[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]hirteen years ago, when curator Tobias Berger arrived in Hong Kong, there were only two or three contemporary art galleries. Today, there are well over 100, including several renowned international galleries such as David Zwirner, Pace Gallery, Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian, each representing the biggest contemporary names.

The commercial boom is the direct result of the creation of art fair Art HK in 2008, which was later bought over by the Swiss events company MCH Group in 2013 to be converted into Art Basel Hong Kong – Asia’s buzziest art event.

“But what the scene lacked during the commercial boom,” he says, “were healthy public art spaces that could reflect on the art and educate people about it… art that is not driven by the fame, money or the market.”

Mr Berger got his wish. In recent years, Hong Kong has opened new art spaces such as the non-profit Centre For Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) and the exhibition space M+ Pavilion (a precursor to the major art museum M+). They join excellent long-running independent spaces such as Para Site and Asia Art Archive to present art that serves as springboards for robust discussions on society.

Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile CHAT
Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), another new public arts space, opened in March 2019.

Mr Berger himself is now head of arts at the newly-opened Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Station Compound that comprises a police station, prison and magistrate court, among other buildings. These heritage spaces have been renovated, converted and added to, at the cost of US$484 million. Tai Kwun now houses a performing arts theatre and exhibition spaces designed by star architects Herzog and de Meuron, as well as chic stores and restaurants.

True to the vision of “non-commercial art”, Tai Kwun has been running bold exhibitions envisioned by guest curators who tackle urgent, topical and sometimes taboo topics. Its ongoing exhibition titled Performing Society: The Violence of Gender, for instance, investigates how existing power structures and social codes define and damage women’s identities, bodies and sexuality. Artworks by artists such as Anne Imhof and Marianna Simnett range from the subtle to the downright furious.

Public reception to these exhibitions has been anything but cold. Despite the age restrictions for provocative works, Tai Kwun draws an average of 1,000 visitors per day on weekdays, and 1,500 visitors per day on weekends – healthy numbers for a midsize art space. Meanwhile, other art spaces such as Para Site and West Kowloon Cultural District’s M+ Pavilion and Xiqu Centre report similarly strong figures.

It’s clear that Hong Kong, with its more open, less censorious approach to art, is rapidly finding and building a loyal arts audience locally and internationally – even though threats of restrictions by Beijing hover over the city.

(RELATED: Chinese art market is now second biggest in the world)

Singapore artists shine

The programming by Hong Kong art institutions is generally international and inclusive. Two Singapore artists, 2011 Venice Biennale artist Ho Tzu Nyen and the late performance artist Lee Wen, have solo shows at the Edouard Malingue Gallery and Asia Art Archive (AAA) respectively.

Ho’s solo at Edouard Malingue Gallery is solid. Its centerpiece is an iconoclastic video work whose runtime is stated as “infinite”. Titled The Critical Dictionary Of Southeast Asia, the video runs through all the letters of the alphabet. Each letter stands for a concept shared by the histories of Southeast Asian countries. “A”, for instance, stands for “Asia”, “archipelago” and ”anarchy”; “B” for “buffalo”, “barbarian” and “boundaries”; “C” for “corruption”, and so on.

Using an algorithmic editing system, the video weaves an extraordinary stream of sound, words and images taken from newsreels, TV shows, horror films, computer-generated advertising, YouTube videos and other sources, to create an infinite number of linkages and interpretations about our present and past. This latest chapter of Ho’s ongoing exploration of Southeast Asia continues to posit a vast, contextual and pluralistic understanding of Southeast Asia beyond what any single history book can offer.

Meanwhile at AAA, Lee’s sketches, notes and video are artfully dispersed throughout the library and resource centre. Seven years ago, Lee founded the Independent Archive (IA) on Aliwal Street in Singapore to document performance and experimental art in the region. Before Lee’s death in early March this year, IA had been in talks with AAA for a long-term collaboration. The notes and sketches now on display at AAA date back from 1978 to 2014 and offer an intimate look into Lee’s artistic processes. The videos shot in UK and Japan show Lee as the famous “Yellow Man”, a performance persona he adopted to explore his identity as a Chinese man.

Lee Wen
Lee Wen’s solo exhibition at Asia Art Archive.

Bruce Quek, who worked with Lee at IA for several years, came to Hong Kong to see the AAA exhibition. He said: “Despite his failing health, Lee’s passing was a great shock to the arts community all over Asia. The show really started as an examination of his art expressed through his notes and sketches, but now it has doubled as a memorial to his life and practice.”

Outside 10 Chancellory Lane Gallery, artist Huang Rui, a seminal figure of China’s Dashanzi Factory 798 Art District, donned yellow-and-black robes and carried out a two-hour performance titled Yellow Funeral to commemorate Lee’s death. “Unexpectedly, the AAA show has become part of our mourning, while also reminding us of his huge contributions to performance art around the world,” Mr Quek adds.

(RELATED: Contemporary artist Lee Wen’s latest exhibition scrutinises Singapore’s identity through its colonial past)

Market highs & lows

Moving to the commercial market, the seventh edition of Art Basel Hong Kong saw high-end transactions taking place at a brisk clip. White Cube sold an Andy Warhol silkscreen for US$2.85 million. Hauser & Wirth sold a large abstract by 2018 Venice Biennale artist Mark Bradford for US$2 million. David Zwirner sold out its entire booth on the first day, with works such as an Alice Neel portrait going for US$1.7million, a Luc Tuymans painting for US$1.5million and two Carol Bove sculptures for US$500,000 each.

(RELATED: Why fine arts photographer David Yarrow thinks the art is still relevant)

But it wasn’t just the mega-galleries that did well. Among the 242 galleries at the fair, smaller outfits also reported brisk sales, including many Singapore and Singapore-linked ones. Richard Koh Fine Art sold out its entire booth of paintings by Thai artist Natee Utarit within the first hour of the fair; they were priced between US$45,000 and US$150,000. Yavuz Gallery sold nearly every work they brought by Southeast Asian artists such as Yeo Kaa, Pinaree Sanpitak and Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan. And STPI shifted many works by Zeng Fanzhi and Do-Ho Su on the first day.

Natee Utarit
Natee Utarit’s paintings at Richard Koh Fine Art were all snapped up within the first hours of the fair.

According to the annual Art Basel & UBS report on the art market by renowned economist Clare McAndrew, Asian art accounts for an estimated 22 percent of global art sales – with China alone making up 19 percent. The Chinese art market expanded by 130 percent within the last decade, while other markets including Singapore, Japan and South Korea are reportedly surging.

Speaking to the press before the fair, however, Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler sounded a note of caution. He said: “The picture for galleries is not only rosy. Both in the art market report and within the hundreds of conversations we have with gallerists every year, we see the constant struggle of many galleries not just to thrive but also to survive, especially those who are not working with the market’s current stars… Internationalisation has meant consolidation of the market, often around a few key players.”

(RELATED: Why Instagram is giving art galleries a run for their money)

Mr Spiegler sees Art Basel as making attempts to counterbalance the trend by giving all its galleries, big and small, equal access to the world’s wealthiest art collectors. But arguably this gesture may be too small to make a difference to the tens of thousands of small and mid-size galleries in the world – most of which do not qualify or cannot afford to take part in the top-notch art fair.

But the fair’s roaring success has boosted the viability of Hong Kong’s public and independent art spaces, which in turn give the city cultural credibility beyond its market transactions.

Tai Kwun’s Performing Society: The Violence of Gender runs from now till April 28, 2019. Ho Tzu Nyen at Edouard Malingue Gallery runs from now till May 17, 2019. Lee Wen at Asia Art Archive runs from now till Jun 29, 2019.

Stand-out artworks

(RELATED: Highlights from Art Basel Hong Kong)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Tai Kwun, Asia Art Archive & Helmi Yusof