Inside Art Basel Hong Kong at the city’s convention center there’s a booth where guests can apply for instant citizenship to the Republic of Jing Bang.
For $10,000 you can obtain a passport, an aluminum “Citizenship Box” briefcase and national flag from Jing Bang, an ephemeral state created for the fair by Chinese artist Sun Xun, whose installation is a satirical comment on art, commerce and nationhood.
The art world elite including Indonesian collector Budi Tek, New World Group scion Adrian Cheng and Canyon Capital Advisors co-chairman Mitchell Julis didn’t need any fictional travel documents to converge on Hong Kong, where more than $1 billion worth of art is for sale, according to fair insurer AXA ART.
Wealthy collectors snapped up a everything from a $10,000 painting by emerging Chinese artist Yuan Yuan to an 800,000 pounds ($1.3 million) for a scalpel blade painting by Damien Hirst.
Anchoring what is informally known as Hong Kong art week, Art Basel opens to the public tomorrow. VIPs got a chance to preview the 245 galleries from 39 countries exhibiting today, featuring primarily contemporary art.
Every year at this time Hong Kong’s social life goes into overdrive with a whirlwind of more than 25 gallery openings, charity art auctions, debates and champagne-fueled parties held on warehouse rooftops, at poolsides and parking garages.
“It’s like the Rugby Sevens for the Hong Kong arts and cultural set,” said Alice Mong, executive director of Asia Society Hong Kong, which hosted a gala dinner for 400 people on Monday night honoring Asian artists Zhang Xiaogang, Bharti Kher, Takashi Murakami and Liu Guosong.
Launched as Art HK in 2008, the fair was re-branded Art Basel Hong Kong last year after the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach purchased a majority stake in 2012 and it is now a major stop on the international art circuit. About half the exhibitors have space in Asia and Asia-Pacific, a deliberate decision to keep the fair’s original regional flavor.
Half-way through the VIP preview today New World’s Cheng, followed by a staff of four, had bought 12 works and was on the hunt for more. “The good thing about having a team is you buy something and they negotiate” he said while posing beside a Carol Bove painting he bought from David Zwirner.
Zwirner also brought oil-on-canvas works by 28-year-old Oscar Murillo, an emerging artist who catapulted from relative obscurity three years ago to New York’s latest wunderkind. The Colombia-born artist, best-known for his abstract works, has seen his auction prices surge as much as 5,600 percent in two years as a result of frenzied art flipping.
By mid-afternoon of the preview the gallery had sold three paintings ranging from $75,000 to $180,000 to collectors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“We knew there was interest and he’s newsworthy and they know about his auction prices,” senior partner Angela Choon said about Murillo. “But we didn’t expect the response to be this overwhelming.”
Returning to Hong Kong for the fifth year, New York-based Paul Kasmin gallery is featuring both Western and Asian works to take advantage of buyers’ increasing willingness to stray outside their comfort zones.
“Art Basel has brought more Europeans and Americans to Hong Kong and Asian collectors are becoming more interested in purchasing western art,” said gallery director Nicholas Olney.
Kasmin sold a newly commissioned work by Indonesia’s best-selling contemporary artist, I Nyoman Masriadi, for $350,000 at the VIP opening and is selling a polished bronze modernist bust by Constantin Brancusi and photographs by David LaChapelle.
The works of Ashley Bickerton, who quit New York after 12 years to move to Bali in 1993, provide a contemporary twist on Gauguin’s exoticism. A painting of two topless women with silver bodies astride a scooter, garlands in their dreadlocks, is selling for $190,000 by Singapore-based Gajah Gallery. Another work by the artist sold for $160,000 at the preview.
First-time exhibitor Hannah Barry gallery from London is bringing the work of 27-year-old U.K. artist James Capper in a solo show featuring a hydraulic creature able to claw its way on giant steel talons. Measuring 2 meters (6.5 feet) long, one meter wide and 1.6 meters high, it costs 40,000 pounds.
Citizenship to Sun’s “Jing Bang: A Country Based on Whale” is limited to 100 people, though visas can be purchased for $30 each at the fair.
Describing his one-party state (administered by the Magician’s Party), which has a planned life span of just six weeks, Sun writes “If history is a big lie, then the Republic of Jing Bang uses one lie to intercept another lie.” The project is jointly presented by the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and ShanghArt gallery. Fifty passports sold during the VIP preview, prompting Sun to increase the citizenship price to $13,000.
Collectors on more modest budgets can head over to the Conrad Hotel for the Asia Contemporary Art Show where five floors of guest rooms are transformed into temporary gallery spaces featuring emerging artists from 18 countries from May 16 to 18. VIPs get an advance preview tomorrow.
UBS AG, which also sponsors Art Basel and Art Basel Miami, has added the Hong Kong fair for the first time this year. “Our private banking clients include people interested in fine art, so it’s a natural fit,” said Chi-Won Yoon, Chief Executive Officer of UBS Group Asia Pacific.
Local galleries are taking advantage of the influx of deep-pocketed visitors this week to launch new shows. Blindspot Gallery, located in the burgeoning art district of Wong Chuk Hang overlooking the city’s Aberdeen harbor, is showing London-based photographer Nadav Kander’s latest works that feature nudes of sitters covered in marble dust that evoke Michelangelo and Lucien Freud.
Pace Gallery opens its Hong Kong space with oil-on-paper works by Zhang Xiaogang in the heart of downtown on the 15th floor of the Entertainment Building. Next door Antwerp, Belgium-based Axel Vervoordt Gallery is also having its inaugural show with Ghanian artist El Anatsui, who employs youths to weave work with discarded liquor caps and fastenings to create tapestries selling for $1 million a piece.
Those looking for a break from the hustle of the fairs can seek refuge in another highrise. Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas has transformed vacant office space on the 17th floor of Soundwill Plaza II in Causeway Bay into a post-apocalyptic bunker-like bar complete with sandbags. In collaboration with Absolut Vodka it will feature themed concoctions including “2666: A Space Cocktail” and a beetroot drink served in a blood bag.
Art Basel is open to VIPs today by invitation and to the public May 15 through May 18. www.artbasel.com/en/Hong-Kong