Japanese galleries bank on Art Basel in Hong Kong

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

At precisely 8:30 p.m. on Thursday evening, the 118-story ICC tower, which is visible from just about everywhere in Hong Kong, began flashing to a pulselike rhythm. It was as though some strange creature had landed in the city set on pumping it with energy. And, in many ways, it had.

Art Basel in Hong Kong — the second spinoff of the world’s most prestigious art fair, Art Basel (the first being Miami Beach, which started in 2002), had just opened to the public a few hours earlier, trailing a retinue of some 120 galleries from the Asia-Pacific region, 120 more from Europe and the Americas, hundreds of cashed-up collectors, hundreds more art journalists and dozens of museum curators from the world over.

The fair’s arrival in the island city was announced not only by its occupation of the giant harbor-front Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, but by ubiquitous street banners, a fleet of Art Basel-branded BMW limousines, and — in the evenings — that pulsating tower, which represented the happy marriage of German artist Carsten Nicolai’s vision, the Hong Kong government’s apparently boundless amenability to all things Basel and, of course, the Swiss operator’s curatorial genius.

Whoever said the Swiss were boring? In Hong Kong, they put on a hell of a party, and the 20 participating galleries from Japan, while not exactly dominating the landscape, certainly made the most of it.

If a trend were to be identified in Japanese gallery participation at this, the second edition of Basel’s Hong Kong fair (May 15-18), it was that many were trying to take advantage of a perceived maturation of foreign interest in their country’s postwar art. It was a 2012 exhibition of the late 1960s movement Mono-ha at Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe Gallery, and then a 2013 show of Gutai (from the 1950s) at the Guggenheim that had been credited with shifting the attention of international collectors and institutions back into the recent history of Japanese art, and many galleries appeared keen to broaden that interest further into related and subsequent movements.

Gallery Yamaki Fine Art, Kobe, brought dozens of works by Tatsuo Kawaguchi, a conceptual artist born in 1940 who is known for atomic energy-themed works occasionally involving lead-encased seeds.

Meanwhile, Kaikai Kiki, the gallery that Takashi Murakami opened in 2006, primarily to focus on the “Superflat” artists of his own generation, brought with it a slew of works by Kazumi Nakamura, an abstract painter born in 1956 who had only very minor gallery representation for the last 30 years.

Tokyo Gallery brought primarily Mono-ha artists — Nobuo Sekine, Kishio Suga, Koji Enokura and others.

While all those galleries reported pleasing sales, it was the most recognizable names in contemporary art that really leapt off the walls.

Gallery Koyanagi reported strong interest in photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto, particularly his iconic Seascapes series. Mizuma Art Gallery sold two large paintings by O Jun and more, and Taka Ishii Gallery sold works by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Blum & Poe, which will open a space in Tokyo in September, reported brisk interest in paintings by Yoshitomo Nara.

Careful selection of non-Japanese artists also paid off for some galleries. It took just 30 minutes for ShugoArts to sell two works by Lee Kit, who represented Hong Kong at last year’s Venice Biennale.

With booth rental at the fair costing upwards of $62,000 for a relatively modest 90 sq.-meter space, and then other expenditures such as shipping and staffing, the cost of participating at the five-day Art Basel in Hong Kong is roughly equivalent in overall outlay to many Tokyo-based galleries’ rental expenditure for an entire year. And yet, almost all of the Japanese galleries present reported easily recouping their investments.

“All sales from now on represent profit,” Sueo Mitsuma, from Mizuma Art Gallery, reported Thursday afternoon, with still three full days of sales ahead of him.

Visibly energized by the gathering, he continued, “Take a look around you — all these galleries have brought with them the artists they think are the most talented. In Japan, the art world tends to look like an amity club; but, ultimately, this is what this business is about: competing to sell the works you think are best.”

When it closed its doors on Sunday evening, the fair had been visited by more than 65,000 people.