Apollo Magazine

Art Basel Hong Kong remains defiant in the face of upheaval

The fair's organisers are optimistic that Hong Kong can remain an international art hub despite political turmoil in the city

untitled 2020 (Rug 3, 1976) (detail; 2020), Rirkrit Tiravanija.

untitled 2020 (Rug 3, 1976) (detail; 2020), Rirkrit Tiravanija. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; © Rirkrit Tiravanija

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

‘It’s impossible to imagine that Hong Kong will no longer be an attractive place to show art,’ says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel Hong Kong. The fair is preparing for its ninth edition at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre this month, in the midst of a pandemic and in the shadow of the national security law passed in Hong Kong by the Chinese government last June. Asked about how the law might affect the fair, Ooi is sanguine. ‘There’s been a lot of speculation about it,’ she says. ‘But we haven’t been told to do anything differently.’

That’s not to say that Art Basel Hong Kong has not been forced to make changes this year. Due to restrictions on air travel, the fair is open only to residents of Hong Kong, and has been pared back to fewer than half of the 242 galleries it boasted in 2019. Parallel to the physical fair runs the kind of digital offering – online viewing rooms, live Zoom events – that we have all come to know so well over the past year. Still, for Ooi, the fact that 104 galleries will present booths this year ‘is actually the most meaningful success we’ve ever gained’. Since 2013, the fair has succeeded in enriching the Hong Kong arts scene with a sophisticated infrastructure. It is this that many have feared may be threatened by an increase in Chinese oversight; that more than 100 galleries, around half of which will be operating ‘satellite’ booths remotely from overseas, are taking part in the face of the pandemic is a vote of confidence both in the market and in the region. Fine Art Asia, which runs its own fair in Hong Kong in November, is returning to Art Basel Hong Kong with a pavilion of transhistorical work from eight galleries.

Body Container – Travel Maps (2019), Movana Chen. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Galleries have not shied away from bringing challenging work this year, either. The main section includes an overview of the first generation of experimental Korean artists at Arario Gallery, including Kim Kulim, Byungso Choi, and Soun-Gui Kim. Tokyo Gallery is teaming up with BTAP to present a survey of the avant-garde from East Asia more broadly, with work by the likes of Jiro Takamatsu, Lee Ufan and Park Seo-Bo. PKM Gallery from Seoul offers a solo show of works by Lee Bul, and Take Ninagawa of Tokyo presents a survey of Danh Vō. There are new international exhibitors this year – Proyectos Monclova from Mexico City offers new work by Gabriel de la Mora, while at the stand of Flowers Gallery from London – in the fair’s ‘Insights’ section of curated displays focusing on Asian art history – the Hong Kong textile artist Movana Chen will be present to conduct tea ceremonies.

untitled 2020 (Rug 3, 1976) (2020), Rirkrit Tiravanija. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; © Rirkrit Tiravanija

Perhaps most boldly, Gladstone Gallery offers new paintings by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, which overlay figures or scenes inspired by Philip Guston’s controversial late works on cuttings from Thai newspapers. 

As Ooi points out, ‘Galleries could have come with easier material, this year of all years. But the fact that they are bringing the kind of work that they are… It shows commitment, and respect for their audience in this part of the world.’

Art Basel Hong Kong is at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 21–23 May. 

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

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