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Published: 11:01, May 27, 2022 | Updated: 08:47, June 07, 2022
No looking back
By Chitralekha Basu
Published:11:01, May 27, 2022 Updated:08:47, June 07, 2022 By Chitralekha Basu

The desire to make art in a less-restricted, and more hopeful, creative space marks the return of Hong Kong’s major international art fairs this week, writes Chitralekha Basu.

Bing Lee’s Aluminum Honeycomb series at Art Central is inspired by ideas of home and traveling, and in particular the artist’s quarantine experiences in 2021. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

The 10th Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK), which opens to the public today, is probably its most public-facing edition to date. While this isn’t the first time the city’s flagship international art fair has featured freely accessible, off-site content, one of its 2022 highlights, Ellen Pau’s The Shape of Light, takes the idea of public art to a whole new level.

In this digital installation, a silhouetted figure is seen bringing the words “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness” — the central tenet from the seventh-century Buddhist text The Heart Sutra — to life through sign language on M+ museum’s 65-by-110-meter LED facade. The glow from the cloudburst of colors on screen is reflected against the Kowloon skyline, rippling out across the waters of the harbor. Visible from anywhere on the north coast of Hong Kong Island, The Shape of Light draws attention to the illusory, and ephemeral, nature of our material existence. Apotheosized in a work of digital art, this piece of ancient wisdom serves as a perfect counterpoint to the mighty International Commerce Centre tower standing next to it. 

A co-commission by ABHK and M+, the site-specific work is Pau’s gift to Hong Kong as the city tries to shake off two and a half years of pandemic fatigue. “I hope my version of The Heart Sutra helps ease pain and suffering. I hope it can turn on the light of wisdom for the city to move past difficult times,” the artist says.

In San Syu Wat Leot Are Not Here, Louis To Wun fuses the aesthetics of traditional Chinese folk culture with the geometrical abstraction favored by European modernist masters like Picasso to produce a fantastical cosmic creature. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Ellen Pau’s The Shape of Light on the M+ museum facade connects a seventh-century Buddhist scripture to the energies of Hong Kong. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Eye on Hong Kong

On that journey, Hong Kong seems to have the support of the world’s art fraternity. This week, pretty much anyone in the business of art will have their eyes on the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre — a venue ABHK shares with Art Central, the city’s other major international art fair, with a focus on nurturing and promoting new and upcoming artists from the region. Both events run simultaneously, until May 29. Art Central features over 50 galleries. ABHK has lined up 130 galleries from around the world, with 75 satellite booths where gallery reps and artists based outside Hong Kong will be available to interact with visitors in real time. Art Basel Live, a multichannel digital platform broadcasting fresh, curated content every day ensures universal virtual access to the fair.

Tom Friedman’s 10-meter-tall aluminum-foil figure Looking Up prompts visitors at Art Basel Hong Kong to do the same. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Though the seven-day hotel-quarantine requirement for entry to Hong Kong remains a major deterrent to overseas participants, a few committed souls seem ready to endure the hassle. Hong Kong artist Bing Lee, for example, came all the way from New York to put the finishing touches on a mural at Art Central. Lee’s drawings in his Aluminum Honeycomb series are a homage to the dots and dashes of Morse code. A continuation of his “PictoDiary” project, which has to do with developing a visual vocabulary, the series was created during a 14-day quarantine stay in Hong Kong in 2021. Its unadorned, cartoon-like drawings capture the artist’s musings on travel and isolation in the time of COVID-19. 

“Audience members are invited to download an app called MMITA to embark on an augmented reality (AR) journey for a more-intimate experience,” informs Agnes Wu, gallery operations manager of Soluna Fine Art, which represents the artist.

In Afa Annfa’s Yi Tai booth at Art Central, the artist presents a street-front laundromat in Hong Kong. Within the drums, surreal drawings show several tiny young girls traveling across space and time through mysterious circular portals. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Size matters

Following relatively low-key outings last year, both ABHK and Art Central seem ready to make a splash with large-scale installations. The trend might partly reflect the urge to leave behind two years of pandemic-related stress and create art unhindered by the constraints of space or imagination. 

A good example of post-pandemic aspirations for a less-restricted, and more hopeful, creative space is Tom Friedman’s Looking Up — a 33-foot-high (10-meter-high) sculpture of a man looking skywards. His reedy thinness, rippled aluminum-foil body and disarmingly guileless expression draw our sympathy, while the figure’s extraordinary height, or elongation, accentuates his vulnerability. 

Friedman points out that some of the words printed on the material (upcycled from ovens) — like “Support the bottom” — are still visible on his sculpture. “I see this as a request to be empathetic to the vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the needy,” he says.

Movana Chen’s wearable sculpture, Dreconstructing, was produced by knitting together strips of old magazines. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Brought to ABHK by Lehmann Maupin, Looking Up is complemented by an AR experience in which the sculpture comes to life and can be seen standing at iconic sites in Hong Kong (Times Square, Harbour City), Seoul and New York.

“It’s a joy to be able to present more monumental works in the show,” says Art Basel’s Asia director, Adeline Ooi. She particularly recommends Hanart TZ Gallery’s 40-channel interactive speaker system installation sounding the heartbeat of its creator, the local multidisciplinary artist GayBird; and Taiwan’s Hsu Yung-hsu’s stoneware installation, 2021-3, presented by Liang Gallery. “It looks deceptively simple,” Ooi says of the textured layers of ceramic that rise and intersect with each other like trellised plants in Hsu’s piece. “But the process of creating it with clay is painstaking and demanding.”

Taiwan-based artist Hsu Yung-hsu’s painstakingly created stoneware installation, 2021-3. All three works are on display at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Curiouser and curiouser

Art Central has a long-term program dedicated to showcasing large-scale installations; its current edition features six such exhibits. These have been grouped under the Art Central category Yi Tai — a Chinese term the fair’s curatorial adviser, Qu Chang explains as “something out of the ordinary, unusual or surprising”. 

On the face of it, the works could not be more dissimilar. Hong Kong artist Afa Annfa (JPS Gallery) has conjured up a laundromat setting using cardboard facades of washing machines. Their circular doors are like portals displaying painted images of doe-eyed little girls reminiscent of children’s storybook illustrations. The characters are shown longing to return home — a nod to Hong Kong people stuck in other countries on account of COVID-19-related flight bans. Batten and Kamp (Jeeum Gallery), meanwhile, have created a fictional landscape in which shapes made of granite, aluminum, glass, cement and plastic take on biomorphic characteristics. 

GayBird’s 40-channel interactive speaker system installation plays the heartbeat of the artist at the Hanart TZ Gallery booth. (CALVIN NG AND BILLY WONG / CHINA DAILY)

Louis To Wun’s (CWC Art Gallery) bamboo and colored-rice-paper sculpture, San Syu Wat Leot Are Not Here, is a fantastical mythical creature. Treated to further increase its malleability, in To’s hands the bamboo lends itself to shapes that recall the abstract geometric, and often lighthearted, images of Picasso and Paul Klee.

“I was influenced by cubism, notably the deconstruction of figures, multiple planes and views from several angles,” says the artist. “The three dimensionality and abstraction in my work are inspired by George Condo. I also follow the principles of the I Ching (the Chinese divination manual and book of wisdom dating back to 1,000-750 BC), and fluidity of tai chi, in my works.”

ABHK regular Movana Chen’s practice involves cutting up old magazines into strips and knitting them into wearable sculptures. For ABHK 2022, Chen (Flower Gallery) has knit together some of her earlier works, previously exhibited in Sydney, Seoul and Singapore. “The magazines create a dialogue between different visual languages as well as a new way to view different cultures, allowing the audience to look at things sideways,” says Chen.  

It’s one of the many ways in which Hong Kong’s connection to the wider art world is being reaffirmed this week.

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