Hong Kong Scene Artists in Babylon

Hong Kong

Pak Sheung Chuen: Breathing in a House, 2006, at the Busan Biennale, South Korea.


THE BASIC UNIT OF THOUGHT in Hong Kong, my Chinese friends joke, is dollars per square foot. Not so funny if you’re an artist trying to find adequate space to live and work—or wanting to address something other than a collector’s likely financial return on your work. Lee Kit literalized this dilemma at Art Basel in 2011 with How to set up an apartment for Johnny?, an installation that mocked the idealized “model living quarters” often used to sell residential space still under construction. Filling a modest area not with high-end sofas and tables but with the cheap furnishings that new graduates and young families typically resort to, he offered to sell the components at the same priced-by-size rate as high-rise Hong Kong real estate.

Lee, who is known for hand-painted fabrics and arrays of altered everyday objects like those included in “The Ungovernables,” the 2012 triennial at the New Museum in New York, won the Art Futures Prize at Hong Kong’s Art HK fair last May. At 34, he is part of a new generation of Hong Kong artists who have set themselves in contradistinction to what many see as the grandiose work of mainland Chinese artists. Yet even his pointedly humble work—a lacquered ball of used towels is typical— cannot escape the economic logic of today’s art world. In June, the artist (whose work was also included in “Print/ Out” at New York’s MoMA this year) moved to Taipei, telling the Wall Street Journal that “the cost of the Taipei studio and plane ticket [to Hong Kong once a month] is still lower than the rent of my Hong Kong studio.”

Neither Lee’s embrace of the “unmonumental” nor his cost-benefit analysis is unique. Indeed, he and his Hong Kong colleagues might be seen as prime exemplars of a crisis faced by all experimental artists today. Forced to rely almost exclusively on selling work to wealthy collectors, they are caught up in a global system serving—and ultimately controlled by—one percent of the one percent.1 Nowhere is this peculiar fact more striking than in China’s Special Administrative Region on Victoria Bay, where a population of just seven million boasts 83,600 high-net-worth individuals—those having at least one million dollars of readily investable assets, apart from the value of their residences, collectibles and consumer items.

Accordingly, over the past two years, the art press has buzzed with news of Hong Kong’s rise as a contemporary art-selling powerhouse, bidding to lead the field in Asia. Longtime Hong Kong galleries like Hanart TZ, 10 Chan- cery Lane, Osage, and Tang Contemporary have recently been joined by big-name Western firms such as Gagosian, Ben Brown, Galerie Perrotin, Simon Lee and White Cube. Shanghai socialite-dealer Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong native, has returned with a rambling branch venue, which in July showed Hong Kong installation artist Tsang Kin-Wah. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both opened elegant facili- ties to compete with Asian auction houses already doing a roaring business. The annual Art HK fair, the most successful in Asia, will transform in its sixth iteration next spring into Art Basel Hong Kong, making it—after Miami—the third component of the Art Basel empire.

On the nonprofit front, the international Asia Society opened its privately funded Hong Kong Center this year with an exhibition featuring historical Asian works from the Rockefeller Collection interspersed with contemporary pieces by artists such as Montien Boonma, Mariko Mori and Michael Joo. M+, the long-awaited contemporary art museum (part of a $2.8-billion cultural complex being constructed in Kowloon, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island) is slated to open in 2017. It is already doing off-site exhibitions and projects under the directorship of Lars Nittve, former head of London’s Tate Modern and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the senior curatorship of Pi Li, a well-known Chinese art scholar, curator and for- mer partner in Beijing’s Boers-Li Gallery. Nittve describes the museum’s approach as “from a Hong Kong point of view, with a global perspective.” Recently, M+ announced the acquisition—through a partial gift and a $22.7-million payment—of 1,510 works from the premier Uli Sigg col- lection of avant-garde Chinese art.

ALL VERY THRILLING, but where does it leave Hong Kong’s artists? Last May, two days before the opening of Art HK 12 at the space-age Hong Kong Convention and Exhi- bition Center (soon peppered with T-shirts and tote bags proclaiming a “Truism” from Jenny Holzer: “Money Creates Taste”), I met with a number of artists in Fo Tan, a light- manufacturing and warehouse district in the New Territories north of Kowloon. There, at a physical and psychological remove from Hong Kong’s 1,224 skyscrapers (New York, a poor second, has just 569), some 200 emerging—or mature and hanging in there—practitioners live and work in condi- tions not unlike those that prevail in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Their stories, though diverse, have a common element of benign neglect by the city’s cultural institutions, both public and private.

Chow Chun Fai, who had his fourth Hong Kong solo at Hanart TZ in 2010, was first noted for paintings of red taxi-cabs, the sort used in his small family business, but has since concentrated on large images derived from Hong Kong films, making his canvas-crowded studio a dream factory in several senses. A young German émigré to Hong Kong by way of Tokyo, Cornelia Erdmann has since 2006 made installations throughout the city, using materials such as cut metal, LEDs, woven wire and light tubes. Lee Chin Fai (aka Danny Lee) creates huge metal egg shapes and polished-steel drips, a modernized evocation, he says, of go-with-the-flow Taoism.

Whatever their age or degree of commercial success, Fo Tan denizens give a similar account of the artistic life in Hong Kong. There is good-quality studio art training available, notably at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the newly opened branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design; there is occasional, transitory support from agencies such as the Hong Kong Arts Development Council; there are friendly art-and-labor exchanges among fellow artists, especially in Fo Tan and the comparably feisty Chai Wan district on the eastern end of Hong Kong Island (a neighborhood rife with pop-up activity during Art HK 12); there are DIY groups and open-studio parties; there is even a conscientious preservation of Hong Kong art history at the nonprofit Asia Art Archive, which also provides artist residences and, during Art HK 12, used its booth to docu- ment the short-lived (1998-2000) Oil Street artist village.

Missing, however, are adequate opportunities to exhibit in critically respected galleries, museums and alternative spaces. Most of the big-name galleries now setting up shop in Hong Kong come to promote a mix of Western art stars to Asian collectors, and mainland Chinese art to both Chinese and foreign buyers. During the Art HK 12 ferment last spring, Gagosian presented Andreas Gursky; Ben Brown, Alighiero Boetti; Galerie Perrotin, KAWS; Simon Lee, Sherrie Levine; White Cube, Anselm Kiefer. Pearl Lam Galleries offered work by seven mainland Chinese abstractionists, selected by legendary PRC curator Gao Minglu. And a few days later, the top lot at Sotheby’s contemporary Asian sale was the painting Bloodline: Big Family, No. 2 (1993) by PRC star Zhang Xiaogang, selling for $6.69 million; at Christie’s, Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase (ca. 1940-49) by Sanyu, an anodyne “modernist” painter from mainland China, who spent his adult life in France, went for $6.14 million. Commercially, for all today’s pious talk about “hybrid identity” and “borderless art,” Hong Kong artists are often deemed “not Chinese enough” to be of great interest in either the East or West.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (established 1962) is devoted primarily to cultural artifacts and historical work. Even when it mounts the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial, the museum requires avant-garde artists to share the exhibition space with contemporary ink painters, calligraphers and seal carvers—an official version of cultural balance.

The nonprofit Para/Site Art Space, conversely, has been a bastion of experimentation since its founding in 1996, but it is a tiny bastion indeed, occupying only 1,600 square feet in a former city-center storefront. The Cattle Depot Artist Village (founded 2001)—previously a slaugh- terhouse, located in a hard-to-reach Kowloon locale—is perpetually too short of funds to do justice to its some- times bold programming, such as the May 2012 show of works about WWII comfort women by Korean-born, New York-based Chang Jin Lee. (And where else on Chinese soil could one, in 2009, have seen an exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre?) Overall, the dearth of good venues drives many Hong Kong artists to exhibit in shopping malls, parks and corporate lobbies—a common, non-stigmatized practice in Asia but one nevertheless far from ideal and of little financial benefit to the struggling artists.

One response to this situation has been graffiti art, executed most famously by the trash collector and guerrilla calligrapher Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007), the self-styled “King of Kowloon.” In the semicommercial Kowloon neighborhood of Kwun Tong, I encountered a more up-to- date version of tagging, as practiced by figures such as Lam Lung, a former tattoo artist who depicts patterned faces; “Dom,” who visually bombards walls, sidewalks and door- ways under the rubric Start from Zero (“START stands for STreet ART, STencil ART and STicker ART”); and Tang Chin (aka “Tangerine”), who spray-painted countless surfaces with a familiar bearded visage and the words “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” during the artist’s mysterious detention in Beijing last year.

Interestingly, Who’s Afraid of Hong Kong Artists? is the name of a local movement started a few years ago in reaction to the Art HK fair, seen by group members as inhospitable to the city’s own art-makers. Those sentiments, like the Kwun Tong neighborhood, are shared by Graphicairlines, an art-and-design team begun by “Tat and Vi” in 2002. Though they champion street art and an “aesthetics of ugly,” the pair often turn out handsomely designed items such as the authentic-looking Graphic-airlines boarding pass they handed me: “Creative Class,” it reads against a dark background of constellations and planets, “Flight No. 852, From nowhere to everywhere . . . You never know what comes after.”

RECOGNITION FOR HONG KONG artists is not entirely lacking, of course. The long-established galleries, particularly Hanart TZ, make an effort to include local artists in their programming from time to time. The city has, moreover, its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale—separate from mainland China’s, much more pleasant and niftily located across from the Arsenale entrance/exit. In 2009, Pak Sheung Chuen presented domestic-object installations and performance videos that highlight the paradoxical “smallness” of Hong Kong. Waiting for a Friend (without appointment), 2006, finds the artist repeatedly hanging around transportation hubs until someone he knows happens by. Breathing in a House (2006) portrays him inflating large plastic bags with his breath until they pile up and take over his entire apartment. In 2011, the Venice space was overwhelmed by the immersive, psychedelic environment of “Frog King” Kwok Mang-Ho, who often lurked about the pavilion in a wild costume and concentric-circle eyeglasses. The 2013 representative will be Lee Kit.

Three Hong Kong artists were included in the “CAFAM Future” exhibition last summer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum in Beijing, a roundup of 95 Chinese artists under the age of 35, nominated by a blue-ribbon panel of international curators, artists and critics. Besides the ubiquitous Lee Kit, the organizers chose Au Hoi Lam, a Fo Tan district regular who also showed her work (delicate, sometimes text-based draw- ings and paintings on linen, board or handkerchief ) in Osage Gallery’s booth at Art HK 12; and Ho Sin Tung, whose pencil drawings evoke imaginary films. Cordelia and Christoph Noe, Beijing-based independent curators and authors, recently edited Hong Kong Artists: 20 Portraits (2012), comprising essays and profiles written by themselves and 18 other contributors. Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, presents Nadim Abbas, an artist and musician whose Ornament & Crime (2008)—a characteristically brainy and elaborate installation—juxtaposes a PVC pipe structure, into which viewers can drop porcelain objects to be spewed out and broken on the floor, with an array of images depicting various human execution devices. Award-winning critic Pauline J. Yao, based in Beijing and Hong Kong, profiles two artists: Wong Wai Yin, who explores replication, deception and copying in both pictures and texts; and Adrian Wong, a Chinese-American émigré known for performance-installations such as Sang Yat Fai Lok (Happy Birthday), 2008, a re-creation of his great uncle’s once immensely popular kids’ TV show from the 1960s and ’70s, “Calvin’s Corner.” Abby Chen, curator and deputy director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, discusses Fo Tan artist Lam Tung-Pang, whose Selling My Soul (2010)—in which the artist erased his own drawings at the Tate Modern in London—she regards as haunted by the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China.

This sense of between-ness has long infused progres- sive Hong Kong art. Witness Ho Siu-Kee’s Walking on Two Balls (1995), one of the most memorable works in Gao Minglu’s landmark “Inside Out” exhibition, which introduced contemporary Chinese art to many Western viewers during its international tour in 1998-2000. The video shows the Hong Kong artist desperately trying to keep his balance and move forward while standing on a pair of large wooden spheres.

CHEN TAKES A POSITIVE VIEW of the cultural divide, at least for now. She holds that progressive Hong Kong artists, because they get some support from the Hong Kong government and private foundations, produce work which is “less commercial and more diverse” than that of their mainland Chinese peers, who receive almost no public funding. But she has misgivings about the future, as mainland influence grows: “We might get to witness the most intense reawakening of a society, but also the last orgy of freedom for the individual.”2

The recent travails of Ai Weiwei suggest that this is no mere alarmist hyperbole. Thanks to 155 years of stable and relatively enlightened British rule, Hong Kong was spared the bitter history of modern China (briefly: revolution, civil war, foreign invasions, Communist autocracy, forced collectivization, mass starvation, global isolation, internal persecutions and, since 1978, conversion to crony capitalism under a one-party oligarchy). Some critics even allege that Hong Kong artists have had too much ease to generate truly significant art. But with the advent of Chinese authority in 1997, their hometown—a phenomenally successful world port and financial center—is now in a more tenuous posi- tion, especially given the possible expiration in 2047 of the Basic Law protecting its free marketplace and civil rights.

During Art HK 12, rumors ran rampant that mainland officials, wised-up to phony valuation numbers and routine tax evasion, were demanding shipping lists from the Hong Kong auction houses, and that dealers might be next. After several weeks, things calmed down and only a few people—a couple of German shipping company employees and, oh, a top Minsheng Bank official—were arrested in Beijing. People soon shrugged the incident off, as they often do in China, as just another instance of governmental muscle-flexing, or “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” Will the day come when they take a similar view toward cracking down on artists in order to bring more political types into line?

Such concerns seem far away as one glides through the sleek corridors of Hong Kong’s swank new galleries and auction houses—as they once did, I suppose, in 18th-century Versailles. But let’s hope the city (perhaps prodded a bit by its overlooked bohemians) will somehow mature, while the clock ticks over the next 35 years, to be more than just a business-savvy, vacation-comfy boomtown where the rich come to luxuriate in contemporary art that only they can afford.

1 This phrase, though catchy, probably understates the gap. There are roughly seven billion people on earth at present. Are 700,000 of them serious collectors of contemporary art? If so, where are they hiding?

2 All Abby Chen quotes from an e-mail to the author, Oct. 2, 2012.