Illustrations by DENISE NESTOR

Lars Nittve

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I am more and more convinced: the best metaphor for describing Hong Kong’s unique character is limbo. Then it is a matter of mood or ideology whether you want to use the word in a Catholic sense—
as a no-man’s-land between Heaven and Hell—or prefer to think of the lustful dance of the Caribbean. Hong Kong is in-between, like a constitutional and cultural version of Alain Robert, the “human Spider-Man” who scales the empty spaces outside high, shiny edifices. It is between East and West; one party rule and democracy; state capitalism and the “purest” of market economies—only toes and fingertips use the walls for support, but dependence on this support is absolute. The cultural ecology in such a place is precarious and easy to destabilize. And that destabilization is happening now. 

Just a few years ago, Hong Kong’s art world was considered a sleepy backwater, mostly under the radar, even to its own citizens. Of course, tiny nonprofit Para/Site made some noise, not least by bringing artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner to town, while Asia Art Archive appeared with ever-increasing frequency on the computer screens of the art world. And, thanks to Hong Kong’s emerging participation in the Venice Biennale, artists such as Stanley Wong, Pak Sheung Chuen and Leung Chi Wo all gained a presence outside the local scene. But still, a couple of years ago when I was asked by one of Hong Kong’s legislators if the region had any artists “of stature,” I had to answer, frankly, “not really.” This was not to say that Hong Kong didn’t have great artists. On the contrary, it had, and still has, lots of them. 

But then it all started to happen. Art HK, Hong Kong’s art fair, almost doubled in size from year to year, quickly becoming the undisputed leader in its field in Asia, as confirmed by its acquisition in 2011 by Art Basel. The auction houses followed a similar path, and pushed the envelope by opening their own gallery spaces. And of course there has been the burgeoning commercial gallery scene, with Gagosian, White Cube, Galerie Perrotin, Lehmann Maupin and others arriving from New York, London and Paris, and mainland galleries such as Platform China and Pearl Lam also opening spaces. This in turn has encouraged local stalwarts Osage, 10 Chancery Lane and Hanart TZ, among others, to up their game, and emboldened energetic newcomers such as Saamlung to start up.

The winners in this story are not just art-starved audiences in Hong Kong, who for the first time have a chance to see, for example, Cy Twombly’s last paintings or a core group of works by Sherrie Levine, but also Hong Kong’s artists. Honestly, I didn’t expect Pearl Lam to be the gallerist to mount the most uncompromising and hardcore exhibition of the season. But she did it with Tsang Kin-Wah’s “Ecce Homo Trilogy I.” This haunting meditation on the rituals of judgment, built around archival video footage of the trial, execution and burial of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, was staged with razor-sharp precision in spaces that had been reconfigured for optimum resonance. Uncompromising, demanding, intelligent. Just like the best of Hong Kong art—now presented in a way it deserves.

I think it is also fair to say that the first two exhibitions produced by my own fledging institution, M+, under the title “Mobile M+,” have helped forge new ground, presenting newly commissioned works by 12 Hong Kong artists in found locations at the heart of bustling Kowloon. Never before have opportunities like this been available to Hong Kong artists—or their audiences.

The event that perhaps most shook up the sensitive, long-untouched ecology of Hong Kong’s art system, at least conceptually, was the extraordinary news this year that the Swiss collector Uli Sigg would donate his celebrated collection of Chinese contemporary art to M+, more than five years before the scheduled opening of the museum building. Included were almost 1,500 major works dating from 1990 to 2012, supplemented with an acquisition of 47 key works from 1979 to 1989. In one go, M+ became a conceptual reality with international status, and Hong Kong was established as the center of the collecting, historicizing and public display of Chinese contemporary art.

But at this point, the precariousness of Hong Kong’s limbo position became more evident, mainly, perhaps, in the theological sense of the word—it sits between Heaven and Hell. Conservative players entrenched in the cultural landscape seemed to form an unholy alliance with Hong Kong activists critical of mainland politics, many of them seemingly encouraged by a climate less tolerant to people from “outside,” be they mainland Chinese, Westerners or domestic helpers from Southeast Asia. So while the rest of the world celebrated the extraordinary donation from Dr. Sigg as an act of absolute historical significance, astonished visitors could hear Hong Kong artists wording slogans such as “Hong Kong money to Hong Kong artists” and “Hong Kong museums to Hong Kong artists.”

So, as Hong Kong, this amazing place created by refugees from war and poverty, famously open and international and with a freedom of expression unique in the region, continues toward fulfilling its promise as Asia’s global hub—not least from a cultural perspective—less open-minded sentiments are putting the amazing developments of recent years at risk. Let’s hope that the limbo we will see in the coming years is not that of the Catholics, but one accompanied by steel drums and calypso. Or at least something that befits Asia’s (Art) World City.