Scene Report: On the Ground at Art Basel Hong Kong

© Art Basel

DEPARTURES Senior Features Editor Julian Sancton reports on the dizzying sixth iteration of Asia’s largest art fair.

Since the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong earlier this week, this city’s convention center has turned into a parade ground for peacocking new collectors looking for big-name artists, world-weary fixtures of the traveling art circus in search of new discoveries, and international dealers hoping to capitalize on a rebounding Asian art market. ABHK’s sixth iteration is its biggest yet, with 248 galleries represented. While a few have focused on a single artist (such as the New York gallery Metro Pictures, which has assembled a dazzling, career-spanning selection of works by the photographer Cindy Sherman), most are taking the “greatest hits” approach, displaying a mix of their best-known assets. (E.g. David Zwirner, whose wares include paintings by Oscar Murillo and Linda Yuskavage, as well as some Jeff Koons sculptures, priced in the high seven figures.)


© Art Basel

There is a heavier emphasis on Asian galleries and artists than at Art Basel’s editions in Switzerland and Miami, but even then, known quantities dominate—like Anish Kapoor, Yoshitomo Nara, Lee Ufan, and Subodh Gupta. And Western artwork still commands the highest prices; the talk of the fair on Tuesday was the $35 million sale of a Willem de Kooning canvas shown at the Levy Gorvy booth. An informal survey of gallerists from Zwirner to Michael Werner to Pace suggested that ABHK keeps getting bigger and better every year, as the continent keeps minting new fortunes, and as private collectors are increasingly drawn to contemporary art. As Gordon Veneklasen of Michael Werner Gallery put it, “Asia is where the future is.” That statement aligns with a new report by venerated art-market diagnostician Clare McAndrew, which traces 21% of total art sales by value last year to China, placing the country second behind the United States.


Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

A supporting anecdote: walking by the convention center this afternoon, I overheard a British dealer, apparently on a cigarette break, giddily telling his two interlocutors, “I sold everything—everything. It’s never happened before!”

But perhaps the surest sign of the Hong Kong art scene’s ascendance was not the fair itself but the opening of H Queen’s, a 24-story skyscraper that functions as a vertical arts district with a critical mass of blue-chip galleries. The building, owned by Hong Kong developers Henderson Land Group, contains brand new outposts of major international dealers including David Zwirner, Pace, Pearl Lam, and Hauser and Wirth, all stacked on top of each other. On Monday the lines to the elevators snaked around the block. But by Wednesday morning, the H Queen’s galleries offered a serene respite from Art Basel’s see-and-be-seen frenzy and a far more rewarding art-viewing experience.


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Hauser and Wirth still had that new paint smell, and I’m presuming it wasn’t coming off of the nine large semi-abstract canvases by the American artist and urban activist Mark Bradford, almost all of which have already sold for $3-5 million each. Tang Contemporary held an impressive show by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who created a wallpaper that chronicles the Odyssey of Syrian refugees to Greece, like a modern tapestry of Bayeux. But the most impressive of the bunch was Zwirner’s two-floor exhibition of the eclectic German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. But don’t just take it from us, if you can, do stop by this dizzying art fair.

For more info on Art Basel Hong Kong (March 29-31) visit artbasel.com.