The urgency of returning to normal after three years of the coronavirus pandemic is felt especially keenly in Hong Kong, given the strict quarantine and other restrictions for travelers that made it difficult for visitors — and locals — to come and go. Now, even the mask mandate has been lifted.
Art Basel Hong Kong, taking place Thursday to Saturday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, will have its fullest presentation since 2019, with 177 dealers in total, which is 47 more than last year.
“My goal is to bring Hong Kong back and to reinforce its role as a cultural capital,” said Angelle Siyang-Le, the director of the fair. Ms. Siyang-Le, who is based in Hong Kong, is new to her position, having previously worked for Art Basel as head of gallery relations for Asia.
“People can now travel easily, as opposed to what we call the ‘closet years,’” she said.
In 2020, the fair went entirely digital, and then in the next two years it was staged in person, partly with the assistance of “satellite booths” that were staffed by local representatives for dealers who could not attend in person. And not all the sectors took place even when the physical fair returned.
Now the fair is back to being on two floors, after having been reduced to one, and there are no more satellite booths.
Ms. Siyang-Le said she was particularly happy that “all our sectors are now back,” including Encounters, for large scale art.
Encounters features 14 works, including “Like Tears in the Rain” (2023), a sculptural installation made with shredded, decommissioned euro bank notes by the Spanish multidisciplinary artist Carlos Aires, presented by Sabrina Amrani Gallery.
Another work in the section, Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thorsdottir’s “Constellation Forest” (2018), is a series of arched wooden forms like the vaults of a church, under which fairgoers can pass. The presenting dealer, Hanart TZ Gallery of Hong Kong, was founded 40 years ago by Johnson Chang.
“We’re finally coming out of our long-term quarantine,” Mr. Chang said. “It’s a huge relief.” But, he added, “This kind of radical opening up is a shock to the system.”
Mr. Chang will also have a booth in the fair’s main section featuring landscape- and nature-themed works, including the bronze “Levitation” (2011) by the Russian sculptor Dashi Namdakov.
As far as attendance goes, Mr. Chang predicted big numbers, given that people want to “breathe fresh cultural air.” He added, “The market has started to pick up. It will be successful commercially.”
That also means more competition. “You need to be very good, or you get lost,” said Catherine Kwai, the founder of Hong Kong’s Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery. “You need to bring the best work.”
In her booth, Ms. Kwai will be showing a large abstraction in oil, Georges Mathieu’s “Zonguldak” (1978) — reflecting one of her specialties, in 20th-century European work — as well as works by the contemporary artists Nicolas Party and Shara Hughes.
Ms. Kwai said that she thought connoisseurship has increased strikingly over the last 30 years among Asian buyers.
“They’re not buying for enjoyment only, they’re buying to build a collection,” she said.
She added, “Some of them are 35 or 40. They’re not waiting until they get rich.”
One New York collector who plans on attending is Patricia Pei, who is on the board of directors of the M+ American Friends Foundation, which supports Hong Kong’s M+ museum. She has attended the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong several times.
Ms. Pei, a collector who has not been to M+ since it opened in late 2021, said that it was important that Hong Kong open up to “make sure they don’t lose the art excitement to Korea or Singapore.”
She attended part of Singapore Art Week in January, which included two art fairs, and she said attendance was robust. “I spotted two billionaires,” she added.
Ms. Pei, now retired, formerly worked for Eugene Thaw, the noted old master collector and dealer. She said she did not have a specific shopping list going into the fair.
“I’ve been in the art world for many years,” she said. “So I just go by gut instinct.”
One of the ways galleries attempt to stand out among the crowd is a well-curated solo booth.
Venus Over Manhattan, a gallery founded by the collector Adam Lindemann, is making its debut at Art Basel Hong Kong and will focus on work by Peter Saul, the 88-year-old artist who riffs on cartoons and comics and has long expressed a Pop sensibility.
Anna Furney, Venus’s director, said one of the gallery’s projects was “recontextualizing projects that we feel have art historical significance and haven’t been recognized by the market.”
She added that the theme was an extension of Mr. Lindemann’s collecting. He recently sold 36 of his works at Christie’s, bringing in over $31 million.
The Venus Over Manhattan presentation gathers nine works by Mr. Saul, including “View of San Francisco” (1979) and “Last Dime” (2022). He has had a career resurgence of late, with a survey of his work presented at New York’s New Museum in 2021.
“The market for Peter’s work has become more and more Asian,” Ms. Furney said. “There’s a blue-chip base for him in Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong.”
She added that it was his melding of themes that appealed to viewers and collectors. “He’s always had this playful, nimble ability to look at history, art history, and politics,” she said.
The wider context of the Asian market is on a lot of minds after the success of the first edition of Frieze Seoul, which took place in September and attracted more than 70,000 visitors. (Just as Art Basel expanded from its first event in Basel, Switzerland, to Miami Beach, Hong Kong and Paris, Frieze began in London and then planted flags in New York, Los Angeles and Seoul.)
Noah Horowitz, who was appointed to the new position of chief executive of Art Basel in October said it was a “rising tide” phenomenon.
“Frieze helped turn a lot of eyes to Asia,” he said. “All these things underline that Asia is a huge part of our business.”
But, he added, “Hong Kong is the center and heart of the art market there.”
There are 19 dealers with branches in South Korea showing at the Hong Kong fair, including Arario Gallery, which has spaces in Seoul and in the city of Cheonan, as well as a space in Shanghai.
Sojung Kang, Arario’s executive director, said that, though the gallery participates in several fairs on the continent, “We think it’s too many fairs in Asia right now.”
Ms. Kang explained, “Collectors are not that big of a pie. It’s only a few people compared to the population.” And that meant, she added, “We want to focus on a few good fairs, and Art Basel Hong Kong is one of them.”
The gallery’s main booth will feature work by an array of Asian artists, reflecting its specialty, including the Indian sculptor Subodh Gupta, the Japanese multidisciplinary artist Kohei Nawa and the Filipino painter Buen Calubayan.
Kim Soun-Gui, a Korean artist based in Paris, will be represented by the diptych photograph “Forêt 1, Forêt 2” (1998—1999).
She is also the focus of the gallery’s separate booth in the Kabinett sector, for curated solo presentations, including the mixed-media sculpture “Lottery Neighborhood” (1999). The sculpture depicts small houses made from old lottery tickets.
The work, Ms. Kang said, “shows Soun-Gui’s perspective on the current era in which all families stake their lives on a fortune in the lottery.”
The galleries showing in Kabinett are largely based in Asia, but overall the fair includes dealers from 32 countries, many from Europe and the United States.
“We run a global business,” Mr. Horowitz said. “We want the shows to have a distinct identity, but to feed into each other.”
He traveled to Hong Kong in January, his first trip since 2019, to prepare for the fair.
“It felt like the city was having a grand reopening,” Mr. Horowitz said. “It was heartening to see it coming back to life after a challenging moment.”
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