Installation view of “Hong Kongese” at Duddell’s, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Duddell’s.  

Hong Kongese

Hong Kong

Art fair weeks can bring out the worst in a city. In Hong Kong, where Art Basel colonized the start-up ArtHK—now three years ago—and transformed it into an Asia franchise of the Swiss fair, art institutions in Europe and the UK have followed, fishing in the cultural waters around Asia for new patrons by collaborating with Hong Kong-based groups.

The most egregious and representative example of this phenomenon in 2015 is the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) London’s “Hong Kongese,” held at Duddell’s Hong Kong, a high-end lounge and two Michelin-star restaurant in the Shanghai Tang Mansion, located in the city’s Central district. Duddell’s bills itself as “a social and cultural destination for people who have an active appreciation for the arts” (a strategically coded phrase for collectors) and hosts what it calls exhibitions, often involving high-profile artists or institutional curators. The latest of these, “Hong Kongese” was organized to coincide with Art Basel in Hong Kong by the ICA London’s executive director Gregor Muir, art patron Alia al-Senussi and the Saudi Art Council’s Abdullah al-Turki.

View of “Hong Kongese” with (left) ZENG HONG‘s Balcony, 2009, and (right) Millie’s Neon Sign, Millie’s Centre Neon Sign (miniature replica), 2014, at Duddell’s, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Duddell’s. 

To call something an exhibition implies that it aspires to a set of professional standards about the presentation of artworks and an ethos of public-oriented discourse, neither of which criteria “Hong Kongese” met from the outset. Rotating displays of artworks, no matter who they are created by or who chose them, hanging on the walls of an exclusive restaurant’s lobby, staircase and eating areas, serve an entirely different function—primarily to cohere with the idealized lifestyle of a particular milieu and to reflect that group’s social attitudes and worldview.

If one were credulous enough to look at “Hong Kongese” as an exhibition, it would quickly be apparent that it has grievous flaws. To begin with, the premise of “Hong Kongese” suggests an exoticized, neophyte’s perspective on Asia. The trio of Muir, al-Senussi and al-Turki describe Hong Kong as “a special city,” that “defies predictions and categorization” and is situated “at the crossroads of East and West, modernity and ancient, and the local and the global”—words regularly deployed to describe cities from Istanbul, Mumbai and Shanghai to Singapore and Tokyo—with seemingly no awareness that “east meeting west” is the defining (if euphemistically phrased) paradigm of colonialism.

As far as the display of artworks, the organizers failed to achieve even a basic curatorial prerequisite, that of respecting the artworks’ integrity. The staircase at Duddell’s is bathed in an intense red light emanating from a replica of an old Hong Kong neon sign—included as a cheap token of authenticity and nostalgia—so that the colors of Zhu Jinshi’s thickly impasto-ed canvas, mounted on an adjacent marble wall, are invisible beneath the crimson illumination. Facing the neon sign, Koo Jeong-a’s abstract watercolor made up of delicate swatches of yellow and red is subjected to the same violent effect; it is reduced to a monochrome shade of red. This treatment suggests that the artworks themselves are not meant to be seen so much as to note their creators’ inclusion in the event.

View of “Hong Kongese” with (left) ZHU JINSHIVenus Encroaching on the Sun, 2012, and (right) KOO JEONG-A, It Is Not Yet An Universe Where Saturn Is, 2013, at Duddell’s, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Duddell’s.

Upstairs, situated around the restaurant are familiar photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi, in which he is seen posing before landmarks in cities such as New York and London while wearing a Zhongshan suit. A wide Rodel Tapaya canvas stretches out above a red banquette—occupied by a large group during my visit. Try looking at artworks when a table of tipsy diners believes you are staring at them. In a side room, three rectangles of wall space are painted black, which Taryn Simon had created to represent a photographic series of hers that had been censored in Beijing. The tiny wall text of explanation about this piece required my intruding into a business lunch in order to read it. Nearby, behind an occupied corner table was a tiny video monitor ungainly situated above a fire alarm, right next to the emergency door, whose green light obscured a Florian Maier-Aichen photograph of tree-covered hills. A litany of complaints in this vein could continue, as the chosen artworks of “Hong Kongese” are presented in circumstances that are, at best, unflattering.

From the outside, it’s impossible to know whether ICA London’s curators or Duddell’s board of local patrons are more responsible for exploiting the concept of an “exhibition” and denigrating the practice of curating—for whatever their larger aims were in this collaboration—and whether all the artists involved in “Hong Kongese” had knowledge of the flagrant degradation their artworks are being subjected to. And so it seems not even worth asking why no one among the professionals and patrons involved in the project objected to the seemingly untroubled, colonialist premise of “Hong Kongese.” For those members of the Hong Kong public who might have ventured to Duddell’s solely for this art-viewing experience, “Hong Kongese” offered them a cheapened, commercialized reflection on their city, packaged within the trappings of European prestige—in short, the worst aspects of the globalized art world.

ICA Off-Site: Hong Kongese” is on view at Duddell’s, Hong Kong, until June 22, 2015. 

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific