I am discovering a vibrant art scene in Hong Kong. I always knew it was there because the Soho area is choc-a-bloc of galleries managing to stay alive selling art even though the rent there must be crazy. It’s lovely to walk by the galleries and peer inside the shop window at the larger canvases, sort of like walking by Chloe or Celine or Louis Vuitton but only more worthy.
However, most of this art is not Hong Kong art. It’s Chinese or Vietnamese, even Thai. But mainly from the mainland, where they work with themes and in styles that have proven to sell well in international auction. There are even cases of paintings done cheaply in the mainland in almost assembly line fashion being sold as original creations. There is nothing intrinsicly wrong with buying these paintings, except if the gallery owners are passing off imitation work as originals and charging comcomittant prices – in fact, it may be a good entry point for novices like me.
But as one Hong Kong artist pointed out, the greater body of this work is not pushing any boundaries. Hong Kong art, on the other hand, lacks political themes focussing instead on the tribulations of the individual in the urban space and often doing so in a highly experimental mode. This might not be attractive to collectors but is, at the end of the day, the point of art. To see before the rest of us see, and to see in a new way.
On Saturday, we went to Fo Tan, an industrial area where a number of Hong Kong artists have set up studios, simply because everywhere else is too expensive. In fact, Fo Tan is also becoming too expensive and a haven for more established artists; young upstarts have to find somewhere cheaper. On two weekends every year, the artists in Fo Tan – and there are a lot of them there now, not something you would imagine as you look up at the decrepit industrial building or step past packing boxes and odd bits of meat strewn on the floor (the meatpacking district) – open their studios to the public.
We started at the top and worked our way down, encountering the strange, the kooky and occassionally the sublime along the way. Mostly, it was a pleasure to just look, to be amused by the more outrageous attempts at humour and to meet some of the artists and talk to them about their work. Maybe, one day, I will buy even though I’m not sure if Hong Kong art is a great investment.
Surprisingly, by early evening, the place was packed. I’m constantly amazed at the kind of crowd these offbeat events draw. For example, the annual book exhibition draws the entire population. But art? Who are all these people? Would that many young people go out and giggle over sculpture if a similar event was organized in Bombay?
At one point, there was a guy with a trenchcoat, plackards and a loudspeaker shouting something in Catonese. Around him the crowd was laughing but we didn’t know why. Then we noticed that his banner and plackard were empty. He turned to us and said: “we’re protesting against nothing”. Ha!