Western galleries to come here,” Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler said Tuesday at a preview press conference. And the younger exhibitors seem happy to be there. In the tightly quality-controlled Discoveries section of the fair, Los Angeles galleries Various Small Fires and Francois Ghebaly sold out their booths on preview day one, showcasing works by L.A. artists Joshua Nathanson and Kathleen Ryan respectively.
In the Galleries sector, Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto debuted with a spread of roster artists with proven footing in Asian institutions: Abraham Cruzvillegas, for example, who has shown at the Artsonje Center in Seoul, and Gabriel Orozco, who’s shown in the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Also on offer was work by Gabriel Kuri—who, “funny enough, had this Korean receipt,” said dealer Jose Kuri, pointing to a handwoven wool tapestry mounted on the booth wall stitched with Korean characters. Luxembourg & Dayan gallery, a staple at large European fairs, dedicated its debut Hong Kong booth to works by Lucio Fontana accompanied by sizable introductory wall text. “Fontana was very collected in Japan in the late ’60s, and he was very close to the Gutai movement,” Alma Luxembourg explained. “The opening exceeded our expectations. People were engaged, really reading and picking up catalogues.”
Didactic, in fact, was a word a few Western gallerists used to describe fairgoers here. “Collectors want to build trust and know their artists, and so people ask questions and we bring books,” said Aaron Baldinger of Gladstone Gallery. This makes Hong Kong an ideal venue for the freshly arrived Kabinett sector, a walk-in cupboard embedded into the booths with curated treasure troves: iridescent mirrors by the SHIMURAbros at Tokyo Gallery + BTAP, early small-scale works by Christo at Galerie Gmurzynska, and Keiichi Tanaami animations of John Lennon’s song “Oh Yoko!” at Nanzuka.
At its heart, Art Basel Hong Kong retains a tight grip on its regional focus, and consequently Hong Kong is where Art Basel can depart from blue-chip, white-male redundancy. “Could this be the one fair with just one Alex Katz?” asked L.A. gallerist Harmony Murphy. (Jokingly, of course—there were three others, at least.) Yes, a Frank Stella strategically placed on the Lévy Gorvy booth’s exterior wall was trending on Instagram. And yes, destinations for blue-chip male Asian artists Anish Kapoor or Rirkrit Tiravanija include but are not limited to booths for Pilar Corrias, Sukje, Gladstone, Kurimanzutto, Paragon, and Scai the Batthouse. But among Art Basel Hong Kong’s defining graces is its robust emphasis on regional art, half of its galleries located in Asia and spanning the stillness of the Mono-ha movement to the riotous style of Takashi Murakami, sometimes side by side.
Taking the fair even further afield this year, Encounters curator Alexie Glass-Kantor decentralized her focus to include artists from rarely represented Asia-Pacific cities—Manila, Auckland, Lahore, Ho Chi Minh—amounting to an excellent procession of large-scale works up and down the meridians of the floor plan. What’s more, political art created outside the reach of CNN’s 24-hour news stream is a great reminder of worldly issues beyond Donald Trump. With Manila gallery Silverlens, the artist Pio Abad commissioned the remaining leather craftsmen of the Filipino city Marikina to construct “Not a Shield, but a Weapon,” a work comprising 180 knock-offs of Margaret Thatcher’s signature Asprey handbag arranged in rows on a white sheet on the floor like in a Filipino market. When the Philippines joined Thatcher’s and Reagan’s World Trade Organization, Marikina’s industries began to die out. “Within one object you have a network of relationships,” said Abad. “It becomes an alternative history of neoliberalism through the bag and through this not-very-well-known city in the Philippines.”
While Art Basel Hong Kong is considerably less chaotic than its Miami Beach counterpart, it echoes the requisite drama. On Wednesday night, not one but two guerrilla performances briefly hijacked the vernissage. One started with a long shriek and a woman collapsing on the floor among the twisted pipes of Hu Qingyan’s Encounters installation, a performance distastefully similar to the actual stabbing that occurred in Miami Beach in 2015. The giveaway here was the presence of guys passing surgical masks out to the audience before carrying her away. “It’s part of the show,” a woman in the crowd assured her companions, with not a small hint of boredom.
Better than that was earlier in the afternoon when a man wearing a purple mask and a G-string attached to a bloodied sanitary pad was encircled by a human lasso of suited security guards and then strong-armed out the door. According to Art Basel’s official statement, the fair takes no responsibility. “On Wednesday afternoon a visitor staged a performance on the show floor, causing a disturbance to other visitors and exhibitors,” the statement read. “As the visitor refused to end his performance or leave when asked, staff of HKCEC (Management) escorted him off the property.” Hong Kong may be didactic, but it’s definitely not dull.