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‘The experience was not so very different from my recent online grocery shopping’ – Art Basel Hong Kong goes virtual

20 March 2020

Be careful what you wish for. Over the decades spent pounding the aisles of the vast congress-hall art fairs that are Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, at least several hours must have been taken up bewailing the physical exhaustion and visual overload of it all. By mid afternoon, just about everyone is glassy-eyed and catatonic, however expensive their trainers. So, in an attempt to see something positive in the dire straits of Covid-19, I cheerfully didn’t wait two hours at Heathrow and take a 12-hour flight but instead flew into Art Basel Hong Kong by virtual magic carpet. Without jetlag, I didn’t even mind when the e-bouncer at the gate quite rightly suspected the buying power behind my VIP credentials and with reluctance let me in early. The online Viewing Rooms open to the general public on 20 March. E-scrutiny is far less embarrassing than standing pink-faced and holding up the line.

Once you’re in, the game changes. Where do you start – and finish – without a marked-up map at least partly determining the order of gallery visits? For this fair is still vast, with 235 participating galleries – some 90 per cent of those who signed up to the cancelled fair – and more than 2,000 works of art. As a fan of thematic presentations, I began by going to see New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey who was reprising a recent gallery show. ‘Japan Is America’ was billed to explore the complex artistic networks that informed avant-garde art in Japan and America 1952–85. I entered the stand, sat on the bench kindly provided, read the spiel, then looked at the blurry image of Ed Ruscha’s acrylic word piece (no longer available) that gave the show its title before realising that I really needed to stand nearer and so pressed again. I thought Gilt, Rauschenberg’s mixed-media riff on Goya, was being displayed behind red museum-ropes because I could not get close enough to read the image properly – until I had the wit to click on it and found high resolution. It had an asking price of ‘over $1m’, while others came with fluid price ranges – standard practice, as it turns out, at this virtual private view. I left wanting to know more. There was no one to ask but Google.

One and J. is an example of a gallery that has chosen to offer a little more of an online catalogue for its group show, ‘The Way of Recording Memory’. Included here was the South Korean artist Kang Seung Lee who spent three years visiting the remarkable garden created by Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage near Dungeness, Kent, collecting materials for painstaking drawings and embroideries ($10,000 for the monumental graphite on paper pebble).

Then there are the works such as Ragnar Kjartansson’s Figures in Landscape (Saturday) (2018) at Luhring Augustine: 24 hours of silent film in a Romantic great outdoors, of mountains and meadows confected with synthetic snow and paper flowers, and inhabited by men and women strolling about in lab coats with clipboards (no masks). The medium of film comes into its own in this virtual marketplace, with various galleries offering links to the art works via Vimeo.

If I were one of those collectors who knew what I wanted before I saw it, Viewing Rooms would be a dream. The site offers options to search by artist, date, region, solo shows, themes or movements, new gallery artists, medium, and price range. If I collected multiples of some kind – prints, photographs, films – it would be even better. I would know precisely what I was getting and, funds permitting, could click ‘Sales Inquiry’ in an instant. Think of the invisible carbon footprint, the miles unwalked in the airless indoors and the tiresome conversations avoided.

Yet as someone excited by the kind of encounters and discoveries that really come out only of actual rather than virtual looking, I cannot say – hand-on-heart – that I much enjoyed my afternoon. Too much clicking, too little stimulation. The experience was not so very different from my recent online grocery shopping – but at least at Viewing Rooms you do not find yourself, as I did, 22,576th in a virtual queue. Sign in while stock lasts.

The Online Viewing Rooms at Art Basel Hong are live from 20–25 March.

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