A New Art Fair Opens in Hong Kong Amid Protests and COVID-19 Precautions
Chou Yu-Cheng, installation view in Edouard Malingue Gallery’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
The past few months have been rough for galleries of all sizes, all around the world. In Hong Kong, it is not only a viral pandemic that has slashed art sales; there’s also popular unrest and sociopolitical uncertainty, now in part stemming from security legislation that may chip away at freedoms of expression in the city.
With international art fairs canceled and collectors’ budgets pared down, what are gallerists to do? The answer, at least here in Hong Kong, has been to band together and hold a boutique fair of their own in a former police station—just as protests against police brutality go global.
“Because of travel restrictions, people are looking more closely at what they have in their own city,” Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA) co-president Fabio Rossi told me at Unscheduled, a mini art fair involving 12 local galleries, each mounting a solo presentation (and continuing through June 27th).
Mak Ying Tung 2, installation view of “Home Sweet Home” series in de Sarthe Gallery’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Unscheduled is the consequence of Hong Kong losing its unofficial “art month”—a spatter of events that take place every March. Shortly after Art Basel canceled its fair in Hong Kong, representatives from the art and heritage center Tai Kwun approached HKAGA about formulating a plan to support the city’s commercial galleries and art community.
With the site sorted—Tai Kwun offered up space in its former police headquarters for the fair—Rossi enlisted HKAGA vice president Willem Molesworth to lead Unscheduled’s organizing committee, as well as curators and artists Ying Kwok and Sara Wong to select the galleries that would take part in the fair. Split across two floors, the booths are connected by arched portals that lead into one another, eschewing the gridded pathways that define most fairs’ floorplans. Tickets are priced at an affordable HK$80 (about US$10), with all proceeds going to the 12 galleries and local charityHandsOn Hong Kong, which assists vulnerable communities that have been impacted by the pandemic.
Irene Chou, installation view in Hanart TZ Gallery’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
All 12 solo presentations feature artists who have a connection to Asia. De Sarthe Gallery’s booth is showcasing Mak Ying Tung 2’s “Home Sweet Home” series of acrylic paintings and colored-pencil triptychs, where she stages whimsical arrangements in The Sims and commissions the production of each panel from a different artist through Taobao (a popular Chinese e-commerce marketplace), resulting in mismatched colors and disjointed scenes. Molesworth, who is a director at de Sarthe gallery, said nearly all works in the booth were sold within the first two days of Unscheduled, with fresh ones mounted on Friday morning. He added that some paintings from the same series that haven’t been produced yet have been pre-sold to collectors.
Hanart TZ Gallery is showing paintings by the late Irene Chou (1924–2011), an influential figure within Hong Kong’s New Ink Painting movement that took root in the early 1970s, and whose retrospective of introspective, metaphysical ink paintings took place at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center from last September to early this year. Priced between HK$10,000 and HK$350,000 (US$1,290–US$45,200), from postcard-size to about three feet long, most of Chou’s works were sold during the fair’s preview.
Frog King Kwok, installation view in 10 Chancery Lane’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Over at 10 Chancery Lane’s booth, conceptual and performance artist Frog King Kwok—who, like Chou, was mentored by the ink painter Lui Shou-Kwan (1919–1975)—kept the energy up by doling out copies of his signature frog face stapled to medical masks, as well as copies of his own calligraphic works that were inspired by Unscheduled. In return, you’d have to participate in a one-second performance—hold up a prop and have your photo taken with the artist. In the first two days of Unscheduled, three of Kwok’s paintings in the range of HK$120,000 to HK$150,000 (about US$15,480–US$19,350) were placed on reserve.
Rossi & Rossi is showing works by Singaporean artist Heman Chong, including a wall of his paintings that are reimagined covers for books by Mark Z. Danielewski, Philip K. Dick, Olaf Stapledon, Michael Crichton, and others.
Heman Chong, installation view in Rossi & Rossi’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
The gallery Contemporary by Angela Li brought roughly textured paintings of flowers and wine bottles by Ng Chung, who has resided in the Hong Kong nightlife haunt Lan Kwai Fong for more than two decades. The gallery’s founder said it generated US$25,000 in sales during the preview, and that Ng’s latest work, Flamboyance (2020), was snatched up within the first hours of the fair.
Whitestone Gallery’s booth is showcasing oils by Etsu Egami, whose heavy strokes render moments of miscommunication or crossed signals. The gallery priced these paintings between HK$11,000 and HK$66,000 (about US$1,420–US$8,515), and sold 80 percent of them before Unscheduled even opened.
The fair’s other participants include Edouard Malingue, which is showing Taiwanese conceptual artist Chou Yu-Cheng’s muted, minimal acrylic paintings on canvas and fiberglass. Leo Gallery brought Duan Yifan’s works of lacquer paint and mixed media on board. Ben Brown Fine Arts has a selection of abstract photographs by Kitty Chou. Over the Influence is showing photographs of Liu Bolin’s camouflaged performances. Galerie Ora-Ora is offering Huang Dan’s dreamy ink paintings. And L+ / Lucie Chang Fine Arts is featuring Aruta Soup’s cartoonish paintings that double as social commentary.
Etsu Egami, installation view in Whitestone Gallery’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
As COVID-19 spread earlier in the year, many of Hong Kong’s organizations and businesses, including art galleries and cultural spaces, closed temporarily on their own accord. The city’s two annual art fairs, Art Basel in Hong Kong and Art Central, which normally run at the same time, were called off and replaced by online-only affairs. Now, everything has reopened, with some adjustments to new conditions. Oftentimes, masks and body temperature checks are required for entry. Tai Kwun’s security guards are turning away anyone who isn’t wearing a mask, and ticket-holders for Unscheduled have their temperatures checked before entering the event space.
After countless Zoom panels, online sales pitches, and Skype-based studio visits, Unscheduled has been more than a lifeline. It’s a chance for Hong Kong’s art community to get back into the swing of things, for conversations, interactions, and maybe even some commerce to take place—in person—around art.
Duan Yifan, installation view in Leo Gallery’s booth at Unscheduled, 2020. © HKAGA. Photo by Felix SC Wong. Courtesy of Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
Molesworth told me the turnout for Unscheduled had met his expectations. Online ticket sales went well; there were 431 visitors on Saturday, and another 230 on Sunday. Will Unscheduled have a follow-up in the near future? The organizers aren’t sure. In any case, the event’s format—part boutique art fair, part exhibition, and just the right size so that visitors could criss-cross through its latticed layout in any direction without losing track of where they are—is a comfortable, easy affair.
This was the first time for the team behind Unscheduled to organize a fair of their own, and feedback from the 12 galleries was universally positive. Hanart TZ director Arman Lam called the event “a relief” for Hong Kong’s art community. More than that, it was the first event of its kind since the COVID-19 outbreak became a global pandemic, and it might be a blueprint for galleries and institutions in other art hubs around the world when, hopefully, the curve gets squashed.