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Friday, May 01, 2020, 12:13
A show in the cloud
By Mike Lau
Friday, May 01, 2020, 12:13 By Mike Lau

While COVID-19 has ruled out a live audience, artists around the world are making good use of the gifts of technology to reach people at home. In the first of a series of essays on how the creative industries are coping with the exigencies of a global health crisis and creating new works, Mike Lau turns the spotlight on HK’s world of visual art.  

Asia Art Archive recently launched the Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou) collection, featuring over 2,000 exhibits. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Hong Kong government has extended the temporary closure of cultural venues to contain the spread of COVID-19 until May 7. Most privately-run art spaces remain closed as well. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the art galleries, auction houses, art fair organizers, non-profit art support groups, and other components of Hong Kong’s vibrant art eco-system are sitting idle in the absence of a live audience. Like elsewhere in the world, much of the activity on the Hong Kong art scene is now taking place in the virtual space.  

Hong Kong’s 3812 Gallery held its first online panel on April 10, drawing nearly 8,000 art lovers who logged in via the online video conferencing app Zoom or Zai Art — China’s leading social network for art review. Participants included ink artist Raymond Fung, 3812 Gallery co-founder and chairman, Calvin Hui, and Katie Hill, program director, MA Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, joining in from London.

Katie Hill of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, noted how Raymond Fung’s works paid homage to 1,000 years of Chinese art, in an online discussion. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

During the webinar, Fung went over the highlights from his 40-year career. His presentation was illustrated by landscapes painted in his native Sai Kung, sculptures resembling paper boats, and perhaps his most famous piece — a 2-kilometer-long installation in West Kowloon Cultural District’s waterfront promenade. 

Also on show was Fung’s installation, A Dialogue with Wu Guanzhong, currently covering a window on the first floor of Hong Kong Museum of Art. Roof tiles from the original structure of the museum which has since undergone a massive overhaul have been used to create figures of flying seabirds, set off against the natural backdrop of the Victoria Harbour. Fung said the piece represents a request to the Hong Kong government to avoid over-development. “My statement is very clear, build less for more, to preserve natural beauty,” he said.

READ MORE: The fair comes home

Hill noted how Fung’s works were like a homage to over 1,000 years of Chinese ink art. “There are things like bright splashes of colour which not only remind me of works from the Tang Dynasty (608—907 CE), but also some of the modern masters.” She asked Fung about his preference for multiple panels in a single piece. The artist explained that the format suited the wide, horizontal expanse of the landscapes he drew.  

A video of Hong Kong-based British artist Hugh Moss creating watercolor and ink paintings in his studio can be viewed on the Art Power HK website. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Value of art

Judy Inn, director of Art Next Expo, a platform to promote works by upcoming artists, says, “The online alternative is a welcome one. Compared to banks and retail, the art community hasn’t been the most proactive (when it comes to using technology). But the trend is changing, largely because of social media. With more people involved in putting things and curating exhibitions online, more people will be accustomed to viewing art online.”

Inn cites the example of the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both have allowed free access to their digitized collections and offered online tours, including 360-degree viewing facilities. She notes that people are demonstrating greater appreciation for artists on social media these days, many wondering how they would get through their days of being stuck at home without music, books or movies. “I think it’s a very good reflection on the value artists have in our lives,” says Inn. 

A recent webinar on ink art, hosted by 3812 Galllery co-owner Calvin Hui, drew a wide array of audiences from around the world. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hui of 3812 Gallery agrees that exposure to art could significantly help lift one’s spirits in these depressing times. “Art can inspire people, heal one’s emotions, enable viewers to experience and reflect on their feelings,” he says. 

However, artist and the Chinese University of Hong Kong lecturer Chung Tai-fu, is not too sure as to whether the pleasure of watching art online could translate into major sales. Inn says while the art market might not receive an immediate financial boost as a result of increasing online viewing, online galleries will continue to co-exist with their physical counterparts. “I don’t see it like one thing replacing the other, but I think it’s (online art trading) definitely getting more important as a sales, marketing or customer service channel.”

Images and text from Para Site’s current exhibition Koloa: Women, Art and Technology are available to view online. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

According to the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report, the online art market reached an estimated value of $6 billion in 2018–19 — up 11 percent year-on-year and accounting for 9 percent of global art sales.

However, it will be a while before online viewing of art can give serious competition to the physical experience. As Inn says, “However advanced the online experience becomes, technology cannot beat the physical experience of looking at a piece of work or having a chance to talk to a curator or the artist.” 

Chung says the traditional way of viewing art in a gallery in the presence of experts is necessary for developing a deeper understanding of art. “If you don’t know what art is, then you do not know how to appreciate a work of art and then it won’t affect you,” he says.

Raymond Fung’s most recent work, Breathing, is an expression of his concerns regarding natural disasters and epidemics putting humanity at risk. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Inspired by the crisis

At the 3812 webinar, Fung disclosed he had remained creative during the difficult period of coping with COVID-19 and even found inspiration in the crisis. In his recent piece, Breathing, Fung used ink to create a three-dimensional effect — a throwback to his earlier works exploring the coexistence between all living species on earth. “The color pigments are breathing on the paper to create a continuous technical quality,” he said at the online conference. “It addresses imminent breathing problems in our universe such as water contamination, devastating bush fires in Australia, America and Brazil’s Amazon, as well as the current pandemic crisis.”

Ink artist Raymond Fung shared the highlights of his 40-year career through a 3812 Gallery-hosted webinar recently. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

3812 Gallery has been encouraging its artists, including Fung and Wang Huangsheng, to exhibit studio diaries chronicling the days of the coronavirus pandemic. Hui says, “Current social issues may inspire and trigger artists to think, examine and question, and to reveal (their thoughts with) honesty.” Huangsheng’s new series, Diary of an Epidemic, has vividly expressed the “struggle, fragility and trauma” of the ongoing health crisis by filling the canvas with red and black ink, gauze, glass and barbed wire. “In the face of the virus outbreak at this time, I witnessed the impermanence and resilience of humanity, the helplessness and determination of common people, and the resistance and devotion of many righteous and selfless souls,” says Huangsheng. 

Artist Wang Huangsheng’s recent works are a reflection of scarred humanity at the time of a pandemic. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Now showing

Currently, 3812 Gallery’s Hong Kong venue is allowing visitors by appointment. Many past exhibitions, such as a retrospective show of the works by the leading post-war abstract artist Hsiao Chin can be viewed on the gallery website. 

Non-profit art support group Para Site’s current exhibition Koloa: Women, Art and Technology explores Togan art practices such as weaving traditional textiles used for ceremonial mats and clothing. Viewings can be arranged by appointment. Recordings of recent webinars, such as director Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero looking back on A Journal of the Plague Year — an exhibition they had put on in 2013 which is now of topical interest — are available for viewing on Para Site’s website. 

Asia Society Hong Kong Center remains closed as well, but continues to put a slew of events online through webcasts. The film Unsung Heroes of Ink, a documentary on paper-making inspired by ink painting practiced in China’s Anhui Province, was on show recently, followed by a discussion with its director Olivia Wang. 

M+ Pavilion in West Kowloon Cultural district remains closed until further notice, but the over 5,000 exhibits — spanning design and architecture, moving image and visual art — in M+ Collections Beta are accessible online. The archivists of the upcoming M+ museum hope to make the institute’s enormous collection accessible online through a process of constant cataloguing, photographing and researching. 

M+ museum has a tradition of exhibiting selected items from its enormous collection online. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Asia Art Archive’s new Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou) collection contains over 2,000 pieces of art, photos and other personal items collected from six contemporary artists from China’s Gansu province. This project aims to familiarize people with the province’s little-known art scene, covering a period from the early 1970s to 2016. 

Art Power HK was launched by several stakeholders of Hong Kong’s art world in March, when Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 was scrapped. The idea, primarily, is to build a bridge between art and its audience in the virtual space. The website hosts videos of current exhibitions and live panels featuring local artists and art experts via Zoom. Recent additions include a review of [Re-]Fabrication, a book documenting the key performances of Hong Kong visual artist Choi Yan-chi; and a video which showcases works by the expatriate artist Hugh Moss, who follows the classical ink and brush style in his paintings with a uniquely Western slant.

Asia Art Archive has augmented its online content since COVID-19 caused people to spend more time indoors. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Among the most recently-launched efforts to engage audiences confined to their homes is the digital showcase, Taipei Connections, an offshoot of the Taipei Dangdai art fair, founded by Hong Kong’s Magnus Renfrew. This online event will see the participation of a diverse mix of galleries, and features richly contextualized artworks that add a contemporary twist to traditional Asian themes. Visitors can look forward to live guided presentations, online discussions and virtual studio visits, led by Taipei Dangdei co-director Robin Peckham, from May 2 to 5.


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