Western dealers, eager to tap into the vast and growing market of the Pacific, are learning that cultural differences often translate into dollars and cents. At Art HK 12, the international art fair that ended its five-day run in Hong Kong on Sunday, Robert Motherwell’s classic Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 45 (1960), a small casein-on-paper work, was sold for an impressive $1 million by Bernard Jacobson Gallery (New York). But that result was far outstripped by the $3 million-plus that a Southeastern Asian collector paid Hong Kong’s De Sarthe Gallery for No. 313 (1969), an oil-on-canvas abstraction by Chu Teh-Chun, a 92-year-old, Chinese-born painter resident in France. His work—featuring broad, smooth swaths of candy colors—is cloyingly decorative to Western eyes.
Other Asian sales of note included $900,000 for another work by Chu Teh-Chun, paid by a Chinese buyer to the London gallery Hopkins Custot. Lin & Lin (Taipei) placed 15 neo-impressionistic landscape paintings by China’s Liu Wei (the elder), who, in his younger, tougher-minded days, was one of the founders of Cynical Realism, a 1990s avant-garde movement that rejected nobility, beauty and sentiment. The multinational Gagosian (which simultaneously featured Andreas Gursky in its new Hong Kong branch) sold out an entire series of pencil drawings by Chinese art star Zeng Fanzhi. Blum & Poe (Los Angeles) garnered $140,000 from an Asian collector for two oil paintings by 58-year-old Chinese artist Zhu Jinshi.
Western works connected with buyers on both sides of the cultural divide. Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa (1984) went for roughly $1.3 million at the booth of Paris’s Tornabuoni Art, which placed at least four other works by the artist. (A Boetti show was concurrently on view outside the fair at the stylish Ben Brown Hong Kong.) London’s White Cube, which inaugurated its new Hong Kong space during Art HK 12 with a show of new paintings by Anselm Kiefer, scored inside the fair by selling a Georg Baselitz painting to an Asian collector for $650,000. A silver sculpture by Paul McCarthy, Western Mash Monument (2006/11), brought Hauser & Wirth Zurich $450,000 from a Latin American buyer. A collector from Singapore paid De Sarthe Gallery $400,000 for Hans Hartung’s vinyl-on-canvas abstraction T1966-H32 (1966). Sprüth Magers (Berlin and London) did well with new American works, selling Sterling Ruby’s SP 191 (2011) for $155,000 to an Australian buyer and George Condo’s Toy Head (2012) for $150,000 to an Asian collector.
Lee Kit, a Hong Kong artist born in 1978, won the $25,000 Art Futures Prize for Something in My Hands, his casually scattered installation of altered everyday objects, including a lacquered ball of used towels, at the booth of Shanghai’s Aike-Dellarco.
Some 67,000 people attended Art HK this year, a 6-percent increase over 2011. The majority of attendees were clearly local residents curious to see contemporary art of a sort that, until recently, has had few outlets in Hong Kong. But there was no dearth of celebrity visitors as well, among them artists Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Subodh Gupta, Joseph Kosuth, Mariko Mori, Takashi Murakami, Pipilotti Rist, Luc Tuymans and Jeff Wall, as well as architect Zaha Hadid, who designed an impressively sleek booth for Galerie Gmurzynska (Zug, Switzerland). Museum notables included Charles Saumarez Smith (Royal Academy of Arts, London), Melissa Chiu (Asia Society worldwide), Elizabeth Ann MacGregor (MCA, Sydney), Nigel Hurst (Saatchi Gallery, London), Klaus Biesenbach (MoMA, New York), Philippe Vergne (Dia, New York) and Sam Keller (Fondation Beyeler, Basel). Also on hand were such major collectors as François Pinault, Uli Sigg, Budi Tek, Rduy Tseng, Guy Ullens and Wang Wei.
Amid all the standard fare, a few Chinese artists seemed determined to challenge Western notions of authenticity, originality and exclusivity—as well as viewer tolerance for the grotesque. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu placed identical works—lifelike models of a rhinoceros and a triceratops—at various places throughout the fair, under the auspices of several different galleries. Shen Shaomin stopped foot traffic with I Sleep on Top of Myself (2011), an installation of artificial animals and fowl, each skinned or plucked and seeming to breathe as it lay atop its own shed covering on a pile of salt. For sheer creepiness, the ensemble was surpassed only by the same artist’s I Want to Know What Infinity Is: a life-size silica gel version of an extremely old, wispy-haired lady, nude in a beach chair, her exposed groin greeting visitors who came through the VIP entrance of the fair’s upper exhibition hall.
“Money Creates Taste” was the sentiment (ironically?) expressed on T-shirts and shoulder bags circulating through the Art HK 12 exhibition halls. If that is so, the wealth now emerging in places like India, Singapore and China may take 21st-century esthetics in some unexpected directions.
Above: Shen Shaomin, I Want to Know What Infinity Is