May 9, 2014 6:59 pm

Art Basel Hong Kong’s new film section

Learning Duets, 2012

It makes perfect sense that Art Basel Hong Kong has a new section devoted to film this year. “The film industry enjoys a long, very important tradition in Hong Kong,” says Li Zhenhua, who is curating the sector. “Given that Art Basel is thinking about how to engage with locals, it was very important to have [an element] that reflected that history.”

Li Zhenhua

Li Zhenhua by Muto

No one could be better prepared than Li to mediate this rapport. He is the first port of call for any institution that requires expertise on Asian digital art. As well as nominating residents for the Summer Academy at the Paul Klee centre in Bern and candidates for the Prix Pictet photography prize, he is a member of the international advisory board for Digital Revolution, an exhibition to be held at the Barbican Centre in London this summer. He is also a founder member of the Beijing Art Laboratory, an online platform for research into digital media art in China.

The seeds of his passion for film were sown when he was a teenager living in Beijing. “I grew up with Hong Kong films from middle school,” he says, fondly recalling the “comedies, gangster movies and love stuff” made by directors such as Johnnie To and Stephen Chao. “They weren’t on mainstream release then, so we watched them at home on video with our friends. I found myself in a B-movie situation without knowing that they were B-movies.”

Once the call for works for Basel HK’s new film section was put out, Li received more than 140 applications. Having whittled them down to 49 works by 41 artists, he has organised them into six themes – “Urban Life”, “Beautiful Visuals”, “Animation”, “Action”, “Performance” and “Fiction Mix”. He decided not to include a documentary category this year, in part because he decided to limit each film to no more than 20 minutes.

“The curator stands between the artist and the audience. My role is to make the art easier to access. I cannot be too deep, too conceptual, too complicated. There was some very, very strong work from artists but I had to think about how each would work in a [thematic] group.”

Doing it with Mrs Kwan... Making Pepper Spray, 2012

With 29 artists hailing from the Asia-Pacific region, the final programme should appeal to the fair’s target audience. Highlights include Doing it with Mrs Kwan . . . making Pepper Spray, a five-minute parody by the Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung Chi, which uses the format of a TV cooking show to explain the recipe for Mace. The presence of western film-makers such as Polly Borland, John Latham and Roman Signer provides global seasoning.

Li has said in the past that he perceives Chinese film as characterised by an attention to spirit rather than matter. But when I raise this with him, his response implies a change of view. “The past 10 years of media art reflect globalisation,” he says, noting the appropriation of Asian motifs by artists such as Isaac Julien and the impact of Lost in Translation, the 2003 film by Sofia Coppola, which parodied the bemusement of a first-time western visitor to Tokyo.

Freud, Fish and Butterfly, 2012

“On the other side, you have Asian directors employing western concepts, filming in foreign cities and in other landscapes,” he continues, citing My Blueberry Nights, the 2007 US-based film starring Norah Jones and Jude Law, which was directed by Hong Kong legend Wong Kar-wai. But Li also points to the growing number of co-productions between Hong Kong and China, such as Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival this year. “Film is becoming more and more interesting as it becomes more difficult to say where it is coming from.”

If anyone understands the mongrel heartbeat of this generation it is Li. When I catch up with him, he is in Beijing but when I inquire about his main home, he laughs. “Shanghai, Zurich, Beijing – home is wherever my current project is.”

Spanking The Maid II, 2012

Now 38, he first dipped his toe in the art world in 1996, when a friend in Beijing asked him to lend a hand running a new gallery. At the time, Li was working as a hotel chef. Within three months of opening the new venture, Li’s friend departed and he found himself at the helm. “That’s when I started to engage with artists, visiting their studios and discovering their concerns.”

In 1999, the police shut down one of his exhibitions because some members of the public and the local government alleged that it was a gathering place for practitioners of the forbidden spiritual movement Falun Gong. “But that was just an excuse,” he recalls. “However, it was good in a way because it gave me a lot of insight into the way people thought.”

Hermione, 2013

The unplanned closure left Li free to take up an arts management residency at the ICA in London. His breakthrough came when Philip Dodd, the renowned curator of Asian contemporary art, invited him to work on Revolutionary Capitals: Beijing-London, the seminal 1999 exhibition at the ICA. “It meant that I reconnected with artists from mainland China,” he recalls.

Back on home turf, he found that digital media art had blossomed there, in part because the internet allowed ideas to circulate more freely than ever before. “Without the internet, how can you share information in a system that is very politically controlled? [The web] also asks: ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to know?’ ” In a regime such as China, where collective identity has taken precedence, that shift in emphasis can nourish social change.

Last Wills, 2013

Today, his peripatetic habits give him insights into the cultural cross-currents that are the lifeblood of contemporary digital art. In the film sector, these are evident not only across geographical boundaries but also across those that divide fine art from mainstream cinema.

“Ellen Pao, for example, was someone who was hugely influenced by the film industry when she was making video art in the 1980s,” Li says, referring to a Hong Kong artist feted for her poetic yet narrative pieces. Pao was a pioneer of the strong tradition of experimental film in Hong Kong. “But because the film industry is so developed there, it can be produced with a professional team, which gives it a very different feel to film produced in, say, mainland China.”

Burmese Days, 2011

Commercially, however, artists’ films have yet to prove lucrative. Li admits that attracting the right calibre of applicants to the fair has been challenging. “My impression from galleries is that film is not interesting because it cannot be sold, so they don’t apply to this section. To be honest, I think of this sector as not-for-profit because I don’t think much work will be sold during it.”

Burning Chair, 2013

He believes that the achievement of Steve McQueen in crossing over from art to mainstream could prove a “huge influence . . . I think [McQueen’s success] could encourage the public to make video-collecting a project. I have hope. After all . . . this is the art of our time.”

Art Basel Hong Kong, May 15-18, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center,

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