Two years ago, the Xiqu Centre, the Chinese opera venue in the West Kowloon Cultural District of Hong Kong, was largely a skeleton frame of rebar and concrete. This year its dramatic curvaceousness was officially open for business. Though itself impressively large, the Xiqu Centre is dwarfed by the vast area that is still under development. The hope is that when the Lyric performing arts center, Hon g Kong Palace Museum, Art Park, and Herzog and de Meuron-designed M+ Museum are finally finished, Hong Kong will be Asia’s main arts and cultural hub.

In the meantime, besides the prestige project of the Xiqu Centre, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts (which made Time magazine’s “Greatest Places 2018”) has world-class contemporary art exhibitions, and the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, one of whose directors is Mizuki Takahashi, formerly of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and Art Tower Mito, has just opened.

To date, the main cause of the harbor city’s success in the global art scene has been Art Basel Hong Kong.

The fair, however, is not for everyone. Despite its growing authority as an “unmissable” international art event, its main reason for existence is to be a marketplace for expensive things, not of ideas. As a pop-up store for the wealthy, local working Hong Kong people haven’t necessarily heard of it.

“Basel’s in Switzerland, right? What are they doing here?” one taxi driver questioned me. I asked if he had seen the big inflatable cartoon character in the harbor, he laughed, “That’s supposed to be art? It’s just a gimmick!” I mentioned that Kaws, the artist responsible for the spectacle, says it’s supposed to be lying down looking at the sky to give people a sense of calm in an age of rapid change, uncertainty and too much information. “They did ducks one year,” he replied elliptically.

Visitors take photos of Kaws
Visitors take photos of Kaws’ work at the Sotheby’s showcase at Art Basel Hong 2019. | JOHN L. TRAN

Whether I, or the taxi driver, think Kaws’ sardonic pop culture work is a gimmick or not is irrelevant to whoever paid $14.7 million (¥1.64 billion) for the New York-based artist’s parody of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover. That sale took place on the Sotheby’s-commandeered fifth floor of the fair venue on April 1. Carpeted and softly lit, the Sotheby’s space was a more genteel environment than the trade-show ambience of the floors below; all the better for considering the legacy of postmodernism and the ability of capitalism to combat social commentary and dissent with shopping.

Confrontational art: Chim↑Pom
Confrontational art: Chim↑Pom’s Pikachu-like rat work at the Anomaly booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 | JOHN L. TRAN

Japan at the fair

Hong Kong may have beaten out Tokyo in terms of becoming the livelier marketplace for contemporary art in Asia, but in the soft power stakes, the prominence and high prices of works by Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami on the fifth floor seemed to explain how Hong Kong had ended up with an otaku culture-inspired cartoon figure floating outside the exhibition center.

On the floors below, however, the majority of Japanese galleries were showing work that was mostly less tongue-in-cheek.

The Maho Kubota Gallery booth focused on works by Aki Inomata. On one wall a row of transparent resin hermit crab shells with iconic cities built into them were lit like jewels on display. They were pretty and, being close in form and size to souvenir ornaments, also kitsch and melancholic. At the Yuka Tsuruno Gallery space, the sound artist mamoru was showing a considered and politically charged work on historical Japanese persecution of Christians.

A veteran of the Art Basel fair before it came to Hong Kong (Art Basel added Miami in 2002 and Hong Kong in 2013), ShugoArts showed the work of a number of its artists. These included a wall of vibrant instant-film images by Yasumasa Morimura, one of Tomoko Yoneda’s works from her early monochrome series “Between Visible and Invisible,” and the elegantly simple, but also absurdist installation “Ears with Chair” by Yukio Fujimoto.

Hearing the collective hubbub of the global art scene turned into a low elemental hum by putting your head in between the glass tubes of Fujimoto’s piece offered an old-school subversion of the commodification of art; with experiences being given more importance than the fashioning of objects.

The booth of the newly formed Anomaly, created last year from a merger between Yamamoto Gendai, Urano and the Hashimoto Art Office galleries, was also hopeful about art as transformative experience. After a bit of tobihi (jumping fire — the Japanese equivalent of trying to avoid a “hot potato”), in which direct questions were dodged by electing someone else to field them, one of the Anomaly gallerists finally came straight out with it: “Most of the galleries here are just too much into commodities.”

The display of assault-weapon sculptures by Chu Enoki was one of the most confrontational displays to be seen at the fair, and with Chim↑Pom, the artists’ collective renowned for edgy interventions, also being part of their lineup, Anomaly had definitely set the volume to 11 for their first Art Basel appearance.

Show politics

Given that the total cost of showing artworks at fairs like Art Basel can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, booths can’t run on hope. The sight of a besuited gallerist taking a breather, a work by Barbara Kruger looming behind him with the line “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever” from George Orwell’s “1984,” caught my eye at the end of one day. I asked the gallerist (name withheld) how he felt about the incongruity of showing politically radical work in the environment of Art Basel Hong Kong.

“I hate it. The dealers hate it, but they feel they have to come,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for too long, I’ve become a cynic.”

Speaking of which, a booth, which I was told I couldn’t name without going through its public relations and legal office, selling Takashi Murakami’s work was so busy with young bling-laden Chinese clients, it took a while to catch the attention of the person in charge. At first, he simply said “I have three assistants” and then walked away, before eventually agreeing not to talk to me. He had the energy of a hungry hyena — an unkempt viciousness combined with a harried anxiety — and had obviously been left in charge because he was determined to “always be closing.”

As Art Basel Hong Kong’s main sponsor, the Swiss multinational investment bank and financial services company UBS, was fined €3.7 billion (¥463 billion) earlier this year by the French criminal court for aiding clients in tax evasion and money laundering, perhaps this is appropriate behavior. Talk from curators, gallerists and booth PR staff about “respecting process,” “challenging dominant narratives,” “commitments to diversity” and “love” abounded, but such bids for intellectual complexity or sincerity will always be undermined and overshadowed by the economic context.

The most unfortunate collision of rhetoric I heard was at a rooftop reception for the “Exit Strategies” satellite exhibition that featured the work of Hong Kong-based artists.

The totally hyped emcee kicked off with “This building is a celebration of art, lifestyle, fine dining and art galleries.” The curator of “Exit Strategies” followed by telling us that the work was “about solitude and alienation in the urban environment … a museological dystopia addressing consumerism and hopelessness.” Taking back the mic, the emcee rebounded with “We really hope you enjoy this evening, cheers everybody!”

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