Sunday December 28 2008
After a mostly successful year, local galleries may now find themselves on life support, writes John Batten
Hong Kong may now be the world's third-largest art market in terms of auction turnover, but the local art scene remains mostly unaffected by this newfound status.
The city's commercial galleries have had a mixed year. High-end art spaces dealing with Chinese big-name artists such as Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Cai Guoqiang and Xu Bing, and those that put second-tier artists up for auction have done well this year. But high rents and clients who resolutely focused on contemporary Chinese art meant that sales were concentrated in a tight range.
Galleries dealing in art from other countries, including ceramics, photography and sculpture, benefited from the general buzz, but high costs dented earnings.
A symbol of the froth early in the year was the Chanel Mobile Art exhibition, which featured art inspired by that company's ubiquitous bag, with some of the world's biggest art names jostling for space in architect Zaha Hadid's 'art container'.
The overt commercialism of the exhibition was marginally offset by the spotlit eeriness of Hadid's oval egg against Hong Kong's famed skyline. For those interested in the slick relationship between art, design and the business world, the exhibition was a must-see. (The show, which was due to have travelled on to London from New York, is now temporarily suspended because of the financial meltdown.)
The ambitions of Osage Kwun Tong were consolidated this year and its Futuramanila exhibition, highlighting young contemporary Philippine artists, was one of the best of the year.
Schoeni Art Gallery showcased the street art of Britain's Banksy, incongruously mounted in beautiful clear acrylic display boxes. The significance of his works as art may, like those of Andy Warhol, become clearer in the fullness of time.
This year, Hong Kong also saw a plethora of anonymous artists emerge using stencils, spray-cans and stickers in the city's quiet backstreets. A condition to allow street art to thrive is a non-controlling environment. Officious security guards of shopping centres, office buildings and private flats love the administrative ease of a clean environment. The disclosure that much public open space on private property was closed to the public saw spirited expressions of public art and performance - the guards at Times Square were especially tested by artists demanding the right of freedom of expression in public areas.
Hong Kong's nooks and crannies often offer the best and some of the year's most exciting art was on show in small, out-of-the-way art spaces. C&G Artpartment in Prince Edward presented some very considered group exhibitions, the best being Sick Leave, featuring Clara Cheung, Gum Cheng Yee-man and Doris Wong Wai-yin.
The gallery's unilateral declaration of an 'International Sick Leave Day' played with the Hong Kong government's stated but seldom realised promise to 'engage with the public'.
The recently shut-down Too Art presented many fine exhibitions featuring young unknown Hong Kong artists who mostly produced three-dimensional pieces, such as those in the exhibition Passionate Objects, by Luk Tsing-yuen, whose plastic model toy kits were engaging. The demise of the gallery is particularly sad as it was a focal point for younger artists, but it was unable to attract collectors.
The quietly hard-working photographer Ducky Tse Chi-tak's show The Colonial Expired, at Hulahoop in Wan Chai, explored the British withdrawal from Hong Kong in 1997. The black and white images were photography at its best, capturing the nuances of the time, counterpointing the poignancy of leaving with the hope of a new beginning.
A newly initiated guest curator programme at the Hong Kong Museum of Art has countered long-standing criticism about outside curators being excluded. Two of the year's better exhibitions, Digit@logue and Looking for Antonio Mak, were trail-blazing and augured well for future curated exhibitions of contemporary art at the museum.
The museum itself organised A Eulogy of Hong Kong Landscape in Painting, a significant show that featured the traditional paintings of Huang Bore, who died in 1968. The beautiful landscape paintings showed a variety of Hong Kong moods and the exhibition highlighted what the museum exhibits best: traditional ink painting.
Over the past three years, Hong Kong has benefited greatly from having overseas artists and curators work here. Michael Lee from Singapore is both an artist who makes beautifully crafted objects and a curator who organises intriguing shows, including his satirical Anarchitecture Bananas exhibition.
Tobias Berger from Germany has now relocated to South Korea after working at Para/Site Art Space and his Where the Lions Are show transformed the usually dismal Sheung Wan Municipal Building Exhibition Hall into a vibrant space.
The annual arts calendar is punctuated with events, with ArtWalk, the twice-yearly seasonal auctions, Fo Tan studio open days, and the end-of-year Asia Art Archive fundraiser all well established. The Hong Kong International Art Fair, in its first year, can now be added to the lineup.
Finally, drama on the international art market was played out in Hong Kong, with record auction prices at the start of the year suddenly replaced by a muted reality brought about by the current global financial meltdown. The much-hyped art boom vanished as quickly as the hot air on which much of it was built.
John Batten is a member of the International Association of Art Critics - Hong Kong
Top five exhibitions
To nominate the five best exhibitions during 2008 appears to negate the spirit of other artistic endeavours, and the following merely represent many of the best here this year:
Ducky Tse Chi-tak: The Colonial Expired at Hulahoop;
Futuramanila at Osage Kwun Tong;
Huang Bore: A Eulogy of Hong Kong Landscape in Painting at the Hong Kong Museum of Art;
Sick Leave at C&G Artpartment;
Wong Yan-kwai: Painting Yankwai Wong at the Hong Kong University Museum.
(c) 2008 John Batten
South China Morning Post