As Art Central and Art Basel descend upon Hong Kong next week, will it become Asia’s arts hub?

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The ‘Umbrella Man’ statue, shown here at a pro-democracy protest site in Hong Kong in October, is one example of locally produced art inspired by the city’s civic unrest.

Wall Street Journal (by Wei Gu): 

Once ridiculed as a cultural desert, Hong Kong is now a major destination on the global art circuit.

Next week alone the city will see two art fairs: A new fair, Art Central, debuts March 14-16, while Art Basel Hong Kong, the most important annual art event in Asia, will open March 13, featuring more than 230 galleries from 37 countries.

Buying and selling art fits perfectly with the city’s history as a trading center. But Hong Kong’s local art scene—the one in which local people actually make and enjoy art—has been slower to develop. The Occupy Central protests that paralyzed parts of the city for nearly three months last fall has given Hong Kong a creative boost.

The protests resulted in a number of dramatic images, including umbrellas that protesters used to fend off police pepper spray and the iconic 10-foot “Umbrella Man” sculpture. Before police dismantled the protest sites in December, there was a major effort to preserve the art that had been created.

Hong Kong Arts Center director Connie Lam says social tension is a nutrient for art making. Cosmin Costinas, executive director and curator of Para Site, a nonprofit art space in Hong Kong run by independent artists, agrees. “An active civil society with different ideas is a much more interesting place for diverse art to develop than a closed society where the king decides he wants to build a museum,” said Mr. Costinas.

The burst of creativity could transform Hong Kong from an art marketplace to an arts center akin to New York or Paris. Cities like these have thriving artists’ communities, famous museums, respected art schools and a wide range of galleries. Until recently the art scene in Hong Kong was dominated by high-end auctions and top international galleries, but that is changing with a new art museum under construction and a wave of new galleries.

Hong Kong is now the world’s third-largest art market by auction sales. The total number of galleries in the city has grown from about 10 before 2000 to more than 90 now, according to Hong Kong Art Galleries Association. Western dealers such as Gagosian, White Cube, and Ben Brown Fine Arts have opened galleries in Hong Kong in recent years.

People don’t pay taxes on art in the city, which gives it a huge advantage over nearly every other Asian city. Despite Hong Kong’s notoriously high rent and small spaces, selling paintings can be very profitable. Lehmann Maupin, a New York-based gallery, expected its Hong Kong gallery in the Central business district to break even in two years. It was profitable in the first year, said founder Rachel Lehmann.

Hong Kong has been recognized as the international Asian art hub,” said Adeline Ooi, Asia director for Art Basel. “Ten years ago it wasn’t the case, now it is very pronounced.”

Meanwhile, local interest in art has lagged behind. When Spring Workshop exhibited a work by top Chinese filmmaker Yang Fudong a few years ago, it had a hard time attracting visitors. The nonprofit art organization sent young women with hot chocolate into the street to bring in visitors, but they still couldn’t convince people to come see the art.

I am glad that we don’t have that problem anymore, it still makes me cry that we have these beautiful artworks but people don’t want to come to see,” said Ms. Brown, founder of Spring Workshop, located in Wong Chuk Hang, a former industrial town in Hong Kong. The gallery now regularly brings in 800 people a day for its shows.

One of the most memorable visitors, Ms. Brown recalls, was a 60-year old lady who showed up on a Tuesday with two friends wearing backpacks and sneakers. The woman said she had been reading about contemporary art and came to check out the arts space with her fellow retirees. Since then she has returned for several events. “Hong Kong is now ready for a lot more deeper engagement with culture,” said Ms. Brown.

The city has many students studying music and art—some schools even require students to play two musical instruments—but people treat art as something that isn’t accessible by ordinary people. Parents rarely take their children to museums—partly because hasn’t been much to see. M+, the visual-arts museum scheduled for completion in 2018 in the West Kowloon district, should help by giving the city a world-class exhibition space with an important collection.

As the global collecting world descends on Hong Kong next week, bringing with it art valued from hundreds to millions of dollars, it will give residents lots to be inspired by. Two local arts communities will hold their own events to draw in the visitors.

There is at least one show dedicated to the Occupy movement. Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong-born artist, will exhibit photographs in a show called Art of the Protest. For visitors who look closely at the city’s overpasses and sidewalks, stenciled images of umbrellas can still be spotted, the last remnants of the art created during the protests.

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A visitor looked at an art installation at last year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong’s freedom is not a threat to China. It’s a model.

 

The Global Mail:

 

When Britain transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the two countries agreed that the former colony would be governed according to the principle of “one country, two systems.”

For the people of Hong Kong, the emphasis has been on the “two systems” side of the equation – allowing residents of the territory to continue to enjoy things that are not permitted on the mainland: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law by an independent judiciary, and a large measure of self-government.

Beijing, however, has recently been placing increasing emphasis on “one country” – leaving many Hong Kongers wondering if the institutions that made Hong Kong so free and so wealthy are in danger.

Beijing’s fear has long been that “outside forces” – human rights activists, democracy backers, Western governments, Chinese dissidents – hope to use Hong Kong to undermine China’s one-party Communist system.

Beijing is right to worry: Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, proves that democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law are not foreign, Western ideas, incompatible with China or the Chinese people. On the contrary, Hong Kong and Taiwan are both more prosperous and more free than the mainland. The Hong Kong example is a powerful argument against the Beijing system, and a threat to it.

This week, China’s State Council issued a white paper on the future of “one country, two systems.” The point of the exercise seems to be to remind Hong Kongers that Beijing is the boss, and that the rights they enjoy are really privileges, given by the Communist government but not necessarily guaranteed.

For example, the white paper recognizes that Hong Kong enjoys “a high degree of autonomy,” but “this is subject to the central leadership’s authorization.” It states that “loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators,” and it lists “judges” as among those administrators.

The Hong Kong Bar Association fears that this is part of an attempt by Beijing to gradually turn an independent judiciary into what it is in China, namely a servile arm of the state.

The ‘one country’ is the premise and basis of the ‘two systems,’” says the paper, “and is subordinate to and derived from ‘one country.’” Or as a headling in the South China Morning Post put it: “Beijing emphasises its total control over HK.”

All of this comes amidst a major pro-democracy protest taking place in Hong Kong, known as Occupy Central. Peaceful protest is largely forbidden in China, but it is perfectly legal in Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, 180,000 took to the streets to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. To mention the anniversary in China is not allowed; to protest it would land you in prison.

The Occupy movement is about maintaining those unique Hong Kong freedoms, and expanding a managed democracy into a full democracy. On June 22, Occupy plans to hold an unofficial referendum, asking citizens to choose among several possible systems of democratic reform.

Right now, for example, the legislative council of Hong Kong consists half of members directly elected by voters in districts and half of representatives of “functional constituencies,” which include about 2,300 voters from business and professional bodies.

The chief executive of Hong Kong is elected by a committee of 1,200 people, most of them from the functional constituencies. The chief executive, in particular, has to be acceptable to Beijing. Democracy protesters want to get rid of this managed half-democracy and move to universal suffrage.

Beijing has said it is open to allowing universal suffrage at the time of the next elections, in 2017, but the suspicion is that it will control the list of candidates, effectively turning the vote into a sham. This week’s white paper says, among other things, that China will not allow an “unpatriotic” leader to govern Hong Kong.

The move to real democracy is critical to the advancement of a postcolonial city that bridges mainland China and the rest of the world, and to its stability as a major financial centre. It is also supposed to be the “ultimate aim” of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which went into effect in 1997 and serves as the city and region’s constitution. The people of Hong Kong are only asking for what was promised to them.

An abrupt change in the city’s economic or political freedom could have serious global impacts. Canada alone has as many as 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong. The international community has a huge stake in the next three years of Hong Kong history, and needs to pay close attention. Because the future of Hong Kong – will freedom and democracy be allowed to flourish? – is the future of China.

 

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Hong Kong’s freedom is not a threat to China. It’s a model.