World’s third-largest art fair ups profile of Asian works

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

For Japanese artists in need of international exposure, Hong Kong, it seems, is their closest window to the world. Last month, the city’s international art fair, ART HK 2011, now in its fourth year, attracted art-lovers from all over the world, including many from mainland China, where the booming economy has boosted interest in art investment and collection.

With 260 galleries from 38 countries and a record attendance of 63,511 visitors — a 37.7 percent increase on last year — organizers boasted that the four-day event, held at the city’s sprawling Convention and Exhibition Centre, “cemented ART HK’s status as Asia’s premier art fair.”

Among a number of major sales reported by galleries was Beijing artist Liu Wei’s 2011 ox-hide piece “Don’t Touch,” which was bought by a European collector for a “six-figure U.S.-dollar sum.” “The Geometry of Pleasure,” a 2009 work by the late Paris-born Louise Bourgeois, was also snapped up, this time by a Chinese collector, for $750,000.

Not all the prices — nor the names of buyers — were disclosed, but judging by the volume of visitors and the number of times displays on the walls changed as artworks were bought, sales were brisk at many booths.

Well-established Japanese artists, such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, also did well. A huge 2010 acrylic painting by Murakami titled “Open Your Hands Wide,” was sold to an Asian collector for $2.2 million, said a representative of Paris-based Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin. The gallery also sold a huge manga-like painting of a girl by the artist Mr., a former protégé of Murakami, for $240,000.

Japanese galleries bringing less well-known Japanese artists to the fair, however, reported slow sales.

“My impression of the Hong Kong fair is that, while big names sell quickly, new artists take time to sell,” said Satoko Oe from Shugo Arts, whose 80-sq.-meter booth was the biggest among the 20 Japanese galleries exhibiting. “It might be because buyers are afraid of buying without knowing a lot about the artist. I feel that, if Japanese galleries don’t have a bigger presence, they will be buried in a sea of galleries here.”

This concern is not unique to Japanese galleries. Recent developments have left some art-industry insiders apprehensive about whether ART HK will really be able to retain its Asian flavor in the future.

Asian Art Fairs Ltd., the owner and operator of ART HK, recently announced that it had sold a majority stake in the company to MCH Group, which owns Art Basel, the world’s largest art fair, which is held in Basel, Switzerland, every June. MCH Group also own the world’s second-largest art fair, “Art Basel Miami Beach,” in Miami, Florida.

Magnus Renfrew, ART HK’s founding managing director, will still be heading ART HK next year, and the fair will retain its name, but officials from some Japanese galleries are worried that their artists may not be as prominently featured in the future. For this year’s 260 exhibiting spaces, more than 500 galleries applied, which means the competition to participate is already intense.

The fair’s organizers, however, maintain that they have no intention of making it a copy of those in Basel and Miami, noting that Hong Kong’s geographic uniqueness — a hub of Asia and the gateway to China — would continue to act in its favor.

“I guess (ART HK) will eventually be Basel-HK,” said Eriko Kusaka from Mizuma Art Gallery, which successfully sold some neo-nihonga (new Japanese-style) works of Hisashi Tenmyoya and a new painting by Kanazawa-based Masakatsu Sashie, among others. “As an Asian gallery, we want Basel-Hong Kong to be Asia-centric,” she said.

This all raises the question of why Japanese art galleries need this exposure in Hong Kong.

It could be, said Yukihiko Tabata of Tokyo Gallery+BTAP, that there is a shortage of local collectors in Japan and a general lack of interest in contemporary art across wider parts of Japanese society.

“Japanese people don’t support Japanese artists,” he said. “The Japanese actually pay a huge amount for Impressionist paintings, but not for contemporary art. To survive, we go overseas to sell. And only after artists succeed internationally do Japanese buy their works back — at a much higher price.”

It appears that until Japan starts to actively back its emerging artists, the Hong Kong fair will likely remain an important sales venue for contemporary Japanese art. This year, Tabata’s gallery exhibited in ART ONE, a new section of ART HK dedicated to solo shows of Asian artists. On the first day, his gallery sold all but one of the works on display — 13 folklore-inspired artworks by 27-year-old artist Miki Taira — and the buyers came from many countries, including France, Australia, the United States, Turkey, Taiwan and Hong Kong.