“IT WILL BE the first time that a vortex to the spirit world has been opened at Art Basel,” Alexie Glass-Kantor, the new curator of the fair’s Hong Kong Encounters section, promised me. “At least deliberately.” This was after we shared a sixteen-hour redeye from New York, in advance of a shamanic blessing planned for the aisles of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center Friday morning, as the finishing touches were being made to the premiere March edition of Asia’s most formidable art fair.
Thursday was gallery night in the Central district, where the blue-chip dealers opened shows clustered around the city’s highest concentration of watch and diamond boutiques. Predictably, a crush of bodies filed in and out of the elevator of the Pedder Building, where Hanart TZ, Pearl Lam, Simon Lee, Ben Brown, and the like are stacked on top of one another. Following White Cube’s opening for Beatriz Milhazes, Brazilian compatriot Bebel Gilberto played a show at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel around the corner. A couple dozen stories up, at a lounge atop the Princes Building, Lehmann Maupin hosted a cocktail reception for Alex Prager’s solo show. Illuminated by the sinister red-and-white flicker of the HSBC skyscraper, trays of curious, outsize beverages in triangular goblets caught the eye: martini milkshakes garnished with chocolate reproductions of one of Prager’s works. Was this an authorized reproduction? “Of course!” she gushed. “How could I resist?”
Hong Kong is a city ever in transition, and many of its most prominent institutions are in a state of fluxor, in the case of M+, the West Kowloon Cultural District’s MoMA-scale visual culture museum, under construction. Several of the exhibitions also opening on Thursday were pop-ups. As part of their Mobile M+ series leading up to the building’s projected 2018 debut, M+ took over two floors of Midtown POP, a towering mall in Wan Chai, for “Moving Images,” a show of recent acquisitions buttressed by curatorial selections, two highlights of which were commissioned for the 2013 Sharjah Biennial: the Indian collective CAMP’s cell-phone-shot odyssey From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf and Dilbar, a collaborative piece by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siris telling the story of a Bangladeshi migrant worker at sea in the United Arab Emirates. Another standout was local painter Firenze Lai, whose pinched-head portraits abstracting physical mannerisms into emotive forms have been making the biennial rounds and are currently on view in the New Museum’s triennial in New York. At her studio later that week, she expounded on the lived experience of a megacity that has been romanticized by the neon poems of Wong Kar-wai: “The subways have purple light—and no one cares.”
An endeavor of retail scion Adrian Cheng, the K11 Art Foundation has a penchant for cross-collaborations. At the Cosco Tower in Sheung Wan, K11 partnered with the Palais de Tokyo for “Inside China,” which traveled from Paris after its debut there last fall. Tucked away on the eighteenth floor of New World Tower 2 in Central, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is coproduced by London’s Pilar Corrias and Shanghai’s Leo Xu. Inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, the show tapped seven international artists whose works intersect with that narrative—new videos by Ian Cheng and Guo Hongwei, and a daily dumpling performance orchestrated by Rirkrit Tiravanija among them.
When Art Basel Hong Kong’s new director Adeline Ooi breezed into the press conference for the fair Friday morning, she ordered a hot water and commented on the festive vibe set by the string of openings around town. “I must say that Pilar Corrias made a very stunning dumpling lady,” Ooi said, speaking to her participation in Rirkrit’s culinary action. That afternoon, the convention center’s escalators began feeding Art Basel’s aisles with visitors from around the world. Some of the most memorable works were projects in the Encounters section, from Siobhán Hapaska’s Intifada, presented by Kerlin Gallery, for which an olive tree is harnessed into a wireframe machine that vigorously shakes it, to Yang Maoyuan’s forebodingly titled “THEY” are coming to Hong Kong, a suite of stuffed, hoofed mammals swollen into hide-upholstered globes, brought to town by Platform China.
On Saturday, Art Basel held a reception on top of the convention center for a viewing of arguably the world’s best skyline, which is where one of the fair’s specially commissioned works came alive. As dusk drew and the spires twinkled, an 8-bit sound track commenced and a nostalgic arcade animation by Cao Fei began to play on the face of the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in the city. Later that night, Vitamin Creative Space, neugerriemschneider, and Esther Schipper cohosted a dinner at Duddell’s, the favored high-end haunt of the Hong Kong art world. The evening turned into Cao’s de facto birthday party, and when she arrived and received her rounds of dual congratulations, she smiled and said of the ICC, “It’s like a big candle.”
The next evening, the artist Amalia Ulman locked the door on fifteen participants selected for a twelve-hour sleepover at the Airbnb Art House. “It’s basically going to be like living inside one of my pieces—really uncomfortable and violent and cute.” Not to be confused with the Airbnb pavilion at last year’s Venice architecture biennial, this endeavor, for which two New York–based artists converted a storefront on Hollywood Road, was funded by Airbnb corporate and produced with Paloma Powers. Shawn Maximo provided virtual furnishings and ethereal decor by way of 360-degree projections of glassed-in penthouses, while item idem created a red, white, and black Ikea symphony described by the Swiss Institute’s Simon Castets as “Yayoi Kusama for Ligne Roset on acid.”
A counterpoint to the glitz and fun of such shows, earlier that day the venerable artist-run institution Para Site had held an open house to celebrate its new space in Quarry Bay. The exhibition, curated by Cosmin Costinas and Anthony Yung, brings a historical dimension to compelling new works by regional artists. Its title, “A Hundred Years of Shame—Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations,” draws from a popular Chinese mantra (“a century of national humiliation”) that characterizes the Chinese experience of modernity as an asymmetrical one vis-à-vis the Western world—a conceit that continues to motivate global ambitions.
I rounded a hexagonal aquarium piece by Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung, stumbling on an anonymous 1904–05 watercolor of a Japanese solider “buggering,” as the label read, a defeated member of the Russian army, which was described as the “West.” It was just one jarring moment amid the plenitude, but somehow it stuck. As the easternmost outpost of Switzerland’s presiding marketplace for contemporary art, Art Basel Hong Kong still provides not just a momentous shopping spree but, writing as a Westerner, a variety of transposed vantages on an art world composed of increasingly familiar landscapes.