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Above, from left: Singapore artist Wyn-Lyn Tan and FOST gallerists Stephanie Fong and Deborah Demaline, with Tan's evocative abstract landscapes at Art Basel Hong Kong behind them.

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Above: The exhibition titled Ambiguously Yours at the M+ Pavilion chronicles the history of gender fluidity and androgyny in Hong Kong pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and includes film stills, magazine covers and costumes from the era.

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Above: Three of Hong Kong's iconic trams become the site for Kingsley Ng's art. The trams' passengers get to see the city in an unusual way.

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The Liang Yi Museum allows visitors to touch and explore centuries-old antiques from the Ming and Qing dynasties, such as this exquisite storage chest.

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Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen strung together film clips from Tony Leung's period films such as The Grandmaster (shown here) to tell a short and poetic story about Malayan communist leader and triple agent Lai Teck.

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Ho (at left) chatting with Art Basel Hong Kong's film curator Li Zhenhua about the screening of the former's film, The Nameless.

HK artists reclaim their place

Art Basel Hong Kong's meteoric international success prompts the city's artists to reflect inwards on the city itself.
Mar 24, 2017 5:50 AM

THREE trams run through a busy route in Hong Kong. But their passengers - a maximum of 20 in each tram - can't look out the windows. Instead, they sit inside the darkened upper deck listening to fragments of Liu Yichang's 1972 novella Tete Beche being read aloud. Seventeen years ago, that same novella inspired Wong Kar Wai to film In The Mood For Love.

Occasionally, images of the outside world are allowed to be projected onto the dark interior spaces of the trams via pinholes along their sides. This natural optical phenomenon known as "camera obscura" creates eerily blurry images of the outside world, as if the passengers were looking at the city through old, faded photographs upside-down.

The overall effect is extremely sensuous, and the Hong Kong artist Kingsley Ng who conceived it hopes it can evoke or create memories of the city other than that of a bustling financial hub with sky-high towers and constantly humming traffic.

For Ng and other local artists, these past weeks have been extremely frenzied. Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK), the biggest art show in Asia, has kept just about everyone in the industry up late. Ng says: "All of my friends - from artists and gallerists to framers and art-handlers - have been sleeping three hours a night in the past three weeks. ABHK is certainly a boost for the art industry."

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Ng's trams are part of dozens of commissioned works by the fair, which has extended itself inside and outside its venue, the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. The fifth edition sees the fair growing bigger than ever, with new sectors added. Some 242 galleries from 34 countries and territories across the world have brought billions of dollars of artworks, and more than 70,000 people are expected to attend.

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, can barely contain his pride at the press conference when he recounts ABHK's milestones: in 2008, the formerly-named Art HK started out with 100 galleries and less than 20,000 visitors. In 2013, it was rebranded as Art Basel Hong Kong after the world's biggest fair organiser, MCH Swiss Exhibition, bought a 60 per cent stake. The fair quickly saw its global reputation explode, as the biggest galleries in the world signed on.

"ABHK has become a fixed event in the art-world calendar," notes Mr Spiegler. "It is not just a place to buy art, but a much-broader platform to see artists and discover artists from all over the world."

Museum directors from the Tate of London, the Mori Art Museum of Tokyo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other renowned institutions have flown in for the event - it's a mark of distinction for any art fair when a museum director perceives it to be more than just a commercial event.

Recalling HK's heyday

But while ABHK continues to parade the gilded names of the art world, Hong Kong artists and curators are seizing the opportunity to shine the spotlight on Hong Kong arts and culture instead. Frequently overshadowed by the much higher-profile and sky-high price tags of mainland Chinese art, Hong Kong artists are trying to reclaim their place during ABHK's art week.

At the M+ Pavilion, a small exhibition space acting as a forerunner to the massive M+ museum opening later, an exhibition titled Ambiguously Yours explores gender ambiguity, androgyny and cross-dressing in Hong Kong's pop culture of the 1980s and 1990s.

Rows of vintage magazine covers with dozens of Hong Kong stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Sandy Lam and Roman Tam line one side of the walls, all posing in ways that challenge the conventions of their sex. Movie stills from Farewell My Concubine, Bishonen and Peony Pavilion line another wall. Next to it, clips from gender-fluid films such He's A Woman, She's A Man and Rouge run on a loop. At the centre, flamboyant sequined-and-feathered concert costumes worn by Mui, Tam and Denise Ho take pride of place.

Tina Pang, the show's lead curator, says: "The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of Hong Kong popular culture. There was an extraordinary diversity of representation that had a lasting influence on the visual culture of today."

The show is a way of "recalling the daring and pluralistic aesthetics of that time", she adds, especially since Hong Kong's pop culture began to lose some of its lustre in the subsequent years.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong's largest private museum, the Liang Yi Museum, is offering a welcome diversion from the onrush of contemporary art at ABHK. Opened a few years ago by Hong Kong property tycoon Peter Fung, the museum sits on Hollywood Road, a rapidly gentrifying area once famous for its antique markets.

The heritage museum distinguishes itself by an unusual strategy - allowing visitors to touch its collection of precious antiques from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Visitors are encouraged to sit on its beautifully-conserved chairs and recline on its centuries-old day beds that were once used by scholars and officials. They can open and admire ornately-carved closets and chests, and take as many selfies as they want with the exhibits.

Top-tier works snapped up

Meanwhile, this year's fair opens to a calmer market compared to the highs of just a few years ago. The newly-launched Art Basel/UBS annual art market report indicates that the global art market fell by 11 per cent to US$56.6 billion in 2016, which is a more than US$10 billion drop from a record-high of US$68 billion in 2014.

Despite the fall, the report by renowned economist Clare McAndrew notes that the number of high-net worth individuals in the Asia-Pacific region has, for the first time, exceeded that of North America - making Hong Kong a good location for many art-loving billionaires.

In the first two days of the fair, Tina Keng Gallery sold a massive Wang Huaiqing painting titled Chinese Emperor 8for US$3.5 million, as well as five works by Su Xiaobai for between 800,000 renminbi (S$162,000) and 1.5 million renminbi each. David Zwirner Gallery sold two oil paintings by Luc Tuymans for US$1.5 million each. Hauser & Wirth gallery sold a group of Louise Bourgeois drawings priced in the seven figures to mainland Chinese collectors.

Singapore gallerists and artists held their own. Local darling Jane Lee, who has a long waiting list, sold nearly every work in her solo show in the Sundaram Tagore Gallery booth within the first day. The works on display include a massive seven-metre panel - one of the largest works ever produced by the artist. Print and paper art gallery STPI sold a number of works by Do Ho Suh for between US$20,000 and US$35,000, while Yavuz Gallery reportedly did brisk business with its roster of South-east Asian artists.

Fost Gallery has a solo show of Wyn-Lyn Tan who's currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at Tromso Academy of Contemporary Art in UiT The Arctic University of Norway. Her quiet but potent abstract landscapes combine Chinese ink techniques with a Western perspective and palette, drawing strong interest from both Asian and Western collectors.

Tan, who is present at the fair, shares: "I'm visually inspired by natural landscapes, but my painting process is very much an abstract one that begins as mark-making ... I still see them as abstract paintings."

No Singapore artist, however, is making a bigger impact in Hong Kong than Ho Tzu Nyen. The artist who represented Singapore in the Venice Biennale in 2011 is featured on the current cover of leading art magazine ArtReview Asia for his film The Nameless, a top feature of ABHK's film programme.

It tells the story of the controversial historical figure Lai Teck, who was the secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party from 1939 and 1947 while simultaneously working as a triple agent for the French, British and Japanese governments.

Ho's artistic gambit is to make the film entirely out of clips of films starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Gorgeous moody shots of the actor taken from a wide range of period films including The City Of Sadness, Cyclo, In The Mood For Love and The Grandmaster are spliced together to create a cryptic narration of the mysterious man whose true story may never be known.

After the screening of the film on Wednesday, Ho explains that Hong Kong cinema is "filled with stories about traitors, spies and double agents", and that he wants to combine his fascination with the shape-shifting character of Lai with his love of Leung's oeuvre: "I know Tony films so well that when I was conceiving The Nameless, I knew which film clip to use at which part of Lai Teck's life story."

Even for a Singapore artist, the vitality of Hong Kong's art endures.

  •  Art Basel Hong Kong is now on at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre till Saturday

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