The Business Times (Singapore) 2012-05-25
Executive Lifestyle| Arts| By Vincent Wee
With monolithic shows such as ART HK 12, Hong Kong is burnishing its credentials as the premier city of the arts, raking in, with China, more than 40 per cent of the world's auction moolah, reports HELMI YUSOF
ON the ordinary Portland Street in Kowloon, there is a quiet row of coffin shops situated on the ground level of a tenement building. When chatty Hong Kong residents pass it on their daily shopping rounds, they customarily lower their voices.
Somewhere above these coffin shops, there is a vacant apartment whose grimy windows are splattered with blood. On the walls hang artist Yu Lik-wai's macabre photos of dead people's spirits who linger in hallways and along the streets. Every day, hundreds of visitors come to view the photo exhibition - as if to pay respects to the dead rather than appreciate the art.
A stone's throw away from the exhibition, surrounded by street-side stalls and fortune-telling booths, there is a giant black box with a door. Enter the box and Tsang Kin-wah's inventive multimedia work invites you to ponder life and death with its fantastical assault of words and sound effects.
These are just two of 10 public works by Hong Kong artists scattered near one another in the neighbourhood, an initiative by M+ Museum - a new "nomadic" Hong Kong museum without an actual building.
Welcome to the new Hong Kong, a place flourishing with art to the degree that several dozens of exhibitions and performances occur almost daily in assorted corners of the city.
In recent years, Hong Kong's art and gallery scene has gone into manic overdrive to support the burgeoning Chinese art market. Today, international galleries are scrambling for a place in the city because the Western artists they represent demand that their works be seen in Hong Kong.
Recently, more than 15 new galleries opened around Hong Kong. They include the world's swankiest names such as White Cube, Gagosian and De Sarthe. And their exhibitions typically feature big names from Claude Monet to Anselm Kiefer to Takashi Murakami.
Says John McDonald, a respected art critic with the Sydney Morning Herald for 30 years: "The surge in art only became very visible in the past two or three years. And the simple reason for that is money."
The Chinese art market, which includes Hong Kong, has grown exponentially in recent years. French website Artprice states that in 2011 China, including Hong Kong, accounted for 41.4 per cent of the world's auction market while the rest of Asia made up less than 2 per cent.
Well-known art economist Clare McAndrew published a report putting China's share at 30 per cent. Despite the 11 per cent difference, both figures still put China plus Hong Kong in top position, ahead of the United States and Europe.
The Hong Kong today is a far cry from what it was in the mid-2000s, when its cultural infrastructure was weak and the gallery scene small. That all changed in 2006 when paintings by Chinese living artists began fetching record prices at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions.
That very year, the Hong Kong government announced the creation of the West Kowloon Cultural District built at the cost of HK$21.6 billion. The arts district features a new modern art museum, numerous theatres, concert halls and other performance venues.
The following year, 2007, saw the arrival of the Hong Kong International Art Fair, or ART HK as it is popularly known. Though it started small and with little fanfare, it grew quickly in size and stature, and is today turning away hundreds of galleries who are jostling to get a booth there.
The fair's swift success attracted the attention of MCH Swiss Exhibition (Basel), which bought a controlling share in the art fair last year. So from next year on, ART HK will come under the prestigious Art Basel label along with Art Basel (Switzerland) and Art Basel Miami Beach.
Magnus Renfrew, who has been ART HK fair director since 2007, says: "The world is tipping eastwards and Hong Kong is in an extremely fortunate geographical position to benefit from this - I don't think even Hong Kong is aware of how much potential it has... It is at China's doorstep, but it is also distinct from China. It has a wide catchment area for buyers from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. And its people speak English."
Two years ago, auction house Christie's decided that its Hong Kong biannual auctions were so successful that it should open a centrally located 15,000-sq ft gallery to sell works to its Asian clients year round. Just last week, Sotheby's unveiled its own 15,000sq ft gallery for similar reasons.
Eric Chang, Christie's director of Asian modern and contemporary art, says: "In 2002, we sold about HK$25 million worth of Chinese art at each auction. Today, we sell about HK$650 million worth of Chinese art at each auction. That's more than 2,000 per cent growth - reason enough to expand our operations here."
Hong Kong's art scene is now said to rival that of London and Paris - which all begs the question: What can Singapore learn from this? Can our art scene and market ever catch up with Hong Kong? Can we raise our global art profile and capture a bigger slice of the Asian art market too?
Art observers say it may be next-to-impossible to replicate the heady success of Hong Kong here. Hong Kong's proximity to China offers distinct geographical, cultural and economic advantages.
But Singapore's strategic location and standing in South-east Asia are no small potatoes, say observers. Singapore's biggest art fair Art Stage is only two years old. But already it's a magnet for collectors looking specifically for art from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and other neighbouring countries. South-east Asian art may not yet fetch record prices as Chinese art has, but that may be changing. High-end art and antiques dealer Jenny Pat is the granddaughter of famous Chinese painter Fu Baoshi and now star of art-buying series Dealers, which premieres on Discovery Channel tonight. She advises collectors to turn their attention to South-east Asian contemporary players: "Chinese contemporary art has risen dramatically in value in the past six years. And a lot of Japanese, Korean and Chinese contemporary works have been extensively covered. But there is quite niche Indonesian and perhaps Vietnamese and Filipino contemporary art that is quite good in quality and still rather underpriced."
Gallerist Richard Koh of Richard Koh Fine Art showed in both ART HK and Singapore's Art Stage. He says: "South-east Asian art is Singapore's selling point and Southeast Asian artists do well here in terms of sales... The main difference, I see, is that art in Hong Kong seems to get a lot more international press coverage than art in Singapore because there's just more money there." He says that when ART HK is renamed as Art Basel Hong Kong next year, the art media spotlight on Hong Kong will only intensify.
Gallerist Valentine Willie agrees. He says: "We may never be able to beat Hong Kong, but being No. 2 is not bad. The best strategy for Singapore is to strengthen our expertise in South-east Asian art, so that we can distinguish ourselves from Hong Kong."
Is catching up with Hong Kong a pipe dream? Comparing the two cities' annual art fairs alone, Singapore's Art Stage is half the size of the ART HK: Art Stage in January had 130 galleries and attracted 31,000 visitors, while the recently concluded ART HK had 266 galleries, drawing 67,200 visitors. ART HK's attendance is comparable to the top fairs such as Switzerland's Art Basel and London's Frieze Art Fair.
But putting the fair scene aside, Singapore's museum and gallery scene have been steadily building up. Its museum scene, at least, seems primed for big things.
Emi Eu, director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute, says: "Singapore has effectively established its museums in such a short time and the gallery sector is budding quite well. With the opening up of Gillman Barracks, I am sure it will contribute to solidify this area." Gillman Barracks is a former army camp that's been made over into an arts hub with 13 top global galleries such ShanghART Gallery and Ota Fine Arts.
As for museums, Singapore Art Museum recently unveiled its permanent collection featuring South-east Asian contemporary masters such as Agus Suwage (Indonesia), Sakarin Krue-on (Thailand) and Justin Lee (Singapore). The National Museum of Singapore and Asian Civilisations Museum have always been spoken of in glowing terms. And the upcoming National Art Gallery Singapore, located at the old City Hall and Supreme Court building, aims to be bigger than the rest.
Many art observers also believe it may be futile to try to catch up or compare Singapore with Hong Kong.
Contemporary artist Ho Tzu Nyen, whose sharp, satirical works have been shown in ART HK, London's Frieze and others, says: "Hong Kong has these unusually dynamic factors to spur the scene. But let's be patient with the Singapore art scene and let's not get destructive because our numbers are lower than theirs. It's more important to give it time, find our voice, produce quality works."
A focus on quality works from Singapore and South-east Asia will help our galleries, museums and art fairs transcend national boundaries and garner respect from global art lovers, critics and collectors - which may, paradoxically, help boost the numbers.
"As for Hong Kong," says gallerist Koh, "let's congratulate them on their newfound success and enjoy the dimsum."