The Titans

Before the public opening of Art Basel Hong Kong 2017 the city was already heaving with previews and parties with art titans who converge on the island. 2Mag explores some of them.

March 22, 2017
The preview of Art Basel Hong Kong, now one of the most heavily attended art fairs in the world—70,000 visitors attended in 2016, up 10,000 from the year prior—is no small feat. It has now become the official meeting point for the world to converge in Asia, even before the fair and its satellites open to the public on March 23rd. Many arrive early for the previews (and parties) that began on the 20th, with some things even kicking off as early as Sunday the 19th.

It is during the previews that meetings of the titans of the art world (the biggest artists, collectors, galleries, and curators) meet with young activists, press, fashion peeps, and more—much as they do at other art events across the world. It’s whirlwind but fascinating, as it gives a taste of what is to come for the rest of the week and sheds a light on what will soon appear on our Instagrams.
To kick of the week, Simon Lee Gallery’s annual Art Basel opening luncheon at the institution that is Yung Kee is not to be missed. We are talking dim sum and goose galore in the company of the artist himself. It’s also a chance to see pretty much everyone you will run into the rest the of the week while they’re still fresh—most having just arrived in Hong Kong and are not yet art-fatigued and/or hungover.

This year was a celebration of Mel Bochner, an American painter who started his career in the 1960s and has responded, through his work, to the wake of abstract expressionism—Bochner specifically has an interest in the word as, like his contemporaries, he has found there is little to add to painting. He was one of the first, along with Bruce Nauman and Joseph Kosuth, to start photo documentation of his work thus exploring how we look at art—how we experience it. This led to an exploration of language and color that became his thesaurus paintings: artwork incorporating written words. They seem like a commentary on art but in relation to the viewer, who can ascribe to each his or her own interpretation.

How do we respond to Mel Bochner's BLAH BLAH BLAH and all those colors? It provokes a reaction; it makes us think we understand it—or even if we don’t, we question why? What is “Blah Blah Blah”? Ultimately, the velvet panels that you see at Simon Lee Gallery makes a statement in your mind and probably means something different to everyone, and as we progress through the week perhaps it is a prophetic statement: we went to this and blah blah blah. But it is too early for that now, and we are still totally excited and not yet art fatigued so it’s good we get the titans out of the way.

On we go to White Cube, where there is a big show: impactful yet serene and peaceful. It is Tarry Skies and Psalms for Now by Theaster Gates. You might ask how skies are tarry? Well, that would require examining the paintings and understanding the material process: the brilliant black gloss on his paintings and sculptures are of tar. Theaster Gates, for those who do not know him, is the Chicago artist who incorporates real life and social elements into his work. You might have seen recently the Obamas in his library in Washington. This was where old books from a closing down book store filled the shelves of a crumbling, once-derelict building; it is now a library open to all in the south side of Chicago.

It has been said that Gates’ practice is a social one—we will explore this later, of course, as an exploration of his work requires more time. But, as for the show at White Cube itself, the panels that you see in monochrome glory were made by the same workers who roofed his studio. What is interesting with the new sculptures is that they are from the flat, disintegrating sections of roof collected from a derelict school near to Gates’ Chicago home and studio. They are cast in bronze. This is the first time he’s gone beyond the singular use of roofs in his paintings and explores the bronze making process.

Then we get to the tar, the solid black, shiny finish that creates a glaze on his panels, treated with speed as working with tar is like having a fight with time as the tar cools quickly. Most importantly though is to be able to see the sculptures and the panels and let them talk to you. They do, and every time you see them there is something new that you notice: the tar freezing moments on a panel, life captured, a different bubble, another smear you might not have caught before.
Then on to another titan: the Swiss artist Urs Fischer at Gagosian Gallery. Flamboyant yet lonely spaces: interiors and exteriors that have been painted over. But in being painted over, the strokes have a painterly quality but are not actually all even paints: they are printed panels. A masterful illusion, these panels remind us of Fischer's candle statues: distorted representations of a real objects.

If experiencing art is what this is all about and is what draws us to an art fair—even if the fair is not a shopping venue—then it is the dinners and after parties that we secretly wait for all day as a break from all that art. It is here, before the music gets too loud and it all gets too incomprehensible, that we discuss what we saw that day and lay our our plans for the following days.

Courtesy of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Neugerriemschneider Gallery, we found ourselves in the studio section of a warehouse in Wong Chuk Hang—the Dalston of Hong Kong, if you will. Here, we were served a candle-light dinner: a collaboration with local chef Margaret Xu, who grows her own vegetables, knows where the seafood is from, and probably had names for the baby pigs we were served in space that was filled with beautiful designer furniture. It was a communal and convivial dinner: a little refuge from the stark and derelict warehouses of its surroundings.
Dinners with Rirkrit are always family affairs that are warm, fun, and delicious (with plenty of alcohol to go around). Trust him to bring you to a place where you make new friends as you enjoy a meal together, where strangers become best art fair buddies as you plot out what you will do over the next few days. Alas, the night inevitably winds down and we cheers over sake, making plans to meet up again with our new found friends, and we prepare to press repeat as we wake up the following day.