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Curating an Art Fair: Art Basel Hong Kong 2015

Art Basel in all its three geographic manifestations in Basel, Miami Beach and in Hong Kong is an art fair with both strength as well as style. The art fair includes not only a galleries sector which is the nexus of the fair, but it also runs parallel programming with local institutions as well as providing a model for other art and design fairs which follow in its wake in the three iterations.

Art Basel was founded in 1970 and provides a platform for both European and international galleries while Art Basel Miami Beach, which was founded in 2002, has a distinctly South American identity. Art Basel Hong Kong was founded in 2013 when Art Basel bought out the Hong Kong International Art Fair which had been launched in 2008 and the latest geographic iteration of this fair came into being. This fair though very international still retains a very distinct Asian identity.

With 233 galleries from 37 countries and 60,000 visitors, the numbers reveal the strength of this behemoth of an art fair. But the beauty of Art Basel is that it is international yet local, gargantuan yet intimate, glamorous yet meditative. It is these contrasts that make for a superb art fair.

Collectors and galleries are at the centre of fair though not forgetting curators, museum directors, art historians, art writers as well as over 60,000 visitors who interact with the artworks. Galleries at Art Basel included stellar galleries such as White Cube London, Marian Goodman Gallery NYC, Gagosian Galleries, Aquavella Gallery NYC, Lehmamn Maupin NYC, Lisson Gallery London, but includes regional players like Arario Galleries Seoul, Pearl Lam Galleries Hong Kong, Chemould Prescott Road Mumbai as well as Gandhara-Art Karachi (Disclaimer: the writer is director of this gallery).

My approach to writing about this art fair will be distinct. I focused on the artists and selected ten artworks which stood out at the fair.

1.  Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor’s artwork has always been a study in contrasts. Kapoor’s artworks whether large-scale installations or smaller works retain a truly intimate and meditative quality. Kapoor became well known in the 1980s for his geometric and biomorphic sculptures using natural materials such as marble or granite. He has since then worked in materials such as wax, often in the colour red to symbolise flesh, as well as steel, which was used to create large-scale sculptures such as theOrbit, for the 2012 Olympics. Though Kapoor’s more glamorous disc sculpture was installed at the Lisson Gallery stand at Art Basel and made even more spectacular by its gold colour, the work that beckoned one into the stand was a superb rectangular alabaster sculpture created by the maestro. The work was modern and linear in form. Created with alabaster, a material that was used to create many a classical sculpture, its form belied a certain nod to the classics. This work had recesses or apertures similar to his earlier work and is a nod to that period in which Kapoor focused on dualities in nature.

2.  Shahzia Sikander

The work of Shahzia Sikander, a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Fellow and pioneer of the neo-miniature movement, was also being exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong. Sikander’s minimalist painting, installed at Pilar Corrias Gallery was a large scale work titled Singing Sphere and the medium on which the work was created was Wasli (hand-prepared paper), the very same medium on which she honed her skills at the National College of Arts in Lahore. She has not abandoned the use of Wasli, which is traditionally used to create miniatures but has taken this traditional medium to a whole other form. The painting was large and this work was inspired by her seminal video work titled Parallax. She had created large spinning spheres for the animation. These abstract forms upon closer inspection are truly a dialogue with tradition. The spinning abstract forms are composed of images of the hairstyles of the Gopis, consorts of Krishna from the Rajput miniature tradition. Another element of the miniature was the use of gold leaf in this work. The work was abstract, minimal and modern, but rooted in tradition.

3.  Xu Bing

Xu Bing is currently the president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He is best known for his prints as well as his architectural installations and his use of text which has resulted in the creation of a whole host of unreal Chinese characters. To those uninitiated in Mandarin these characters will appear like the Chinese alphabet while to those who are aware, the words are unintelligible. Xu Bing is also known for his large-scale installations such as a pair of giant phoenix which are currently installed at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Eslite Gallery from Taipei was exhibiting a large solo project of his work, which included scrolls as well as other works which were devoted to symbols and texts. Xu Bing especially delves into the idea of the contrast between the power and frailty of language and how it can be used as a tool of manipulation while questioning the purpose and role of language. The solo project at Eslite Gallery focused on the text and text-based works and the most interesting work was the tower of books with text, which is unintelligible and a therefore a comment on the use of language and words as means of manipulation.

4.  Osang Gwon

Another fabulous work was Korean artist Osang Gwon’s work installed at Arario Gallery. Osang Gwon creates sculptures composed of photographs. He is a practitioner who has combined mediums both ancient as well as contemporary. His subjects are usually figures at work and play from contemporary life but for the work at Arrario Gallery, he created a large scale classical sculpture of the Greek and Roman god Neptune in battle with a sea creature. The statue is classical in its pose and its scale, but that is where its conversation with that age ends. The material used in contemporary, and though Neptune is bearded and wears the expression and the pose of a Greek god in the thick of battle, he is garbed in sports clothes holding a hockey stick instead of a triton and wearing Nike shoes on his feet. A Greek god for this time and age.

5.  Dan Graham

Dan Graham’s artworks are centered on the city. Since the 1980s, Graham has been creating a series of freestanding, sculptural objects called pavilions; these represent a hybrid between space and installation. The pavilions are steel and glass sculptures which disorient the viewer from his or her own spatial awareness. These pavilions are usually created with both reflective as well as transparent glass. Graham is also the latest artist to create the Rooftop Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His works are usually conversation between cities and the gardens within and without and the position of the viewer in the city as well as in nature. This pavilion at the Marian Goodman gallery was miniature in scale and was almost like bringing the city into an internal space. This play between external and internal worlds is what made this miniature pavilion so interesting.

6.  Julien Opie

Julien Opie’s portraiture and his images of moving animations blur the line between new and old media. His works are simple in execution, created with black lines or large-scale moving sculptures/animations. This particular work is an amalgamation of two areas of his practice, the moving image as well as the portraiture. This work exhibited at Alan Cristea Gallery shows figures hurrying through the rain in London and in Seoul, continents apart and yet sharing a similar of experience of life lived in these megacities – as well as this artwork being a perfect encapsulation of a very European art fair in one of Asia’s megacities.

7.  Doh Hu Soh

Doh Hu Soh is an artist best known for the creation of large-scale fabric sculptures that denote his various homes. His work focuses on elements of migration, rootlessness, movement. His work is sculptural and his notion of the city is very personal. He uses his personal domestic spaces and creates sculptures which are gauzy and ethereal questioning the viewer’s perception of space, time and scale. His abodes in various cities are captured in these beautiful fabric sculptures both large scale as well as intimate. These include utilitarian and domestic objects like water meters, large staircases, door handles or municipal notices. All are created and captured in these wraith-like fabrics which denote his personal memories and also questions the viewer’s perception of recollection and nostalgia. The work at Lehmann Maupin was a pair of door handles created with his signature green gauzy fabrics, door handles which are mundane objects yet deeply nostalgic.

8.  William Kentridge

William Kentridge’s large-scale tapestry installed at Marian Goodman was a nod to Kentridge’s printmaking which is often used as a base for his drawings, similar to a work installed in the stand at Art Basel. This was a suite of nine paintings using the pages of a Russian language encyclopaedia as the base. This same process is initiated when a work on tapestry is created. Kentridge makes a collage to create the figure of the horse upon ancient maps. The work is then recreated as a large scale tapestry. Kentridge is primarily known for his video installations but this work reveals that he is equally adept at creating contemporary artworks using traditional techniques.

9.  Atul Dodiya

Atal Dodiya’s practice sits firmly rooted in history as well as his own contemporary art practice. This vitrine is a sculpture, it is a painting, it is a number of found objects, it is historical narrative and then above all it is a museum. Dodiya has combined all the elements of his artistic practice in the creation of this work which was being shown at Chemould Prescott Road. This vitrine was created as a mini-museum, and questions the notion of the museum and what a museum is in the contemporary world. Is it private or public, is it regional or international, is it small or large? The viewer is left with all these questions as he gazes upon the work.

10.  Khadim Ali & Sher Ali

All the elements of a historical miniature painting exist within this work but the movement of the figures in this painting also harken to early Renaissance painting. The human as well as animal figures, the landscape and the images of conflict as evidenced by the two Rustam figures have a narrative quality. If one were to read this work, it is a story of contemporary war, social injustices and the eternal struggle for self-awareness. Another highlight of this work was the fact that historically the miniature was always created in an atelier with the Ustad/Shagird(Mentor/Student) relationship with the master painter as being on record as the creator of the piece, and though this painting was also created collaboratively but in the contemporary world, the names of both the artists are in evidence at Gandhara-art, where the work was shown.

Art Basel was a resounding success for the galleries, collectors, curators, museum personal, art writers and historians but it was also a boon for the 60,000 members of the public, most of whom did not walk away with a work of art but came away after spending time in close quarters with thousands of artworks under a single roof.

Art Basel Hong Kong took place from 15-17 March 2015.

Amna Tirmizi Naqvi is the Founder & Director of Gandhara Art Hong Kong & Karachi and also manages the AAN Collection. She is also a founding member of the Tate Modern’s South Asia Acquisitions Committee and a Patron of the Asia Art Archive.

Photo Credits: Zehra Naqvi & Amna Naqvi

 

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