• The End of the
    (Af)Fair

Now that Art Basel in Hong Kong has ended its second edition, the next question is this: what happens next? Of course, this is not about what gallerist Rhona Hoffman noted during the fair’s public days, that: “the art fair continues for weeks afterwards.” Rather, this is about what happens to Hong Kong’s art scene now that Art Basel has cemented its place here.

But of course, it’s important to note that Hong Kong had a scene well before Art Basel’s ship docked at this (free) port city. The running joke is that the M+ museum, part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, has taken some twenty years to (yet) materialize (the building is slated to open in 2017). Meanwhile, the wildly popular and ever-growing Fotanian open studio event has been running for 14 years. So it’s not that nothing happens in this city, art wise.

But of course, since Art Basel announced its acquisition of ArtHK in 2011 (which had launched in 2008), eleven galleries have opened up in Hong Kong. This year, some 150 satellite events took place concurrent to the fair, including the Hong Kong Art Fair and the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Fair. And prior to Art Basel’s preview opening on the 14th of May, an Affordable Art Fair had already taken place in March. Indeed, as a testament to the strength of the Hong Kong scene, made only stronger since ABHK set up shop, some 25 galleries from Hong Kong made up the 245 of total galleries at the fair this year, including young upstarts, Gallery EXIT, a staunch supporter of local talent, and OraOra, who were showing an exhibition exhibition titled “I Want to Be Seen” featuring works of young Hong Kong artists (including Halley Cheng and Stephen Wong) at their gallery space just off Hollywood road concurrent to the fair. The latter presented a trend by many young artists, post-Para/Site and post-Fotanian, to move their focus to the countryside.

But aside from the art, something else is taking shape in Hong Kong. On the ride up the mid-levels escalator (to view a video work presented through a window of the Sally Coco sex shop on Cochrane Road as part of Hong non-profit Para/Site’s current group show, Ten Million Rooms of Yearning: Sex in Hong Kong), there were advertisements for a new art and design community recently launched at the old Police Married Headquarters on Aberdeen Street. The development was the winning project submitted for the government’s Conserve and Revitalize Hong Kong Heritage project, which offered the space, built in 1951, to the creative industries in 2010. The winning proposal came from a non-profit making social enterprise set up by the Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation Ltd. in collaboration with the Hong Kong Design Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Hong Kong Design Institute of the Vocational Training Council.

Having only just opened and with more and more units being filled, the PMQ project is pretty genius. The ground floors are given over to those who can pay Hong Kong’s notorious rents: Vivienne Tam is here, as is Swarovski and G.O.D (Goods of Desire)—Hong Kong’s local design chain flying the flag for local design. Then, the upper floors are given over to local designers who are able to rent studio/shop space at a discount (with a few pop up stores along the way, including Joyce Cares, which launched with an art installation by Josh Maupin). The result is a showcase of local design, and an indication of how not only art by design is gaining greater visibility and presence in the city. PMQ also presents a marriage between art and commerce that somehow manages to benefit artists and designers more directly, in that studio space is one of the hardest things to come by (and afford) in this city.

Of the studios I visit, I am drawn into a creative studio dedicated to interdisciplinary experiments in art and design named Handkerchief, by a video playing in the darkened room. It presents strange, goblin-like figures dancing in a circle against a red background, showcasing a raincoat—one of the label’s designs. The story of the raincoat is pretty great. As Amy Cheng of Handkerchief tells me, it was conceived as a raincoat for the “100%” (Cheng got the idea for the design while observing Occupy Wall Street in New York City): a raincoat that can be folded and zipped up into the form of what looks like a Chanel bag. Handkerchief’s videos are weird and wonderful. Another one includes the insertion of Handkerchief designs into scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a weird conversation between three women who may or may not be sisters, as someone bangs on a meeting room door.

Intrigued by the commingling of art and design within the concept store, I ask Cheng how she views the mushrooming interest in art and design in Hong Kong. It turns out she is an artist herself (as is her partner, Erkka, who produces the label’s videos). She tells me about a project she produced for ArtHK in 2011, titled “The Chance Machine”, in which a machine resembling the lottery machine for Hong Kong’s Marx Six gave local people the opportunity to buy raffle tickets for 20HKD for the chance to win a work of art. The project, I am told, was a reaction to how art had become unaffordable in Hong Kong due to the city’s rising status as an art centre—complete with a Sotheby’s, a Christie’s, and an art fair. For Cheng, this has been the downside to art’s rise in the city over the last decade.

But Cheng—who also took part in the exhibition staged in both Hong Kong and at The Saatchi Gallery in London, “Hong Kong Eye” (she presented a to-scale wooden tank that viewers could climb into a shoot things with)—doesn’t see a difference between her art practice and her fashion label. In fact, she produces her own fabric designs at her father’s fabric mill, which recalls something another designer mentioned during my visit: that Hong Kong design should be supported, given that the resources are all here in terms of manufacturing. And while Cheng does not view the relationship between art and commerce too kindly, particularly when it comes to art fairs, it makes sense to see her in a studio space that is at once government-subsidized, run as a non-profit, but still retains a commercial character. So far, so Hong Kong.

And so, after Art Basel in Hong Kong packs up for another year, Hong Kong is left with such endeavours as PMQ, which stays true to the idea of art for all. It makes good (and relatively affordable) design available to the public, while maintaining a yearlong presence—and commitment—to the city and its independent producers. (Studios also hold workshops at PMQ and there are also galleries being set up here, too.) It’s nice to know these things are happening, and that as commercial as this city can be, at least its future looks increasingly creative and diverse.