Commercial galleries Fairs China

Artists go the extra mile for Hong Kong

Art fairs are often places to avoid, but the chance to meet Asia’s collectors proves irresistible

The artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke won the fair’s $25,000 Discoveries prize

The Colombian-born artist Oscar Murillo, baseball hat jammed on his head, was among the first visitors to this year’s edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong (ABHK). He spent time admiring Antoni Tàpies’s works on Timothy Taylor Gallery’s stand (1B06)—assemblages with seemingly casual scribbles, not so dissimilar to the in-demand young artist’s paintings.

Dozens of other leading artists jetted into Hong Kong this week, far more than is usual for an art fair. They joined the art dealers and art advisers who came in part to capture the attention of collectors from the mainland, who were present in greater numbers than last year.

Cacophony of the fair

When artists see their work at such a boldly commercial event, it is “like hearing your parents have sex”—necessary, but something you would rather not think about, as the US artist John Baldessari once said. The British abstract artist Jason Martin (Lisson Gallery, 1C01) says that he generally does not go to fairs, because “they can be a bit of a levelling experience and a demystification”. Fellow Londoner Toby Ziegler, in town for his solo show at Simon Lee’s Hong Kong space (1D38 at the fair), says: “I don’t go to fairs much; they are not the best place to see art. It’s a cacophony, [whereas] making paintings is slow and contemplative.” However, both were happy to be at the fair. “It’s always interesting to see collectors, otherwise you are isolated in the studio,” Ziegler says.

Meeting their Asian collectors, most of whom are new to them, is a powerful pull. The artist Joana Vasconcelos says: “I like to know what other works they buy—to judge, for example, if they are likely to resell quickly.” The Portuguese artist’s octopus-like work Silverado, 2013, is at Galerie Natalie Obadia (3C36), priced at $100,000.

The feeling is mutual: collectors, particularly those in Asia, want to meet artists whose work they might buy. Talking to emerging artists in particular provides reassurance; Frank Yang, a Beijing-based collector, says it is “a must”. Liu Gang, also from Beijing, says: “It is important for me to meet them to make sure they will devote themselves to their practice.”

“I don’t just want to talk to gallerists, I want to talk to artists. It’s enriching,” says Uli Sigg, one of the first and most prolific Western collectors of Chinese contemporary art. He adds: “I may buy a work because of a conversation with an artist who impressed me.”

Other international artists who visited the fair included Delhi-based Bharti Kher, whose work is at Hauser & Wirth (1D01) and Galerie Perrotin (1B15); the Japanese-born, Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota (Galerie Daniel Templon, 1C39); the German photographer Candida Höfer (Ben Brown Fine Arts, 3E16, and Galería OMR, 3C11); and the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, whose show inaugurated Axel Vervoordt’s bijou space in Hong Kong this week.

Stars from the mainland were also out in force, including the artist Zhang Xiaogang, whose solo show launched Pace’s gallery in Hong Kong, and Zhang Enli (Hauser & Wirth, 1D01, and ShangART, 1D11). Zhang Enli was also in Hong Kong for an exhibition in a pop-up space at the K11 Art Foundation pop-up space in the Cosco building, Central Hong Kong.

“I adore art fairs”

In today’s highly competitive art world, some artists embrace the fair experience. “I adore art fairs,” Takashi Murakami tells us. “I love to see the desire on collectors’ faces.” The Japanese artist’s works are at Blum & Poe (3D04), Gagosian Gallery (1C05) and Galerie Perrotin.

The young Australian artist Anastasia Klose also has a very un-Baldessarian approach to fairs. “[They] are a commercial reality, with an explicit transactional nature—we now have to participate in that.” Her slogan T-shirts, riffing on the art market’s obsession with brands (one says “Art|Blasé”), have been selling like hot cakes for HK$600 ($77) each at Tolarno Galleries (1B19).

A worthwhile journey

Getting on a plane seems to be paying off. The generally strong sales this week included all of Lisson Gallery’s works by Jason Martin (for up to £100,000), while Hauser & Wirth sold ten paintings by Zhang Enli (ranging from $65,000 to $220,000), who also sold out at ShangART. Jehan Chu, who is on the board of Hong Kong’s Para Site space and runs the art advisory firm Vermillion, met Toby Ziegler this week and says that the artist “doesn’t disappoint in person”. (Jehan Chu bought a work for a local client.)

Despite a critical drubbing for “A Mercantile Novel”, his first solo show in New York (until 14 June), all six of Oscar Murillo’s pieces at David Zwirner (1C02) sold, including the five-part La era de la sinceridad IV, 2014, which went to an Asian buyer for $180,000.

Almost didn’t make it

The artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke is especially glad she attended Art Basel in Hong Kong. The Tunisian artist (above) won the fair’s $25,000 Discoveries prize for emerging art (Experimenter, 1C53). “I nearly wasn’t here,” Kaabi-Linke tells us; she had to leave her 13-month-old son at home in Berlin. Elaine Ng, a judge of the prize and the editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine, says that Kaabi-Linke’s work delivered “a lot of social content”, in contrast to the more politically “restrained” art on many stands. One work, Impunities, London, 2012 ($26,000), explores domestic violence; it was bought by the Swiss collector Monique Burger and her husband Max for their Hong Kong-based Burger Collection.

Works sold to Chinese collectors at Art Basel in Hong Kong

Like many second editions, Art Basel’s follow-up to its Hong Kong fair may not have the razzamatazz of the first but it is delivering the region’s holy grail: buyers from mainland China. Many galleries—some of whom have been at this fair since before it was Art Basel (it launched as ArtHK in 2008)—were finally rewarded for their patience as sales were buoyed somewhat by the conspicuous Chinese buying of Western art at this week’s contemporary art auctions in New York. Sales to China at the art fair have so far included:

• Four Bill Brandt works, including Nude, London, 1952, 1952, for HK$240,000 ($31,000) from Michael Hoppen Gallery (1D32)

• Two works by Christine Sun Kim, Unwind I and Three Nights, both 2014, for $7,000 each, from Carroll/Fletcher (1C52)

• Hernan Bas, The Guru, 2013-14, for $350,000 from Lehmann Maupin (1C09)

• Wilhelm Sasnal, Plock, 2004, for €85,000 from Hauser & Wirth (1D01)

• Chui Pui-chee, Friends of the humble chamber no.7, 2013, for HK$ 28,000 ($3,600) from Grotto Fine Art (1B31)

• Two editions of Cheng Ran’s The Third-Class Letter, 2014, for $8,000 from Leo Xu Projects (1D51)

• Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse, around 1925, for around $150,000 from Paul Kasmin Gallery (3D34)

• Peng Wei, Untitled, 2014, for around $40,000 from Pace Prints (3C20)

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