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Art HK – Hong Kong’s answer to Art Basel, Frieze and other contemporary jamborees punctuating the art world calendar – is now in its fifth year. This is the first time it has been organised under the aegis of Art Basel (which last year acquired 60% of Art HK). While boosting the international caché of the fair – its 266 participants hail from 38 countries, half of them Asian – it also reflects the way much of the art aims at an internationalised language.
Some of the criticism of Chinese contemporary art has centred on its apparent assimilation of western forms. The idea itself is not new: across the water in Kowloon at the Hong Kong Museum of Art are examples of nineteenth-century Cantonese ‘export paintings’ produced by Chinese artists imitating European models. A framed article from the Illustrated London News in 1859 marvels at how these craftsmen “have engrafted European perspective upon Chinese minuteness and are consequently able to produce very creditable oil and watercolour pictures.”
But most of the Asian artists showcased at Art HK appear to reinterpret established trends – just as western contemporary artists obsessively do – while retaining an individual or national perspective. The theme of the ‘anxiety of influence’ is comically addressed by Shanghai-born artist Yu Youhan in his painting A pocket western art history about Mao - "Foreign Mao" (1999), displayed on the booth of Shanghart Gallery. Here, Gauguin's recumbent Tahitian maidens (themselves a strange cultural excursus) sit next to a grinning, cigarette-wielding Mao who might have been plucked from a Socialist Realist poster.
The idea of cultural exchange is reflected by the fair at large and the different economic impulses driving it. European and American galleries are seeking to introduce their artists to an Asian client base, resulting in some obvious emphases of Asian artists on their rosters. At the same time, galleries from the region are using the fair’s international status give local artists broader exposure.
Across Art HK’s two expansive floors, there are many other examples of different genres and histories massing together into an artistic lingua franca. Suspended from the ceiling at the booth of New York’s Lehmann Maupin is a chandelier-cum-flying-ship by Korean artist Lee Bul, crafted from crystal beads and steel and aluminium chains, which pays glitzy homage to the work of the German architect Bruno Taut. At Hong Kong's Osage Gallery, Sydney-based Chinese artist Shen Shaomin’s sculpture I want to know what infinity is (2011) presents a skeletal old woman confected from silica gel – naked and basking (or perhaps comatose) amid the exhibition hall’s solar glare, on top of a bank of sparkling salt. It is as if Madame Tussaud's had created an effigy of an ancient sibyl – immortal yet prone to perpetual ageing.
The grand, set-piece installations or subversive ‘happenings’ typical of other art fairs are comparatively thin on the ground here. But impressive interludes are provided in the form of a desert of salt ghoulishly dotted with embryonic creatures (Shen Shaomin again), rows of transparent panes by Daniel Buren resembling ranked insignia, and a giant respiring lotus by Choi Jeong Hwa.
A fringe of pocket-sized booths around the edge of each floor is designated Art Futures. Like Frieze’s Frame section, it is devoted to younger galleries. One of the best is New York’s Harris Lieberman gallery, comprising a salon hang of works by American artist Karl Haendel. Based on photographs, his exquisitely precise graphite drawings are poised stylistically somewhere between David Hockney’s early studies and the illustrations for The Joy of Sex (1972).
With its conjunction of big-hitter participants and smaller dealers from around the world, Art HK achieves a heady confluence of east and west, nuance and bombast – the defining attributes of Hong Kong itself.
Art HK 12, 17 to 20 May, 2012 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) until 20 May.