Global Gloss, but Where Is Hong Kong’s Local Art Scene?
By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU / Published: July 7, 2010
HONG KONG — Much has been made of Hong Kong’s push to become what the government likes to call an “art hub.” Its auction revenue is now third only to London and New York. Its annual art fair, which began only in 2008, is marked by million-dollar sales.
The city has proved its skill in organizing large, expensive events for international buyers, who laud the territory’s efficiency and tax-free status. Hong Kong excels at trading other peoples’ art. The question is, can it make its own?
A look through offerings at major sales, fairs and galleries turns up very few local names. While dealers and auction houses have profited, Hong Kong artists have had almost no share in the Chinese contemporary art boom that took place in the last five years.
The high-end events — where millionaires jet in to snap up prized paintings — are a shiny new facade. The local art scene pales in comparison.
Critics blame many factors: a stodgy state-run museum system, high real estate prices that discourage young artists from setting up studios, and a society that values traditional industries like banking.
Unlike the big names from London, New York, Tokyo or Beijing, no artists from Hong Kong have reached near-celebrity status. There is little in terms of vibrant local arts communities, like those that have cropped up in the Brooklyn borough of New York, the 798 Art District outside Beijing, or in other cities’ outlying areas.
The Hong Kong Contemporary Art Biennial Awards exhibition, which runs through Aug. 1 at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, is the largest showcase for local works. A government-run project that began in 1975, it is mandated to show only Hong Kong artists, meaning it does not get the critical attention that a more wide-ranging one would.
The most striking piece at the show is Hung Keung’s “Dao Gives Birth to One,” a Taoist-inspired work with screens showing a mesmerizing black-and-white pattern of Chinese characters and radicals constantly moving and melding. It was a refreshing addition for a biennial known for being stuffy and bureaucratic. In fact, “Dao” could not have qualified before last year, since a strict size restriction (3 meters, or about 10 feet, by 3 meters by 3 meters) was in force until then.
One issue younger artists have to grapple with is the fact that Hong Kong has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, with home prices rising almost 30 percent last year alone. Homes can cost more than $1,000 per square foot, and even spaces in the outlying New Territories go for several hundred U.S. dollars per square foot.
The largest cluster of young talent is in Fo Tan, a former industrial area in the New Territories where artists have been migrating since 2001. It is now home to about 180 artists and 50 studios.
But it is different from places like the 798 district in Beijing because it is essentially closed to the public. There are few small museums, galleries or even cool cafes or bookstores. It only draws crowds during the two weeks in January designated the Fotanian Open Studio period.
Another community is the Cattle Depot Artists Village, a state-funded project. Its century-old red-brick buildings, with traditional, slanted roofs would be charming if they weren’t located next to a garbage processing center in the run-down neighborhood of To Kwa Wan.
In 2001, Hong Kong gave a collection of art groups permission to use the Cattle Depot space, which the government also subsidizes. The groups had previously been shuttled between various other neighborhoods like North Point and Cheung Sha Wan. But, again, there are few open studios or exhibition spaces here, as it is mostly used for administrative offices.
Two spaces in the Cattle Depot — The Artist Commune and 1a space — sometimes have interesting shows, but few people see them.
“We had more than 60 people for an opening a few weekends ago,” said Hilda Chan of Videotage, which has Hong Kong’s only archive of local video art. “But because we’re so remotely located, we don’t get many walk-in visitors. The setup is pretty discouraging.”
Most days, the Cattle Depot is all but deserted except for a few staff members and security guards. Since it is run by a government bureau, surly guards sit by the entrance, grilling visitorsabout whether they have an appointment and shooing people away from taking photos.
The entire scene is a world away from the fairs and auctions that visitors see.
So what makes Hong Kong art different?
In some ways, it can be more old-fashioned than other contemporary Chinese art. The biennale had a large room with intricate calligraphy done on paper, fans and gold leaf — perhaps a reflection of the fact that Hong Kong still uses traditional complex written characters, which China does not. It also featured classical works, like long scrolls and misty mountainscapes, even from younger artists.
Hong Kong art is also less overtly political, eschewing much of the Communist imagery of contemporary Chinese art. There are very few Mao Zedong caricatures, or the rows of exaggerated smiling Chinese faces seen in the mainland Chinese art style called Cynical Realism.
Henry Au-yeung, who owns the only gallery in Hong Kong dedicated exclusively to local artists, explained the contrast.
“If you look at the last 50 years, Hong Kong has been relatively stable, while mainland China has had all sorts of political upheavals,like the Cultural Revolution,” said Mr. Au-yeung, who founded Grotto Fine Art in 2001. “The result has been dramatic, sensationalistic art, using icons like Mao Zedong or Tiananmen Square. It has a strong iconography and a strong narrative that appeals to a Western audience: the oppressed rising up to express themselves. Hong Kong art is less obvious.”
He felt that Hong Kong art is “underrepresented,” he added, and auctions have had very little impact on local artists, though he lauded the Air Fair. “It’s rare for a Hong Kong fresh grad to be able to show in the same venue as major Western artists like Damien Hirstand Julian Opie,” he said, adding that his gallery did well at the Fair, as well. Usually, 90 percent of Grotto’s sales go to local Hong Kong collectors.
Claire Hsu, the founder of the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive, had another assessment. “It is a known fact that Hong Kong art has not faired well commercially, especially in comparison to art from mainland China, although this is changing,” she said. “Arguably, it is this freedom from market pressure that has seen the emergence of a group of artists in Hong Kong whose works are conceptually very strong. You won’t find any grinning faces staring back at you.”
Some change is under way. Hanart, which was opened by Johnson Chang in 1983 and is the city’s most established gallery, carries art from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In late May it opened another space — Hanart Square — in the industrial Kwai Chung area, with a show of about a dozen Hong Kong artists.
In the catalog, Mr. Chang calls Hong Kong “a city where real estate prices dominate all social discourse” — an apt comment considering that he just opened a space near a cargo shipping terminal.
The government also has two projects planned in the next few years. One is the enormous West Kowloon Cultural District, which is estimated to cost more than $2 billion, and whose plans have been debated and delayed for years.
In an oddity for cultural planning, it is expected to include retail shops, restaurants and residential blocks. One concern is that it will be taken over by business interests and the city’s aggressive real estate developers, and become something like an art-themed shopping mall/housing complex.
There are more modest plans for the currently empty Central Police Station, a lovely complex of colonial-era buildings on Hollywood Road. According to a government press release, it will become “a self-sustaining, nonprofit site that will be home to designers, art studios and exhibition spaces.”
“Something is better than nothing,” said Mr. Au-yeung. “But I don’t know if the government really understands how to develop culture, so I don’t have very many expectations.”
Meanwhile, he is preparing to take a collection of local art on the road to various fairs over the next year: Art Basel Miami Beach, The Armory Show in New York and then Art Basel. “We’re getting ready to go into the big, wide world,” he said, “where nobody knows us.”
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