The Art Market: first they took Miami, now they take Hong Kong

A powerful battalion of the art world’s grandees jetted in from New York, London, Beijing and many other points to attend the new Art Basel in Hong Kong, which launched this week and ends on Sunday.

This is the first truly “Basel” edition of the Asian fair, which the powerful Swiss firm acquired two years ago. And anyone who knows the other two fairs in its portfolio – Basel and Miami Beach – will have recognised the “brand”, with every detail, from typeface to maps, now homogenised throughout.

While the transformation from the ArtHK fair is not radical, the new owners have smoothed some things out, for instance distributing stands better between the two floors and placing the VIP lounge upstairs. The fair is spacious and well lit, flattering the art on view. But with “Basel Basel” round the corner, some galleries have not brought their best works, and others are frankly a muddle. But there are high points, among them Peter Blum’s marvellous offering of early Kusama works including “Phallic Bowl” (1965) in the $300,000 range – showing up the brash, garish offerings of more recent Kusama works. And the small Australian gallery Sullivan and Strumpf is showing subversive tableaux of figurines by Penny Byrne – “iProtest” – inspired by political unrest across the world.

Some exhibitors, including Blum, are attending for the first time, specifically because it is now a Basel event. Other newbies at the opening were the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, his partner Dasha Zhukova, Wendi Deng Murdoch and posses of collectors and museum directors including Lacma’s Jeffrey Deitch. Artists – Fernando Botero, Takashi Murakami, Abbas Kiarostami and many of the best-known Chinese names – had also hotfooted in.

As for sales, Hauser & Wirth reported a shower of deals and Arndt immediately sold a flowered puppy by the hot Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho, “Flower Generation II” (2012), to Adelaide’s South Australia Museum for $54,000 and a Jittish Kallat to the Belgian collector Guy Ullens, tagged at $180,000, while Hanart quickly placed four ink paintings by Qiu Zhijie with a big New York museum for $20,000 each. “There’s a dramatic difference in sales this year,” said a beaming Tim Blum. while Paul Kasmin also said business was “excellent”.

Along with the new fair, the week marked an extraordinary change in Hong Kong as an art hub. The night before the fair opening, the six galleries in the Pedder Building staged a joint vernissage and were so mobbed that a sign outside announced “Queuing time approx 30 minutes”; once in, visitors could see Basquiat at Gagosian or the new Lehmann Maupin space, showing a quintessentially Hong Kong scene by Zheng Guogu. The same crowd then packed into White Cube and Perrotin nearby. All of this was inconceivable just two years ago before the Basel juggernaut, with its 50,000-plus list of VIPs, rolled into town.

While there is certainly a lot of buzz about the growing art market in California, fairs there are not gaining any traction. The third edition of Art Platform Los Angeles, one of a portfolio of fairs owned by Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties, has just been cancelled. Held in a hangar in Santa Monica airport – where it had relocated last year after being held downtown – the fair had failed to attract enough support for its upcoming September edition.

But as one dies, another is born: Silicon Valley Contemporary, planned for April next year in San Jose Convention Center. The founders, who already organise other fairs in upscale locations such as Aspen and the Hamptons, come from the technology sector and say they will revolutionise the fair model. “We will look for the intersection between a physical art fair and a virtual one with online auctions,” says executive director Rick Friedman, adding that he will “introduce basic Valley tenets such as open systems, transparency in pricing and art value, full disclosure and ease of transaction.” About 60 international exhibitors are being sought for the first edition, which is slated for April 10-13 2014.

Inflation art is the newest thing – blow-up sculptures. Cynics who dismiss such works of contemporary art as “just a lot of hot air” are delightedly pointing to the fate of a number of these pumped-up monsters. In Hong Kong, a crowd-pleasing exhibition – called Inflation! – on the site of the future M+ museum in West Kowloon was recently hit by heavy rainfall. McCarthy’s “Complex Pile”, a giant brown simulacrum of excrement (you read that right, sadly) as well as a flower sculpture by the Korean artist Choi Jeong-hwa, “Black Lotus”, were punctured and collapsed. And the much ballyhooed giant rubber duck floating in the harbour, the work of Florentijn Hofman, popped and flattened into a yellow omelette. They have all been pumped back up now.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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