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HK's art scene rise looks unstoppable
IT'S a sign of the times when Julian Opie starts painting Asian faces; the 56-year-old British artist typically renders European faces. The works go on to fetch six-figure sums.
But at the recently ended Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK), Opie premiered a new painting of a Chinese man against a blue background. It became one of the most photographed works among the US$3 billion spread of paintings, sculptures and installations at the fair. Obviously, he knows where the market is booming.
In terms of global art sales, Greater China - comprising mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan - leads the world with a total of US$5.6 billion of art sold in 2014, according to data firm Artprice. It beats the United States and Europe, which were the market leaders not too long ago.
Though parts of the global economy may still be sputtering, the art market posted double-digit growth in 2014, as more members of the gilded one per cent acquire art to signal their cultural credentials. The 2014 global auction market also hit a record of US$15.2 billion, a stunning increase of 26 per cent from the figure in 2013.
Meanwhile, Asian art continues its ascent. At ABHK, daily sales figures released by Sutton PR show dozens of Asian works among the galleries' top sales - an intriguing contrast to previous editions of the fair, where the top sales tended to be mainly works by Western darlings, such as Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst.
For instance, top Singapore gallery STPI sold 18 works by the end of the fair: eight works by Korean superstar Do Ho Suh, and 10 works by English conceptual hotshot Ryan Gander. But the top two sales were both Do's at US$150,000 and US$85,000.
Do's works also sold much faster than Gander's. An STPI spokesman said: "All the works were sold to new collectors. These STPI made-in-Singapore artworks are now going to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, London, Berlin and the United States."
Taipei's Tina Kheng Gallery received for a triptych of Chinese maestro Zao Wou-ki a record offer price of US$30 million - a figure possibly unsurpassed by any other purchase at the fair. Ms Kheng, the gallery founder, said: "Collectors are now more informed and are purchasing works much faster. On the first day of sales we had a number of collectors, both old and new, with our known clients often introducing others to our gallery."
A rising tide lifts all boats; smaller Asian galleries are also surging on the growth of Chinese and South-east Asian art.
Leo Xu Projects, a four-year-old gallery from Shanghai, spent two years in the Discoveries sector of ABHK reserved for smaller galleries. But this year, it's moved to the main Galleries sector, where it's flanked by veteran STPI and Sadie Coles HQ - a testament to its rapid growth. Founder Leo Xu said: "It's been a great success. We sold half of the artworks by the end of the first day."
Other young Asian galleries such as Manila's 1335 Mabini and Indonesia's ROH Projects have also made the cut to present their artists in ABHK.
Art Basel director Marc Spiegler is not surprised by these developments. On the first day of the fair, he told BT Lifestyle: "Things go very fast in Asia. In these five or six years, I've witnessed a tremendous growth of Asian galleries at the fair. They've just gotten better and better."
Outside of the fair, the art scene in Hong Kong is rapidly expanding. Notably, a new rival art fair called Art Central opened on the waterfront during ABHK's run, not far from the main attraction. Art Central is backed by Tim Etchells and Sandy Angus, who were the founders of Art Hong Kong in 2008 before it was acquired by Art Basel owners and turned into ABHK in 2013.
At the outset, Art Central was said to offer works at a more accessible price point. But a quick glance around the fair reveals it's no budget art event like Affordable Art Fair. Its elegant 10,000 sq m tent housed 70 galleries, including some top names such as New York's Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Manila's Finale Art File, and Beijing's Red Gate Gallery.
One participating gallerist, Richard Koh of Richard Koh Fine Art, was ecstatic over the quick sale of several works that included a five-panel painting of Thai superstar Natee Utarit and several works by rising Malaysian abstractionist Yeoh Choo Kuan.
"I'm definitely taking part in Art Central again. The vibe is so friendly and the collectors are open to new names, rather than the usual stars," said the longtime dealer. Clearly, there's enough room in Hong Kong for two simultaneous art fairs.
Meanwhile, new art spaces are popping up around the island. Pearl Lam has just opened a second space in Hong Kong's rapidly gentrifying SoHo area, bringing the number of spaces she owns to five - including one in Singapore.
The eccentric purple-haired Ms Lam said: "I'm dedicating this new space to emerging artists, with works priced lower than those at my other Hong Kong gallery at Pedder Building. I think it's important to cultivate a platform for younger artists and attract an audience from all different backgrounds."
Para Site, a progressive art space where Singaporean curator Lim Qinyi works full-time, has also just opened a new space in Quarry Bay. Several important exhibitions opened last week, including the Yoshitomo Nara show at Asia Society and Pace Gallery, as well as the Inside China exhibition, a cutting-edge show by K11 Art Foundation and the Palais de Tokyo. Singapore's Genevieve Chua is presenting a solo show at Gallery Exit.
"The development of Hong Kong's art scene has been phenomenal these last few years. We're finally seeing a maturity and depth that I've been waiting for my whole life,'" said Ms Lam.
Art's widening appeal
Adeline Ooi, Art Basel's new director for Asia, agreed: "Art is no longer a niche interest; it's become an industry. ABHK has proven itself as the centre of art collecting in Asia, and my job is to think of how we can generate more interest on Asian content. There is still a lot of Asian art that's not being represented, especially works by historically important Asian artists."
Ms Ooi is a Malaysian curator who made history last Christmas when she became the first Asian director in the premier fair's 45-year history (see other story).
On star wattage alone, ABHK has certainly increased its VVIP numbers. Hong Kong celebrities such as Louis Koo, Sandra Ng and Edison Chen were spotted browsing the artworks with their respective entourages - as were actresses Susan Sarandon and Gwyneth Paltrow, burlesque star Dita Von Teese, designer Tommy Hilfiger and the world's most powerful gallerist Larry Gagosian.
Elsewhere, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Michelle Yeoh, Victoria Beckham, Wendi Murdoch, Paris Hilton and Robin Thicke graced amfAR's inaugural gala to raise funds and efforts for Aids research. Dozens of luxury brands like BMW, Audemars Piguet, Davidoff and UBS lined up parallel events for their clients.
HK's protest art
One thing different about this edition is the presence of protest art. In the wake of Hong Kong's massive pro-democracy demonstrations that ended last December, several artworks at ABHK expressed concern over the city's political development.
The wall-to-wall paintings by Chen Shaoxiong depicting scenes from Occupy Central and the massive LED installation across the façade of the International Commerce Centre building by Cao Fei were two prominent works. Outside of ABHK, local artist Kacey Wong made riot police sculptures out of black wax to signify police abuse, while Phoebe Man served cakes topped with political statements.
Despite the strength of some local artists, it was unclear if they received much recognition from ABHK's 60,000 visitors, who were more likely to gawk at the Yayoi Kusamas and the Jean Michel Basquiats than the local art. Perhaps it's a question of time before Hong Kong's best artists receive the global attention they deserve.
At least on the surface, though, Hong Kong's rise as a commercial art hub appears absolute and unstoppable.
Malaysian takes ABHK's top job
ADELINE Ooi has a funny story to tell.
Two decades ago, she went to London after gaining a place to study economics at the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE). After setting herself up there, she secretly applied to study art history at the renowned art and design school Central Saint Martins. When she got a place in that school, she promptly left the LSE.
When her parents found out, they were enraged. They disowned her and she had to work as a house cleaner to pay her tuition. "My mother refused to speak to me for two years," she recalled.
Last December, Ms Ooi made history by becoming the first Asian to reach the top ranks of the biggest art fair brand in the world, Art Basel. She was named director Asia after working for one-and-a-half years as its VIP relations manager for South-east Asia. She will now head many of Art Basel Hong Kong's (ABHK) programmes, taking the fair to the next level.
"Now, my mother just asks me why I keep appearing in newspapers," she said, with a giggle.
Over 15 years, the Malaysian has worked across the region with several top artists and collectors. She ran a Kuala Lumpur art agency called RogueArt - an unsurprising name considering her past. Her last show in Singapore was a stunning exhibition of works from the private collection of Yeap Lam Yang.
"Her unique combination of experiences, first at Central Saint Martins, then as a gallerist and curator, then running an agency that worked with artists, collectors and government agencies . . . In short, she has all the experience of working with various groups that are important to us," said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel director.
For her part, Ms Ooi appeared still somewhat dazed by the appointment.
She added: "It's been a steep learning curve. Essentially, it's still about the art, the audience, the PR and the gallery. But now, I'm dealing with 233 galleries instead of just one; I'm looking at two convention halls instead of a 2,000 square metre space. It's all somewhat overwhelming."
If one had to guess, though, one would say that her mother couldn't be more proud.