No one ever said it would be easy to host an art fair in a place with an intricate network of Covid-related travel restrictions and quarantines.
For Art Basel Hong Kong, which will be held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center from Friday to Sunday, part of the solution consists of satellite booths or areas at the fair staffed by representatives from Hong Kong, for art dealers who cannot attend in person.
The concept returns this year, having debuted on the stock exchange last May. More than half of the approximately 130 dealers use satellite cabins.
“Hong Kong was the first in our group of shows to cancel in 2020, and it was also the first to come back,” said Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel. The fair currently has reruns in Basel, Switzerland and Miami Beach, adding a new event – called Paris+ – by Art Basel in October.
Mr. Spiegler attributes the satellite booth to the success of the Hong Kong show last year. But the art world still thrives on face-to-face interactions, and buyers are used to seeing dealers in person — often the gallery owners themselves. Mr. Spiegler wasn’t quite sure that people would flock to… an event so reliant on local surrogates.
“My logic was that, with physical trade shows happening again, a satellite booth might not be so attractive,” he said. But he noted that with satellite cabins going from 55 last year to 74 this week, the concern was unfounded.
“It’s not people’s favorite way to buy or sell art, but it’s been proven to be effective,” he said.
He mentioned the strength of the Asian market. “People are playing a long game,” he said. “Dealers have invested a lot of time and money to make the Hong Kong market work.”
Mr. Spiegler said he would not be at the convention center in person, but Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s director for Asia, planned to be there – after her quarantine.
“This time it’s seven days instead of three weeks,” Ms Ewe said in an email, referring to her hotel quarantine on her return to Hong Kong from a trip earlier this month. “It’s certainly not for everyone, but I’ve also come to appreciate this experience of self-isolation.”
She said the organizers had improved the experience for those unable to attend, especially regarding the virtual version of the fair.
“We’ve expanded and refreshed our virtual tours,” said Ms. Ewe, “and will be offering nine live walk-throughs this year spanning both the show floor and online viewing rooms, led by specialists in five different languages.”
Renowned collector Jens Faurschou, whose Faurschou Foundation has private museums in New York, Copenhagen and Beijing, has been an active patron of Art Basel Hong Kong in recent years.
“I got an absolute masterpiece there”, he recalls of Liu Wei’s large installation “Don’t Touch” (2011), which he bought from the Long March Space in Beijing. It is made of ox hide and is modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet, once the residence of the Dalai Lama.
He expressed typical collector’s opinion when he said he wasn’t thrilled about a virtual fair, but that he would at least check it out. “It’s almost impossible to travel to China,” he said, pointing out that he hasn’t been to his own museum in Beijing in over two years.
Mrs. Ooi acknowledges the challenges that still exist. “Our galleries in Shanghai, which are still in lockdown, have encountered significant difficulties in shipping works to Hong Kong,” said Ms Ooi.
One, Capsule Shanghai, came up with a solution: since the works for their satellite cabin were spread out, they were sent directly from cities that do not face the same constraints. “We’re trying to be faster than Covid,” gallery founder Enrico Polato said of the quick thinking it took.
Mr Polato was speaking on the phone from his home in Shanghai, located in the same complex as his gallery, where he was forced to be locked.
His presentation at the fair, ‘In Between’, features four artists: Cai Zebin, Gao Yuan, Liao Wen and Douglas Rieger.
Mr. Rieger is represented by “Cigarettes” (2021), a sculpture made of wood, foam for the cover, vinyl, steel, epoxy, magnets, iron shavings, rubber gaskets and paint.
“It’s about revealing traces of human gesture, both in painterly and sculptural form,” said Mr. Polato on the total selection. “The artists all work in the liminal space between reality and imagination.”
Another dealer using the satellite concept, Anat Ebgi of Los Angeles, said she had a great experience with it last year.
“They really come together for you,” she said of the organizers of the fair. “We’d rather be there, but we’ll participate in any way we can.”
Her booth will feature paintings by Los Angeles figurative painter Alec Egan, including ‘Fruit Bowl With Bird’ (2021).
“The work is all intertwined, like chapters in a story,” Ms. Ebgi said of Mr. Egan’s paintings.
Ms Ebgi said that although she had pre-sold some of the works to Asian collectors – “You have to have some assurance,” she said – the presence of her gallery on the floor of the convention center was valuable.
“I still think the exposure is good,” Ms Ebgi said. “I run a gallery in LA, and the proximity and vastness of the Asian market makes me want to invest more there.”
Chambers Fine Art, with locations in New York City and Salt Point, NY, is sharing a booth with a local dealer, Anna Ning Fine Art from Hong Kong.
“We didn’t do the show last year because there was too much uncertainty,” said Dan Chen, a partner at the gallery and its director. “But we thought we would take the plunge this year. We have collectors and friends in Hong Kong that we wanted to work with, and this is one way to do that.”
Chambers will showcase about half a dozen oils by Beijing-based painter Guo Hongwei, including “Laughing at This World No. 3” (2021-22). The works are part of a series initially inspired by videos that went viral on social media during China’s first Covid lockdown.
“They bring humor and frivolity to being locked up,” said Mr. chen.
Pascal de Sarthe, who founded his gallery in Paris in 1977 and moved to Hong Kong in 2010, has a local dealer’s view of the recent art scene there.
“We were all very anxious about getting started, but last year’s fair was great,” said Mr de Sarthe. “We saw an influx of local people that we’ve never seen before. Most of them had never bought art before.”
The Sarthe Gallery sold nearly 30 works during the 2021 fair, including a major installation that went to the K11 Art Foundation. While Mr de Sarthe will not be there – he has been traveling since December – his local staff will be.
The booth’s presentation, ‘Utopian Reality’, features work by Zhong Wei, Lin Jingjing and the artist known as Mak2.
“They all comment on reality versus non-reality,” said Mr De Sarthe.
Mak2’s “Home Sweet Home: Gang 1” (2022), from a series of triptychs that began in 2019, riffs on the video game The Sims. Each of the three panels is painted by a separate artist that Mak2 finds on the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, and the unpredictability of the result is part of the point.
“Most young people have a virtual and a real life, especially in Asia,” said Mr De Sarthe. “Everything is allowed in virtual life.”
Invoking internet culture may feel relevant as some people will only experience Art Basel Hong Kong online. The crowd at the convention center, like last year, will be more of the local Hong Kong crowd than usual.
“Nobody really knows what the new normal is,” said Mr. Spiegler on the international world tour that was once the standard mode of the art world.
Based on the Venice Biennale and other recent art fairs, “I don’t see a diminished appetite for travel,” he added. “I see a desire to make up for lost time.”