As soon as Art Central opened its doors to the public on Thursday afternoon, people started to stream in.
Clusters of pamphlet-clutching students, elegantly dressed enthusiasts and collectors soon filled the cavernous 8,900-square-metre hall at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, meandering between artworks, sometimes pausing, often photographing, eager to absorb the contemporary art on show.
This year’s edition of the fair – an Asian-art focused cornerstone of Hong Kong’s art week that complements Art Basel’s bigger, more blue-chip offerings – has assembled 52 galleries, 41 of which are Hong Kong-based. It is the highest proportion of spaces from the city since the fair began in 2015.
The local pivot was, in part, prescribed by the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s stringent border controls, Fair Director Corey Andrew Barr told HKFP.
“We expected to be back to full scale in 2022, and we started to plan that way,” Barr said. However, with the mandatory hotel quarantine remaining in place for all international arrivals and a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections washing across Hong Kong from January to mid-May, Barr said the team began planning a “revised edition” with “a more local feel.”
“As someone who collects art myself, I found that while we were… not trapped, while we were sort of grounded here in Hong Kong for a while, I was able to discover so many artists that I don’t believe I would have had the opportunity to if I had been travelling and working as in pre-pandemic times,’ Barr said.
“That gave way to the idea that there is so much happening in Hong Kong that other collectors might not have access to,” he said, noting that the recent addition of several independent art spaces to the scene were “very important for the development of Hong Kong art and artists.”
“So, in a way, the silver lining of the pandemic was that so many new Hong Kong artists and galleries have gotten a toehold into the market, and that’s what we’re happy to provide this year.”
Made in Hong Kong
One way Art Central is providing that platform to local artists is through its Made In Hong Kong Area, which features 65 works by 40 artists, of the more than 650 applications received by the fair.
“Our hope here is that we are able to connect artists who are not so far working with galleries or represented by galleries to make a connection to galleries here at the fair… as well as for collectors,” Barr said.
Attendees seemed interested in what was on offer, getting up close and personal with small-scale architectural line drawings and capturing video art on their smartphones, with one telling HKFP that the prices were “relatively reasonable for art.” Prices were printed on tickets that bore the artist’s name and a QR code, and ranged from about HK$4,000 to HK$30,000.
Although an Art Central representative would not disclose how sales were going, HKFP saw at least one credit card receipt being printed within the first hour of the fair opening to the public.
Barr praised the “tremendous amount of creativity on show,” saying that the art world in Hong Kong had been on a growth trajectory since the city’s first fair, ArtHK, was launched in 2008.
“When I first came to Hong Kong a decade ago, it was a very different place… there was not really an infrastructure or ecosystem for art,” Barr said, adding that it had “developed quite beautifully since then.”
“I think that trajectory has been ongoing for the last decade and perhaps only in the past two years has that trajectory taken a turn towards Hong Kong art and artists.”
‘Being an artist in Hong Kong is difficult’
Among the galleries Barr said the fair was particularly excited to host for the first time was Square Street Gallery, a Sheung Wan-based space that has eschewed art world traditions in favour of a more progressive programme since it opened in March 2021. Art Central is not only the gallery’s inaugural art fair, it is also the first time it has presented an exhibition on white walls. The name of its booth, though not widely advertised as such, is “Fuck you why not.”
“The gallery opened cognisant of the fact that being an artist in Hong Kong is difficult, having the resources to rent out a studio is difficult. And so the gallery started off desiring to be a residency programme,” Square Street representative Aaditya Sathish told HKFP.
“The other thing that came up was that we don’t want a white-wall show. This is the first white-wall show we’ve done.”
Among the artists it represents are Hong Kong-based street artists Go Hung, who recreated a life-size Hong Kong back alley in the gallery, a corner of which has been transported to the art fair; and Lousy, whose fluorescent animal canvases are hard to miss, much like the artist’s signature kissing-face graffiti around town. “We try to have these artists who are traditionally outside of the purview of the traditional art world,” Sathish said.
Works by one such artist were found behind a satin curtain in a sectioned-off corner of the Square Street Booth. Anabelle Lau’s large-scale oil paint recreations of adult comic magazines blur the lines between fine art and pop culture, placing female sexuality front and centre, and attracting a not insignificant amount of attention. “I actually like sex stuff very much, as you can see,” Lau told HKFP. “Sexual desire is one of the human emotions.”
People were shocked to find out the paintings were done by a girl, she said. “But at the same time, if the painter was a guy, the whole thing would be inappropriate.”
‘We didn’t start the fire’
Another painting that appeared to resonate with the Hong Kong crowd was Singaporean artist Boo Sze Yang’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” one of 31 finalists from 16 countries in the 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. In it, three backpack and respirator-wearing figures, dressed completely in black, crouch against a background of smoke and flames. “It’s drawing a bit of attention,” Beth Corner, who works for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, told HKFP. Someone was already in line to buy it.
Boo’s work is perhaps the most obviously evocative of past or present political events in Hong Kong on display. But there was never a question of censorship, Barr said.
“We don’t have conversations with galleries about censorship,” he said. “There is an expectation as an organiser, and it has been communicated, that we are compliant with rules and regulations in Hong Kong, so we simply have that as part of our application process.”
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