Leung Po-shan is an art critic and a member of Art Appraisal Club. Her current book, I Love Art Basel (available in Chinese only for now), has offered some critical insights into Hong Kong’s art market and arts development.
By Sam Ng and Helen Yau
Q: You were trained as an artist at the Chinese University but you were also a newspaper reporter before you became an art critic. Why did you make such a change?
A: Writing has always been playing an indispensable role in my career. I became a cultural journalist with the Hong Kong Economic Journal upon graduating from studying fine arts at the Chinese University. There were four members in our team. Each of us was responsible for different topics, and I covered visual arts and museum policies. Other colleagues covered other cultural topics such as film and literature. Over the years I’ve been wearing many different hats, but no matter which role I play, whether I was a reporter or now a critic, writing has always been a crucial part of my work. And this has never changed.
Q: I Love Art Basel is adapted from your PhD dissertation. How was the process of writing this book?
A: My dissertation focuses on the labouring experiences of a person in the art world. Usually, when we talk about art, we rarely see it as labour work. But when you consider art as an industry, you will find it a labour-intensive industry.
Creative discourse is a focal point in my book. That is because of such creative discourse, the concept of art labour becomes more invisible and illusory.
I am very interested in exploring what art labour is all about. I did a qualitative study with a lot of fieldwork, participatory observations, and many interviews in order to understand the respondents’ subjective experiences and to figure out what these art labourers are all about.
Q: What does the title I love Art Basel mean?
A: It’s a publicity stunt apparently! Art Basel is just a synonym of complete capitalisation [of the art world]. Literally, it reads “I love Art Basel”, but the hidden question is “Does Art Basel love me?” In other words, will this global capital operation be sincere to me?
I mentioned in the book that a reporter had asked the Art Basel director [Marc Spiegler] whether Hong Kong art has reached international standards. It was utterly embarrassing when I heard this — I nearly wanted to dig a hole on the ground and hide. There are two reasons for that: first, Hong Kong has little confidence in its own culture; second, why would you ask a business guy about cultural issues? Art fairs are by nature about buying and selling, and not about education and explaining art like museums do. I want to clarify the relationship between art and money, and explain it from an accessible economic perspective.
Q: What are the biggest differences between the art ecology of Hong Kong and that of other countries?
A: Many countries are nation states and culture plays a key role in establishing a country’s cultural identity. Museums are very high on the agenda in most other countries, as museums help shape a nation’s culture. On the contrary, museums in Hong Kong have no authoritative role and cannot define Hong Kong culture or what is an art of high value. That’s why some people turn to art fairs when they have questions about their own culture. This is one of the reasons why Art Basel dominates the Hong Kong art world.
Q: Hong Kong’s cultural ecology is quite different — we don’t have strong institutions yet and lack critical voices in the media. And yet, Art Basel has become one of the largest art events in the city, alongside with the vibrant art auctions led by the market. Do you think this is a wrong step?
A: I won’t say that it is a wrong step because each city has its own context. Art Basel appears to be significant because it is global. It’s like Disneyland of the art world: it originally opened in Basel in Switzerland, and then in Miami Beach in the US, and then it opened in Hong Kong — just like how Disneyland claims its spots in different cities around the world one after the other. The operation of Art Basel fits in perfectly with Hong Kong’s neo-liberal economy because it is essentially an economic operation that is in need of capital and a set of rules that govern the market operation. These can already be found in Hong Kong. And although Art Basel sells art, it does not necessarily have to have the mandate to promote arts and culture in Hong Kong.
Q: The Hong Kong government and the business sector often stage large-scale arts and cultural activities. How you think such practice will affect Hong Kong’s arts development?
A: This March, the Hong Kong Tourism Board ran a marketing campaign called Hong Kong Arts Month, promoting events ranging from Art Basel, Hong Kong Arts Festival and Hong Kong International Film Festival to wall paintings in Sham Shui Po and visits to studios in Fo Tan. But such kind of branding marketing by grouping all these events together is intrinsically about consumption, not the arts.
If this is our approach to arts and cultural development, it’s just like placing the cart before the horse, completely ignoring people’s cultural needs.
Q: Tell us about Art Appraisal Club. As one of the club members, how much do you think the club has achieved?
A: In the 1990s, the most powerful people were the art critics. A decade later, they were replaced by curators. And the recent decade saw the rise of art collectors, who have become the most powerful people of the art world. We at Art Appraisal Club want to ask a simple question: where has the art gone? While a lot of other media focus on who has bought what, which museum has appointed who as curators, or the star collectors, we want to produce critical discourse focusing on the artworks.
It’s already been four years since we founded the club, but it wasn’t until recently that people began to pay attention to us. In fact, artists are very pleased with our critiques, whether we praise or criticise an artwork, or discuss the relations between art and communities. This is exactly how we create meaning for art.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: My biggest hope is to monetise my “likes” because writing makes almost no profit. If a book is priced at HK$100, the author may only get HK$5. Being a popular writer does not mean you are financially sustainable. Writers are paid much worse than artists do, and unfortunately, I have chosen to write.
This story is published as part of CJC Fellowship 2018 with the support from Swire Properties’ ArtisTree at Taikoo Place and MG Interactive.