Days of Being Wild

Left: Curator Pi Li with collector Hallam Chow. Right: Dealer Emmanuel Perrotin with actor Edison Chen. (Except where noted, all photos: Yangzi)

COMING FROM the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, just thirty minutes across the border, I crossed the gold ingot–shaped Victoria Harbor into Hong Kong Central, where all those luxury brands unaffordable in Beijing are suddenly in arm’s reach. Central is the only place I know where Bulgari, Gucci, and Chanel are not ostentatious but de rigueur. It’s an affluence mentality, but until recently prices for basic items were so high that residents would cross the northern border to buy household goods. Today, food safety issues, inflation, and luxury taxes have reversed the flow of commercial traffic, and mainlanders come in for everything from soy sauce to Ming porcelains. Last week, the fifth Art HK upped the ante, making the otherwise quiet island into a perfect storm of conspicuous consumption and gallery launches, all succinctly epitomized by a clutch of VIP dinners that, as artist Paul Chan observed, “you were not invited to.”

Art HK’s VIP calendar exceeded nine pages, each event more exclusive than the last. Some were simply on the list to announce that they were too good for you. (The entry for Hauser & Wirth’s dinner, marked “Strictly By Private Invitation Only,” included an e-mail address for inquiries.) The real madness began the day before the fair. On Tuesday, at 50 Connaught Road, the toniest real estate in town, White Cube and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin held inaugural shows (Anselm Kiefer at the former, KAWS at the latter) that featured cameos from the Cantonese film set. Zheng Lin, director of Beijing’s Tang Contemporary Gallery, had recently gone shopping for spaces, and whispered that the rent was more than forty times the average price in Beijing’s 798 District. Elbow room could be the most precious commodity in Central.

From there we walked to the less regal Pedder Building, which houses Gagosian HK and several other galleries. RSVPs were required, but there was no stopping the Louboutin-heeled crowds lined up outside the teeny entrance, hoping for a shot at the elevator. The only other way up was via the under-construction stairway. Eyeing the scrambling mob of collectors, we took to the stairs, where women in couture ducked under iron scaffolding and stepped over dusty tarpaulins, resolutely ascending, oblivious to the distinctly non-VIP conditions.

Left: Dealer Jay Jopling. Right: Dealer Pearl Lam with collectors Robert and Chantal Miller and Radhika Bryan.

Upon reaching the seventh floor, Shanghainese dealer-socialite Pearl Lam, dressed in a purple tank dress with hair (and colored contacts) to match, moved deftly on platform heels through the throngs of notables. So many flowers were lined up in the hallway outside her gallery, it was positively funereal. While squeezing through the exit door and back onto the treacherous stairwell, I spotted a small cache of broken champagne glasses and crushed flowers in a pool of crystalline fluid, the detritus of opulence.

The next day, crowds flocked to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for the opening of the fair, its final iteration before it officially starts brandishing the Art Basel logo. The vernissage was followed by a dinner, hosted by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, celebrating The Future Will Be . . . China Edition, a copublication with Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli “curated” by Hans Ulrich Obrist. “The bible on China—the new little red book,” one Singaporean curator rolled his eyes. The party was exclusive enough not to be listed. While HK Tatler cover girl Dee Poon chatted with dealer Lorcan O’Neill, Ginevra Elkann and Ullens director Philip Tinari struggled to keep Obrist on the ground. The little tome, indeed red and compact, had launched earlier at a swish brunch hosted by the Asia Society’s new Hong Kong center (that publication got a lot of mileage), a converted British military compound formerly used for processing gunpowder.

Those not invited to private parties that night (clearly the majority) were poolside at the Modern Media/K11 soiree on the Grand Hyatt rooftop, which was washed out during what was to be the beginning of four days of torrential rain (hence the soaked gowns and dripping suits crowding the cavernous lobby). We missed the ladies in bikinis (“Russians,” one Chinese artist commented to me with conviction), but arrived in time to see everyone modeling their damp spring 2012 collections. The lobby bar was at full capacity, and two waifish female employees were turning away angry people clutching Art HK VIP cards. Given the queue and the storm, a taxi getaway wasn’t an option, so an artist in our party requested five umbrellas from the concierge under a guest’s name (apologies to “Michael Lin”) and we made a swift exit.

Left: Vogue China editor in chief Angelica Cheung with director of UCCA Philip Tinari. Right: Executive director and curator of Sàn Art, Saigon, Zoe Butt, with artist Dinh Q. Lê and Katie de Tilly, director of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

Thursday morning, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and Platform China opened shows by Dinh Q. Le and Jia Aili in the Art East Island industrial building. I took my VIP brunch of bagels and coffee standing in the hallway, half-listening to a local woman’s précis of the Beijing art scene. “I’ve been there,” she droned, “but it’s so big, and everyone moves so fast.” The Asia Funeral Expo & Conference had opened concurrently back at the same convention center (no flowers, mostly caskets and urns), a bit of a downgrade from last year’s Christie’s auction, which was held the day after the opening of the 2011 fair. A collector of contemporary ink painting suggested that the auction date was changed to actually avoid intersecting with the fair, the thinking being that mainland buyers bidding on ink painting and antiquities wouldn’t want to jostle with the contemporary crowds.

That evening, a hundred or so people boarded two enormous cruisers destined for a seafood dinner in distant Sai Kung—a “quaint fishing village,” as our host, philanthropist Hallam Chow, put it. We were there to celebrate Pi Li’s appointment as curator of M+, a new museum of “visual culture” in the West Kowloon district, directed by Lars Nittve and scheduled to open in 2017. Dining on abalone and crab, I sat with a boisterous man reputed to be a Taiwanese mobster (in this context, an art collector). A Shanghai dealer babbled about spending the last evening playing baccarat at the MGM on Macau: “But you can’t tell I’ve been up all night,” he assured me and my silent lady friends, staring at us earnestly with bloodshot eyes. As we all stood to toast our host, conversation moved to his diamond-encrusted watch (“only thirty-three in the world”), which complemented the bedazzled skull on his popped-collar polo shirt.

Left: Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor with Claire Hsu, executive director of Asia Art Archive, and Jane DeBevoise, chair of Asia Art Archive. (Photo: Doretta Lau) Right: Artist Liu Ye.

“Busy” doesn’t begin to describe the ensuing days: an Intelligence Squared debate on whether or not “Contemporary Art Excludes the 99 Percent” (the answer seemed obvious to me, but I was on to the next party and missed the vote); a “booze cruise” with the Long March Space (“Access with VIP Card, RSVP Essential, Limited Capacity”); karaoke artist videos hosted by Saamlung gallery. But the HK art world came to a full stop Saturday evening with a party hosted by collectors Stephen and Yana Peel. Hundreds of VIPs willingly crammed together one last time. While dealers Finola Jones and Urs Meile struggled to shout their conversation through the din, others among them, like Sean Kelly, Maureen Paley, and Stephen Friedman, smiled gamely in their sweat-soaked clothes and simply raised their glasses. Surely there was no better place to be—everyone present, from Zaha Hadid and her entourage to Asia Art Archive director Claire Hsu and partner Benjamin Vuchot, must have agreed—before the crowds shimmied past legendary HK performance artist the Frog King Kwok, dressed in his customary Kermit-like regalia, and on to their long flights home.

Just a few minutes north, clearly jealous that the party has moved south of the border, Chinese customs officials have begun collecting import duty and a value-added tax on all “artworks” shipped back to the mainland. In Shenzhen, artists complained bitterly that they couldn’t afford to bring their work home; some have simply canceled shows because of prohibitively high taxes, and in an unusual display of brawn from Beijing, the German manager of an art-freight company has been jailed since March 31, charged with falsifying values of artworks to avoid $1.6 million in taxes. En route home, a dealer from the mainland confessed that the entire gallery staff was bringing home artworks as carry-on luggage, and I paused to wonder once again about “the future” and China.

Left: Collectors Steve and Yana Peel with M+ director Lars Nittve. Right: Collector Uli Sigg.

Left: Leng Lin, CEO of Pace Beijing. Right: Feng Mengbo, Yang Jiecang, Sui Jianguo, and dealer Johnson Chang.

Left: Artist Maurizio Cattelan with curator Zhou Ying. Right: Dealer Tim Blum.

Left: Artist Choi Jeong Hwa. Right: Modern Media CEO Thomas Shao, artist Wang Jianwei, and Modern Media PR Lihsin Tsai.

Left: Anna Schwartz with artist Joseph Kosuth. Right: Asia Society exhibitions director Melissa Chiu, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and artist Nadim Abbas.

Left: Rashaad Newsome performance at Feast Projects. Right: Dealer Urs Meile. (Photos: Doretta Lau)

Left: AsiaArtPacific editor in chief Elaine W. Ng and artist Heman Chong. Right: Paola Potena (left) and the Lia Rumma Gallery team.

Left: Dealers Marianne Boesky and Adrian Turner. Right: May Xue, CEO of UCCA, with Laura Zhou of White Cube HK, and collector Jane Zhao.

Left: Artist Zheng Guogu. Right: Artists Hu Xiaoyuan and Qiu Xiaofei.

Left: Critic Karen Smith, director of Platform China Natalie Sun, and lyricist Yao Chien. Right: Curator and artist Joseph Ng with writer and curator Davina Lee.

Left: Jacqueline Cohen with artist Wu Yuren. Right: Collector Yang Bin with dealer Yan Qing.

Left: Artists Augustin Tzen and Li Shurui. Right: Parkett publisher Dieter von Graffenried.

Left: Dealer Michael Janssen. Right: Platform China Contemporary Art Institute founder and director Sun Ning. (Photos: Doretta Lau)

Left: Modern Media's Philiana Woo. Right: The staircase at the Pedder Building.