Art Basel Hong Kong 2024 first impressions: contemporary art fair, back at full scale, draws a diverse VIP crowd

“It is especially exciting that the client mix is truly international, including many museum directors and curators this year.”

Among the galleries reporting strong sales was Hauser & Wirth. It sold a US$3.5 million work by Mark Bradford and a US$1.1 million piece by Ed Clark, the latter to a foundation in mainland China, as well as nine other pieces.

However, some other galleries reported fewer confirmed sales on VIP day than in 2023. Among them was Karma, a US gallery representing emerging artists.

Tabula Rasa Gallery’s presentation of artist’s Lee Kai-chung’s Tree of Malevolence, a multimedia installation inspired by Hong Kong’s Cold War history, at Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo: Enid Tsui

More galleries were offering relatively affordable pieces. The booth of Waitingroom, from Tokyo, a first-timer exhibitor, showed liberating videos by Fuyuhiko Takata priced at around US$3,000 per edition.

It drew a steady steam of visitors and sold a number within a few hours.

Sales at Art Basel Hong Kong are a barometer of Asian demand for high-end art, and the fair is more closely watched this year than in other years because Hong Kong is defending its status as Asia’s biggest art market.

It suffered from keeping its borders closed far longer than neighbouring markets during the pandemic, while the passage of the National Security Law in 2020 and a new security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, has raised concerns about freedom of expression.

Catalina Swinburn’s No Land: The Water Ceremony (2024), one of the large pieces commissioned for Art Basel Hong Kong’s “Encounter” section. Photo: Enid Tsui

Claudia Chen, chairman of The Taiwan Art Gallery Association, said representatives from 80 galleries from the island were in Hong Kong this week.

The majority were not participating in Art Basel or its satellite fairs, but were monitoring the market’s potential, she said.

“Taiwanese galleries have tended to join art fairs in Shanghai and Beijing because they used to be cheaper,” she said.

“But recently, they are drawn to the idea of Hong Kong because of the scale of the fairs here and the lack of art taxes.” No taxes are levied on imports or sales of art in the city.

Cao Yu’s work I Just Don’t Want You to Live Better Than I Do (2021), shown by Galerie Urs Meile’ at the 2024 Art Basel Hong Kong fair. Photo: Enid Tsui

Part of fair’s appeal to Taiwanese galleries is the access to mainland Chinese collectors. “Last year, the number of mainland visitors doubled. There are even more this year,” Chen said.

Julia Li, gallery director for mainland China at De Sarthe Gallery, said sales were slow but there was more interest from mainland Chinese and South Korean collectors this year compared to 2023.

But Stacie Luo, an art adviser visiting from Shanghai, said economic woes had lowered Chinese collectors’ interest in Art Basel Hong Kong.

“Some of the big collectors I know have decided to skip the fair. It may be partly to do with the economy or they simply haven’t seen anything that appeals to them,” she said.

The World of Ken Kagami (2024) by Ken Kagami shown by Misako & Rosen at Art Basel Hong Kong 2024. Photo: Mabel Lui

In 2023, global art sales fell by 4 per cent and the three leading international auction houses saw total sales at their modern and contemporary art evening auctions in Hong Kong drop by 5.3 per cent, according to ArtTactic Market Analysis.

Some galleries have returned to the fair after a prolonged absence, including the Tehran-based Dastan Gallery.

Last in Hong Kong in 2018, the gallery is showing a solo presentation of sand works by the late artist Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, who is known as a pioneer of Iranian abstractionism.

What to know about Art Basel Hong Kong 2024 in its ‘first truly reopened year’

“We’re very happy to be here,” says Sam Roknivand, Dastan’s international exhibitions director. While the gallery had not made any sales as of 4pm on VIP day, he remained optimistic.

“We’re getting interest from different geographies – locals, Iranian, Americans, so we just have to wait,” he said.

There is no politically sensitive Chinese artwork on show. However, one dealer pointed out that there is much greater freedom to show at Art Basel than in mainland China. An explicit painting of a male nude by Chinese artist Wang Xingwei would not be allowed there, said Rene Meile at Galerie Urs Meile.

Home Sweet Home: Time and Space 1 (2023) by Mak2 shown by De Sarthe Gallery at Art Basel Hong Kong 2024. Photo: Mabel Lui

Fair organisers said they had not encountered any form of censorship in Hong Kong.

Sheikha Nawar Al Qassimi, vice-president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, who is in Hong Kong to sign a memorandum of understanding with the M+ museum of visual culture, said while the fair was important in bringing collectors and philanthropists to the city, art week in Hong Kong was more than selling art.

Hong Kong remains a city where the whole world congregates, she said.

“It is pretty amazing how many people are here. We are meeting people from Austria, for example, and a museum director from Mongolia. Everyone is networking here whether at the International Cultural Summit or at the fair,” she added, referring to a three-day gathering of global cultural sector figures that ended yesterday.

“Art Basel Hong Kong”, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai. Public access to the fair is from March 28-30.

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