Kenny Schachter Reports from ART Hong Kong

I MADE MY first trip to Hong Kong to visit ART HK 12, the 5th iteration of the fair, recently majority purchased by ART Basel. Now there is Basel Miami, Basel Switzerland, and Basel Hong Kong, a concept similar to that of Disney theme parks in Los Angeles, Orlando, Paris and Hong Kong (which I didn’t know existed till now). Maybe Switzerland should be next in line for a Disney franchise; it seems to fit the correlation. Nothing quite prepares you for long haul flights, from London it’s about 11.5 – 12.5 hours to Hong Kong, though the trip cost a friend nearly 18 hours from New York, so one shouldn’t be heard to complain too much.

A drawback worth grumbling about was the passenger adjacent to me who coughed for much of the duration of the trip. It’s a status-laden cattle call to board a plane with your art world brethren and see who goes left (1st class) and who goes right (business and beyond) in the politics of plane seating. I brought along a pile of newspapers and weekend supplements I had been stockpiling for months that must have added 10 kilos to my luggage.

With a 7-hour time difference, after sleeping the night and getting off a plane into darkness was like walking into the film Groundhog Day. What was even more unsettling upon disembarkation was encountering a heat station: a checkpoint manned by a crew clad in surgical masks, and armed with devices collectively taking the temperature of all passengers entering Hong Kong. I was sure I would set off alarm bells from being: a) hot under the collar due to the annoyance of sitting with to Mr. Cough-y; or b) from having caught consumption along the way. I awoke the following morning jetlagged at the crack of dawn to a glorious harbour view, which would be the first and only glimmer of sunshine (and visibility) for the week; though admittedly, after 8 years in the UK, its hard to find rain daunting.

Sometimes these hectic excursions go so quickly I forget (neglect) to observe my surroundings, but encircled by so many hyper-high-rises, HK is certainly a city of views, to be, well, viewed. Though with the weather, most buildings were submerged in clouds for much of the time. In my office in London I see a horizontal sliver of daylight through a narrow strip, hence I often found it hard to leave the hotel room in which you could even observe the harbour while sitting on the toilet. If you had the propensity to peep, the room came with binoculars.

I must admit I’d be a blob if I lived in HK, it’s hard to get out of a chair when there’s so much action just outside the window. There are a series of crisscrossing, elevated walkways in a city where they are not big on sidewalks, which I wonder is due to the rain all the time. The roads are dense with a constant torrent of traffic, which reminded me of a philosophy professor who equated such a scenario in a Thomas Mann short story to symbolizing streams of ejaculation. As all of the taxis are red, you see few if any red cars.

I personally gave up on booths long ago, so now find myself attempting to sell my wares aisle-to-aisle, or perhaps I will be reduced to spreading out on a blanket in front of a convention centre near you. On the opening of the fair I lasted a respectable 5 hours on my feet, no easy task with such visual overload. Once you get a rhythm going, I found myself not wanting to stop for a pee like I was stuck in a hellish art world version of a self-help group.

My first impression was that it was refreshing to see the healthy intermix of Asian galleries from throughout the region, rather than yet another humdrum hodgepodge of more of the same, a formula that grows more tedious by the day with the influx of fairs. For some odd reason, at least five times strolling along I was asked: “What are you doing here?” I’d have thought it might have been more obvious—I am in the art business and this is an art fair. I was even asked if I was attending by myself, as if that wasn’t such a wise idea not to be accompanied by a chaperone.

Expectedly, there were big presences by the big names of Chinese art, including numerous examples from the smiling guy, the ashes artist, the bloodlines, and predictably, Ai Weiwei, who supplemented a moving installation about school children deceased in a recent earthquake with the usual mix of his seeming endless editions art. What does it mean when you query a gallery about the number of extant examples in a particular Weiwei work and the answer is: “We are not even sure ourselves”? I’m still a fan in spite of his apparent math problems. Returning to the Western world, Gagosian continues to travel back in history, sometimes tripping over himself in the process, as in the case of the darkest, dreariest Monet I’ve seen. Documenting the art on view, I noticed even the photos I take come out lopsided—I don’t think I’ve ever hung a painting straight.

It can all get a little lonely and exhausting strolling up and down, to and fro; smiling at everyone who vaguely looks in my direction lest I fail to acknowledge someone I met at the last party at the last fair. My organs hurt from standing so many countless hours yet barely moving. It’s not too easy on the feet and posture, possibly giving rise to a novel medical condition, the art world equivalent of Lyme disease, characterized by an inability to respond to visual stimulus after being bitten one too many times.

Peter Schjeldahl coined the word Festivalism describing the endless biennial exhibitions we all slavishly and communally attend, like the latest Documenta iteration on its way; the commercial side of this notion could give new meaning to the term Fair Trade. Seeing so much art under one roof is equally enthralling and exasperating with wildly vacillating degrees of quality, but (at the expense of frivolousness) I could still manage to spend all the money in the world on art. The modern art fair is a mix of temple and trading floor that unabashedly makes me proud to be in the art profession. That is until I consider the unregulated cesspool of shenanigans that is the art market, but that’s something else.

A complaint bandied about by galleries was that only Chinese art sold; a similar note was expressed about Abu Dhabi. But you can’t drop in on foreign soil and expect them to suck up Western crap indiscriminately, and after seeing a lot of mediocre art, how can you blame them? Another was that the crowd didn’t fully circulate to the upper floor as anticipated; there were 2, but a few levels separated them. At one point fair management closed off entrance to the bottom level to increase attendance on the top; chickens will always huddle together and peck each other’s eyes out before they will move, spread out or explore.

Though we live in a branded, generic Starbucks and Prada universe, like any commercial exhibition but even more so, when you visit Asia (or the Middle East, Africa, South America, or Russia) you really need to know what you are selling and to whom you intend to sell it to. Western galleries who came with a basket of Warhols and whatnots were left exasperated and disappointed. Not only did a few dealers confess to selling nothing, already a rarity in a world built of lies, but another few made the further admission of not having been asked a price; and that was already after days.

I observed more than a few of the Indonesian galleries drinking a lot of booze; and, more alarming, repeated Schnabel sightings—I can only shudder at the fear of more around the corner that might portend. If anything, ART HK 12 affirmed my suspicion that there is a fuck of a lot of art extant in the world. There is a nice tradition in the HK fair of placing giant congratulatory bouquets in front of certain booths. Oftentimes these are sent from shippers and the like—probably indicating either prompt prior payment practices—or the hope, and often they are better than the art of the young (Gavin) Turks they were placed in front of.

Speaking of masturbation: Vito Acconci famously did it under the floor at Sonnabend Gallery in 1972, but Turk (on view at Ben Brown) has been doing it his entire career. For some odd reason there were more than a handful of giant rhino/dinosaurs at various galleries, entitled “I Didn’t Notice What I Was Doing” by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu (a few at Tang Contemporary Art, Bejing), I am still scratching my head as to why they did it, if ever there was an argument for extinction. And what fair would be complete without a BMW or Audi on view; at least in this instance the car was a voluptuously painted Warhol. Yum!

I WAS RECENTLY asked to debate the idea that the only good art today is being made in Asia and though I admittedly had never been to the region at the time (they were desperate to fill the seat) my position was that this was preposterous; but, after spending a couple of days on the ground in HK, I am not so sure I was right. What I was correct about was my conviction that other fairs, previously indisputably significant, are much less so today, like Cologne. Sorry, but you cannot will yourself into prominence in today’s changing map of economic and geographical relevance.

In a deep fair like Basel-Basel, you can visit daily for 6 months and still manage to miss things, and HK was just about such an event, and it’s only a matter of time before it is more so. Back to the laws of looking: the classic grid formation dictates fair flow encouraging systematic passage and all but precluding the meander and drift. But nothing beats the random encounters and associations of art like passing ships colliding in the night, oftentimes with casualties. One dealer darted out and implored me to enter the booth to fully see around the back of a horrid sculpture, which was nothing less than disturbing.

People looking at you looking is no joy. Mints are an essential accompaniment to any public gathering and you could only wish more followed suit. It’s hard not to look at the physical attributes of the dealers themselves and begin to make assumptions about the gallery. That reminded me of an episode of the 70’s TV show The Odd Couple, when Felix Unger stated that when you assume, you “make an ass out u and me.” It can all feel very pointless and depressing after a certain threshold is breached (see above), at which point I dither about staying; you’d think I’d learn as it happens every time.

Sometimes you are left wanting for invites (me anyway) and other times there are double dinner dates on the table. My luck, the multiple requests for my presence mainly fell on the same night. At an occasion, the guest seated next to me explained how he had sold his entire contemporary art collection fully expecting a total crash within 2 years. How appetizing.

Nearly 6 months on, I was still suffering Miami Basel backlash: I couldn’t bear the thought of going to another art world party, so I determined not to go all the way out on this trip until I found myself playing plastered ping-pong at 3am at a bar I can’t remember the name of, with the art world I swore to avoid. The perils of drinking red wine when you are all but certain it will end up over your jacket are manifest, in my case, by an out of control forehand stroke by Sam Keller. He’s not running the fair anymore but you go and say something. Another tidbit on offer: it’s not the brightest to mingle with rival dealers at a late night shin dig-you end up revealing the darned-est things, surely nothing to be proud of. At least there was the view in the hotel bed for me to spend the following day looking out at.

This is sure to make me a lot of friends: Joseph Kosuth was at another dinner and hats off, he takes self-possession and solipsism to heights higher than the HK Peak. He even had to tell Zaha Hadid about a house he was building. It doesn’t get richer than that. Ok, there were some wonderful text works in the past but perhaps the best is yet to come: as George Harrison sang so succinctly in the 1970 song entitled I Me Mine: “All through the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine, All through the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine”.

It might form the basis for a piece-the explication of I, me, and mine. In fact, uncouth Kosuth couldn’t see past his last expression; talk about his kids or anyone else ended the same. The prize for the best private art installation: a rogue collector’s spots submerged knee-deep in synthetic packing material leaning against a wall in the middle of their reception room. And what did the artist representative say upon viewing the pile of Hirst hay? What could/would they say: “Fabulous!”
 
  
AS I HADN’T been out of doors in days, I thought I’d finally venture and brave the daily deluge. When I made it, after what seemed like decades, there was no air to breathe in the stifling humidity just water. I wanted to see the grimy side of HK so I set off on a walk only to end up stuck on a 2-hour nature trek, ending up on the steepest steps fathomable. I thought I’d get lost in the darkness and never heard from again, but too many might have liked that too much.

I came across an errant dog barking up a narrow path, but I sucked it in and continued to move on without eye contact. Only 300 yards later, I bumped into another dog, which elicited a memorable feeling in the pit of my stomach. When I heard groaning from underneath a water pipe a little further on, I had a Woody Allen anxiety attack and nearly panicked. In the unremitting tropic humidity my pants nearly melded into my legs as I roasted walking up the Peak. I can imagine the extent of recounting these tales is sure to bore the t*ts off anyone who bothers.

The centre of HK is like the intertwined lines in an Escher drawing forming an impossible obstacle of networking stairways, which had me stumbling into more stoppages than pathways. I’m from NY but still found my neck hurting from craning it at the impossibly tall Ayn Rand building model. There are buckets of bling buildings around every corner, transforming from silver to gold and back. It’s like Monaco on steroids, an architectural Chutes and Ladders. And the scale improbably continues up a mountain, which is mind-boggling. HK is a great walking city but you can’t walk in a straight line so its a bitch to actually try and get anywhere.

With the weather, it was also disconcerting to find myself in the middle of a cloud that was not altogether dissimilar than the feeling the previous night at around 3:45am. HK is a treat to wander with no destination even when you have the misfortune of bumping into newly transplanted London, New York and Parisian galleries. For me, one thing was certain—I wasn’t going Gagosian, et al.

Another peeve was too many people being too damn polite except, that is, for taxi drivers who emote by all manner of unpleasant grunts and contortions. There was a sighing and snorting impatience, which I surely relate to, call it Taxi Tourettes. Whenever I returned to the room they had placed individual bookmarks stating “FANtastic inspiration” (the fan is brand insignia) into every one of the 10 kilos of newspaper supplements I had yet had the time to read. That, which must have taken some concerted effort, was inspiration enough. Most trips to the lobby entailed an encounter with other art goers so the elevator became an incubator for networking. Did I mention how up until the last minute I was tempted to flee early, struggling with fair-itis, as more than a few dealers did, deserting their booths against the formal rules of participation?

After hearing of more galleries who were not even asked prices of works after days, its not hard to figure who abandoned ship. By the last days of the fair, there seemed to be an abundance of generic gallery girls and boys (impossibly cool looking, too) filling in for the weary, supplied by management. They didn’t seem at all too steeped in art or even interested for that matter. In fact, they weren’t the only people with little or waning attention spans, witness the sleeping child or two.

With an 11:15pm departure time, I was tempted to rot in the hotel for the last afternoon but less inclined to do so after disclosure of the half-day cost for the luxury. So I ventured back to bid adieu to the convention centre, before shamelessly soldiering on to one last party en route to the airport. There was signage in the lobby announcing “The Asia Funeral Expo and Conference,” another few fairs and I know where I’m heading. You spend so little money due to all the freebies, and with cabs so cheap, it was the first time in 10 years I actually came back with cash to exchange.

An aside: you have to wonder, do they all have some horrible disease to warrant the surgical masks? Back at the fair (the Jakarta booths were still drinking), it was jam-packed claustrophobic aisles (narrow passageways was a frequently heard complaint); so crowded in fact that I considered adopting the mask myself—maybe I’ll do so in London.  By the end of it all, “Why are you here” and “Who are you with” turned into “Are you still here?” I admit to wondering what I am doing at fair after fair myself as if I’m out of my element and don’t belong. But a lot of business seems to get done in the interstitial spaces between the official boundaries of the fair and I even managed to do some myself.

ART HK 12 was overwhelmingly a very positive and informative fair-going experience, though the weather never relented, raining 6 days straight as I readied my London newspapers for the return trip home. Will the fair turn into the same capricious shit as the others where a friend was kicked out of one for what he was told was a bad Carl Andre install? I hope and trust it won’t devolve into a homogenous mush of shameless sameness but HK is clearly a place to be reckoned with and not in the future but in the now; a place always seeming to leave you trying to squeeze in more than humanly possible.

I never understood how my wife people watches for sport, until my HK visit where one couldn’t invent the “fashion” concoctions you see in the lobby, street or just about everywhere: wow, there are amazing people to enjoy. And not only are they expert at erecting enormous skyscrapers where you dizzyingly find restaurants on the 87th floor, they also managed to get the wine stain(s) out of my suit.
  
  
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