Art gets political

By CJC Fellows

Recent events in Hong Kong inspire artists at Asia’s two biggest fairs

Hong Kong took centre stage in the international art world this week, with the skyline providing the backdrop for the city’s annual outbreak of creative madness.


Subject matter tended towards the topical as pieces portraying the cityscape and recent political upheavals of the former British colony featured among the highlights of the two major art fairs and other exhibitions.

Numerous paintings and photographs by overseas artists highlighting the city’s distinctive skyline and buzzing streetscape were among the 100 galleries exhibiting at Art Central, which opened on Monday at the purpose-built marquee on the Central harbourfront.

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One was the John Martin Gallery from London, Hong Kong first timer, showing street paintings by Sheffield-born artist Andrew Gifford. Gallery owner John Martin said Gifford has painted New York and Singapore but works depicting Hong Kong were a real draw.

At La Galerie, art from the Parade series by Hong Kong artist Almond Chu took a political turn. Images such as umbrella-wielding men in sunglasses standing in front of the Tamar Park government headquarters hark back to the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in 2014.

According to Marie-Florence Gros, director of La Galerie, the role of art is to question the status quo.

At Art Basel, which opened on Tuesday at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, a monumental collage painting by Argentinian-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija dominated the booth of Neugerriemschneider, a Berlin-based gallery, one of 239 exhibiting at what is now Asia’s biggest art fair.

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The phrase “freedom cannot be simulated” was painted over the pages of Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post , dated September 26 – 30, 2014, the beginning of Occupy Central, dubbed the Umbrella Movement.

While political art interested some visitors, many galleries opted for more “affordable” works by younger artists, hoping to attract a bigger pool of buyers amid the art market slowdown.

Tian Yuan, director of leading Beijing gallery White Space, showed works by artists aged 26 to 43. Tian claimed that their pieces were “relatively affordable” with the maximum price capped at 300,000 yuan.

Despite a slight drop in sales last year, Tian was optimistic about prospects for this year.

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A spokeswoman of Mujin-To Production, a gallery from Japan, admitted that even though the economic outlook was challenging, it was still worth the considerable financial investment to come to Art Basel. “We can meet a wide variety of people that we can’t meet in Tokyo,” she explained.

Jessica Rawlin, an art consultant from London was also bullish about business. She said compared to other art fairs, “Art Basel gives more room for audience to enjoy art”.

Galleries might relish art fairs, but artists felt differently. Japanese artist Yukihiro Taguchi, 36, said that he disliked them because they were a marketplace rather than being inspirational. Coming to Art Basel was not his priority.

“I am a young artist. The gallery chose to exhibit at Art Basel. I have no choice,” said the Osaka-born artist.

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Alice Mong, executive director of Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, believes art fairs and museums complement each other. While the commercial fairs connect artists with buyers, the latter offered deeper insights into art, she said.

“An art fair is good when there is no great museum,” Mong said.

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