Hong Kong will see a creative surge as Art Basel comes to town, but there’s a push for a more permanent change to the visual landscape of the city better known for its business hustle than its art scene.

Asia’s largest art fair unveils its first preview Tuesday and has boosted Hong Kong’s artistic credentials since it first launched in the city four years ago.

Art Basel 2017. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

A vibrant, wide-ranging “art week” of free exhibitions and events has grown up around the fair.

But for the rest of the year some feel the city puts too much emphasis on selling, rather than viewing, with the focus on commercial galleries rather than publicly accessible shows.

Hong Kong currently lacks a world class art museum, and marquee exhibitions rarely make a stop in the southern Chinese city.

“Everything is about the (commercial) galleries – everything is about it being expensive and if you can afford it,” said Nadia Cuvelier, 22, who works in event production and grew up in Hong Kong.

Art Basel 2017. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“There’s a couple of walls and a few murals, but it’s so contained.”

Freelance photographer Jaffa Ho, in his 50s, agrees.

“Seeing more art would be better — Hong Kong would have more culture and innovation, more joy and an atmosphere of creativity,” he told AFP.

Red tape

The highest profile public art show to come to Hong Kong in recent years was British sculptor Antony Gormley’s internationally renowned Event Horizon, a touring outdoor exhibition of shadowy, life-size male figures which were scattered around the city, some perched on its towering rooftops.

A statue of the art installation overlooking River Thames. Photo: Wikicommons.

It was a landmark show and a big hit with the public, but organisers say Hong Kong needs to reduce the red tape.

While it does have a specific arts body, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), observers say a more efficient approach to holding public exhibitions is needed.

It took six months to receive approval for the Gormley show and one statue required multiple applications to several government departments, Hong Kong-based coordinator Levina Li-Cadman told AFP.

She likened the procedure to applying for a full building extension. Cities like London and New York have their own public art departments to streamline the process, she added.

Hong Kong art commentators say authorities are too cautious, for both political and practical reasons.

With concern growing in the semi-autonomous city that Beijing is tightening its grip, artists installed a digital light display running down Hong Kong’s tallest building in 2016.

Art Basel 2017. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

It counted down the seconds to 2047 – the year the handover agreement between Britain and China guaranteeing the city’s freedoms comes to an end.

That installation was removed by the HKADC which said it “demonstrated disrespect.”

Photo: AddOil team screenshot.

The display coincided with a highly charged three-day trip to Hong Kong by top Chinese official Zhang Dejiang.

Authorities are also hesitant about the physical challenges of installing art in the densely packed city, says art pundit John Batten.

Art Basel 2017. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“The approach to public art is sort of like: okay it has to be safe, second it can’t get in the way,” he told AFP.

Batten hopes the city’s new contemporary art gallery M+, which is due to open in 2019 but has been mired in delays and controversy, will be a significant public art offering.

Artist impression of the M+ building. Photo: westkowloon.hk.

But, he says, Hong Kong also needs to change on a deeper level, including embracing more spontaneous street art and even decorative storefronts to improve the visual palette.

Artistic endeavour

Sky-high real estate costs can make it hard to find space for publicly accessible art and some private sector companies are now stepping into the breach, keen to burnish their own creative credentials.

One of the top shows coming to Hong Kong during Art Basel is a collection of early paintings and drawings by the late Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid to be housed at ArtisTree – a huge space for visual and performing arts which is part of a commercial complex owned by property developer Swire.

Art Basel 2017. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

A large-scale installation by German multimedia artist Julius Popp, in which a curtain of water droplets forms different words, will also be on show at Swire’s Pacific Place mall as it says it wants to help incorporate art into everyday life.

The Hadid exhibition is being brought to Hong Kong by London’s Serpentine Galleries, whose chief executive Yana Peel says collaboration between public and private sectors is key to improving the “political and physical” space for art and ideas to thrive.

“It’s about partnerships – not just private, not just public – making sure that every actor in this production really champions the kind of environment which values creative and artistic endeavour,” she told AFP.


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