Favorites from Booked: 2021
By The Editors
Thanks to the scheduling chaos precipitated by Covid-19, Booked: Art Book Fair’s usual venue, Tai Kwun Contemporary, was unavailable—the art center is still hosting Francis Alÿs’s and Mika Rottenberg’s solo exhibitions, which had opened in October 2020 and were later extended through March. The third edition of Booked was thus reconfigured into more than 80 pop-ups clustered in Blocks 1, 3, and 9 in the heritage complex. To get around travel restrictions, Booked also operated a “twin” system, enabling international participants to share booths with local ones. Here are some of the editors’ highlights from the fair.
Navigating the narrow stairways and near-identical blocks of the Tai Kwun heritage complex is challenging on a good day, but to find one’s way through dozens of pop-ups that have been crammed into dimly lit quarters is a next-level feat. The popular book fair has always had a bazaar-like atmosphere, but the large galleries and bright lighting of its usual venue, Tai Kwun Contemporary, made all the difference.
Many booths made do with their tiny space by offering tiny wares, and none were as doll-sized as the booklets at mini press @ Tiana Cloudland (Hong Kong). Across from their booth, at Elevatorteeth (Portland, Oregon), I admired Charlene Man’s and Hardcore Ambient’s whimsical pins and stickers, including one by the latter emblazoned with “FEAR IS ENERGY,” which incidentally is my mantra for meeting deadlines. Continuing the theme of miniature things, Mount Zero Books (Hong Kong) brought designer Benny Lau’s lovely matchbox works, featuring illustrations of sleeping dogs and cats on the cover and small objects such as dog treats and colorful balls inside; some of the proceeds will benefit the Peng Chau Paws and Friends animal charity.
Most of the participants were Hong Kong-based artists, designers, publishers, and galleries. I enjoyed local illustrator Sandy Wang’s zine Alien & Me, which convinced me that the xenomorph would make a fine chief executive, as well as otto’s (Tiffany Tam & Wong Mei Yin) images of Black Objects; both publications are available at their creators’ respective stands. During a rare ease in foot traffic, I stopped at the booth of Wan Chai gallery Odd One Out to leaf through Melek Zertal’s Sleepless, which imagines a day in the life of X-Files protagonist Dana Scully, and I was glad to have a few moments to get lost in its narrative—the best kind of book-shopping experience. OPHELIA LAI
As one of the few booths that managed to enjoy the nice sunshine on the balcony of Block 2, Display Distribute (Hong Kong) brought with them old and new publications, including Copenhagen-based multimedia artist Wei Weng’s latest photo novella Eat A Chili (2021), featuring a vivid red cover with a cut in the middle, à la Lucio Fontana. Just fresh out of the printers on the morning of the fair’s preview day, the 152-page science fiction story tells of a hijacking of a bakery involving an explosion of pepper grenades. The book next to it, 151 Do-It-Yourself Stones (2018), is an urban photo project co-initiated by artists and city observers Chu Jini and Rongkai He in 2017. Wrapped in a Ziplock bag, the book is a collection of photos of random concrete blocks and artificial stone slabs, seen on the streets of different cities in mainland China and elsewhere in Asia. Many of these blocks are composed of a cement-filled bucket with a stick extending into the air, standing like a bizarre, modern scarecrow. Some originally function as a convenient tool in the construction or an abandoned piece of industrial material, whereas others could simply be “protection against evil” for the shop owners or a timely composition of a suitcase and an umbrella. These daily observations seemingly reveal moments of bewilderment and discovery amid the experience of urbanization. When I asked the staff about the price of the book, they also briefly mentioned their special distribution service called “Light Logistics,” which is a free, person-to-person, slow-speed delivery service that aims to create opportunities for people to meet—it sounds like creating a miracle in the Covid era. PAMELA WONG
Schools, beaches, playgrounds may have been closed for much of the last year, but Hong Kong’s mom-and-pop fruit stands have weathered all the Covid-19 restrictions. The Popo-Post Art Group took inspiration from these hardy micro businesses for their installation at Booked 2021, showcasing their prints inspired by fruit-wrapping paper and placing their styrofoam-wrapped zines among stacked cardboard boxes full of real melons, bananas, pears, and mangos. Just as artificial as those giant, plastic-wrapped strawberries from Japan, the Popo group’s artistic fruits are definitely cheaper.
Among the artists participating in Booked, artist Wu Jiaru has several of her conceptual projects on offer. Will_print (2021), is a print of a thin red line that is the exact same size and color as a tattoo on the artist’s left arm—an artwork called Will that will be left to the owner, along with an envelope containing a secret letter, after the artist’s death. So if you don’t necessarily want the artist’s actual left arm, there are nine editions of a print instead. But the 20-something-year-old artist says the original tattoo is still available, though you might have to wait a few decades.
Beyond zines, prints, and postcards, there are also classical books—with weight, heft, and actual binding—at Booked. Wilson Lee is a young photographer of Instagram acclaim who made the transition to paper with his collection of photographs taken around Hong Kong in 2018 and 2019. Featuring moments of ordinary quiet and calm in a city of brutal urbanism from the pre-crisis years, As Days Go By (2019) is back in print and available from Brownie Publishing (Hong Kong). HG MASTERS
Finding amusement within existential malaise is a millennial and Gen Z forte. This shines through at the 2021 Booked. At nos:books (Taipei), I was particularly tickled by artist Huang Hai Hsin’s Single. The mock Ikea product-assembly manual illustrates perfectly coordinated couples building furniture while caricaturish individuals contort their bodies in impossible gymnastic feats to do the same.
At the booth of Display Distribute (Hong Kong), a droll despair transpires through Pepe the Frog, a meme that is widely used in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy propaganda, reflecting youths' sentiments of being frogs trapped at the bottom of a well. In addition to tongue-in-cheek flashcards for the putonghua pronunciation of words such as 穷 (qiong, as in broke, “can be used like: can’t afford drinks in the Bay because I’m qiong”), artist Fei Liu’s zine Pepe the Sad Frog Coloring Book and Chinese Language Guide includes an essay by New York-based researcher Stephanie Yee-Kay Chan about the proximity of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with the political right in the United States, evidenced through their shared use of Pepe as a symbol. Chan’s is a welcome, analytical take on the protests that contrasts more one-note political publications elsewhere at the fair.
Another meme is referenced at the nearby special display by Popo-Post Art Group. Cradled in stacked cardboard boxes are copies of a glossy photographic zine depicting before and after shots of putrid fruit, nodding to the Taiwanese saying 我就爛 (I am rotten). The meme that popularized the phrase features a man whose glow up is marked by his own liberating embrace of his ineptitude. Encouragement to languish could also be found in illustrator Charlene Man’s Lazy Yoga Guide, which features a slew of horizontally oriented positions (Could it be? A form of exercise that I can finally commit to?). These gems at Booked were balms to my soul-deep exhaustion. CHLOE CHU
Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific's associate editor; Pamela Wong is assistant editor; HG Masters is deputy publisher and deputy editor; Chloe Chu is managing editor.
Booked: 2021 is on view at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, until February 28, 2021.