Fairs China

Big-brand fair that's not just about biennial favourites

For many Western collectors Art Basel in Hong Kong provides a chance to discover young Asian artists

Unfamiliar faces at the fair: Hangzhou-based Li Qing is a young Chinese artist with a growing market, at Leo Xu Projects (3C16) with his work. Photo by Norm Yip

Art Basel in Hong Kong, which opens to VIPs today, 13 March, has become a place for Western collectors—and even curators—to discover work by Asian artists whose names are unfamiliar. Such a status is unusual for a big-brand fair. It is partly due to the fast emergence of a vast and unknown (to Westerners at least) artistic community in Asia. The fair has also helped fill a gap caused by the perceived shortcomings of some of the region’s biennials and non-selling exhibitions.

“We are still largely in a world where the West looks at the West. Chinese artists are not naturally that well exposed. There are very few [institutional] exhibitions focused on them, and when there are, it’s always the same names,” says Sylvain Levy, the collector and co-founder of the DSL collection of contemporary Chinese art.

Joan Kee, an associate professor of the history of art at the University of Michigan, says: “There are quite a few efforts to hold Whitney Biennial-type surveys [in Asia] but these are often just plain chaotic.”

Conversely, many on the art world circuit praise the Hong Kong fair for creating something meaningful out of the chaos. The fair—though arguably rather uncontrolled when it launched as Art HK in 2008—quickly raised its game even before Art Basel took it over in 2013. Arianne Levene, a London-based contemporary art adviser who specialises in Asian art, says that the fair had “standards that eclipsed anything that was there before”.

The launch this week of a satellite fair—Art Central (14-16 March, Central Harbourfront)—has piqued the interest of those keen to discover new artists.

Art fairs, despite their talks and wider programmes, have their limitations. Levene says that the appeal of Art Basel in Hong Kong is primarily to “a Western collector who hasn’t had a great deal of exposure to contemporary Asian art.” For the more informed collector—and curator—biennials are still the “indispensible counterweight” to fairs, says Alain Servais, a Belgian-based collector.

Sook-Kyung Lee, a curator for the Tate Research Centre Asia-Pacific says that, while fairs offer “opportunities to see interesting works, they are not the primary source for my research,” citing the Gwangju Bienniale in South Korea, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia, and Japan’s Yokohama Triennale instead. Other key biennials are Singapore, Sharjah, Kochi-Muziris and Istanbul.

But Mark Coetzee, the curator of the Zeitz Collection in South Africa, says that a fair’s “multitude of viewpoints” can be more illuminating than many biennials, which are driven by “a single or group of curators”. This applies less to the Venice Biennale, given its national pavilions and collateral exhibitions.

Inevitably, the majority of artists chosen for biennials are at the “already discovered” stage of the careers. They have often entered the international art world’s consciousness through the market first, particularly when it comes to Asia. Tsang Kin-Wah, who is representing Hong Kong at this year’s Venice Biennale (9 May-22 November), has had several solo shows at Pearl Lam Galleries (1D09), Pékin Fine Arts (1C16), Yvon Lambert Gallery and White Cube (1D12).

While Asian artists are emerging through commercial gallery shows, they are also increasingly coming to prominence through exhibitions organised by non-profit spaces. For example, in Hong Kong, Para Site, the Asia Art Archive, the Asia Society and, increasingly, the K11 Art Foundation are making waves.

Many in the art world also seek out side-shows to learn about new, but vetted, artists. Joan Kee says that “satellite shows often held in reaction to official events were must-sees” after Asia’s 1997 financial crisis. She recalls the “Fuck Off” exhibition, conceived by Ai Weiwei to run alongside the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, which many found more artistically significant than the main event. But, Kee says, “most of this has gone by the wayside for any number of reasons, such as the lack of funds—and the related pressure to become self-sufficient”.

Visiting studios and going to gallery shows are still the best way to develop an in-depth understanding of Asian art. Alain Servais says these are “even more important in the East than the West as censorship is much reduced”. Sylvain Levy gives huge weight to “being in the field”; he and his wife visit China (from Paris) for around 20 days, four times a year. Dedicating such time is, however, unrealistic for many buyers, and is a reason behind the growth of art advisers in this field. Even they find that studio visits can be a luxury. “With more and more events, it becomes difficult to keep up with any but a few artists,” says Jehan Chu, an adviser based in Hong Kong.

Consequently, the internet and social media have become vital tools and are “better than not being able to see how an artist is progressing at all,” says Chu. Kee says: “Because it’s not financially or physically possible—or, for that matter, desirable—to go everywhere at once, I rely quite a bit on the internet, especially on the Twitter and Instagram feeds of trusted colleagues.”

Whatever the art world is doing to get to grips with Asia, the need to do so is undisputed. Levy says: “History teaches that art always follows money and power—today we know where that is.”

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