This article was published in Hong Kong Tatler
If there were any doubt that the art world in the 21st Century is a thoroughly globalised, geographically cross-fertilised business, a thumb through the catalogue for this year’s Fine Art Asia quickly dispels it. Local Hong Kong artist Tsang Chui-mei’s paintings very clearly combine the Chinese literati tradition with elements of Western abstract expressionism; Frenchwoman Fabienne Verdier, who spent a decade in China learning traditional ink painting, likewise channels a distinctly East-West spirit on her canvases; and local gallery FEAST Projects’ Chinese Artists in France features works by contemporary master Zao Wouki, who is said to have counted Joan Miro, Picasso and Matisse among his friends once upon a time.
One could go on – but perhaps it was ever thus. Here, for example, we have Galerie Dayan of Paris offering up a large Louis XV vernis Martin – imitation Chinese lacquerware – among its items of French decorative art from the 17th to the 19th Century.
Art fairs in general have about them something of the 19th Century – for Europe a period of global expansion, when, as the hoarding of artefacts and works of art from around the world became almost a competitive sport, major public galleries sprang up, taking art collecting out of its hitherto exclusively private sphere. And Fine Art Asia 2012, which boasts exhibits from across four millenia and confidently straddles Eastern and Western art, is no exception. Indeed, the flaneurs of Haussmann’s Paris might well feel at home at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai next month – were it not for the fact that modern and contemporary art and design sits jowl-to-jowl with that of older vintage.
“I think it’s a perfect match to combine these different strands together in one venue,” says the fair’s founder and director Andy Hei over lunch some weeks ahead of the eighth major international fair he has staged in the city since his first Art and Antiques Fair in 2006.
Hei (who, like his father before him, deals in classical Ming and Qing-era Chinese furniture) and his co-director Calvin Hui (a gallery owner and collector of Asian contemporary art) are bringing together more than 120 galleries from as far apart as London, New York and Singapore for next month’s event – making it the biggest to date and confirming Fine Art Asia as the region’s most prestigious art gathering.
Says Hei: “I come from an antique or heritage art background; Calvin is from the contemporary art world. We’re a small team and we don’t have a lot of resources, so we are basing everything on the position of Hong Kong and our reputation among dealers and buyers.”
The pair are palpably excited, almost skittishly enthusiastic. Hui talks about fluctuations in the market for contemporary Chinese art with the twinkling eye of one who knows what will count as having artistic, and indeed pecuniary, value, years hence; Hei waxes lyrical about Hong Kong’s advantages for art dealers of being a free port and not charging a sales tax on art (it’s little coincidence that the fair coincides with major autumn art auctions in the city). And as a double act they encapsulate what makes the fair work: theirs may be vastly different artistic backgrounds, but they share a belief in the intrinsic value of good art and a passion for bringing as diverse a representation of it together – under the same roof and in their native city.
“Hong Kong has always been the perfect gateway city,” Hei boasts. “It has always known how to deal between East and West. In the art world, it used to be a case of Western buyers buying Chinese art and taking it back to the West; but now you can see the process has changed direction, whereby both Eastern and Western art is moving east.”
With the art market very much driven by wealthy mainlanders right now, Hui believes the Chinese are first of all “buying back” their own heritage: “There is is a phenomenon in China referred to as the Return of Cultural Relics and this is part of that, whether it’s antique art or 20th Century modern Chinese art.”
But it’s not just about patriotism, he insists – mainlanders are also increasingly outward-looking. “Hong Kong has always been in touch with western culture and western art. In China, people are travelling more and going abroad to be educated and there’s a sense that they are experiencing what Hong Kong experienced further back.”
Much like 19th Century European collectors, he says, the nouveaux riches of China are decorating and furnishing their homes with art and artefacts from different centuries and from around the world. “They may not understand the art historical significance of everything but they will think nothing of combining Italian-design furniture from the 1950s with 5,000 year-old Chinese vases, 19th Century English silverware and Ming Chinese paintings.”
Such eclectic appetites are unlikely to be frustrated by the veritable goulash of treasures on show in Wan Chai. The breadth of exhibits at this year’s fair is truly astonishing: Chinese bronzes from the 13th Century B.C; Chinese and Western classical furniture; Asian and international antique ceramics, paintings, jewellery, watches, sculptures, textiles and decorative art; Dutch and Italian landscape paintings from the 17th to 19th Centuries; masterpieces from Pissaro, Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Guillaumin, Picasso and Miro; sculptures by Rodin, Bugatti and Guyot; works by Chinese “new ink” artists Liu Dan Wei Ligang and Qin Fen; vintage jewellery made for the famous 1920s American socialite Millicent Rogers by “jeweller to the stars” Paul Flato; and much else besides.
For his part, Hui is particularly thrilled to be welcoming the first ever 20th Century Italian Design Furniture Exhibition in Asia – which will run for the duration of September, ahead of the fair, at the K11 Art Mall in TST. Presented by Italy’s Novalis Contemporary Art, it features items by masters of modern design including Etorre Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Merret Oppenheim and Studio 65. “For so many of us, Italy really defines design,” Hui says. “It is beautiful and regal while still being accessible in everyday life.”
Hei, meanwhile, identifies an expanded fine art jewellery category – spanning antique pocket watches, 19th Century gem-set brooches and Art Deco Cartier necklaces – as a definite highlight.
“An art fair like this is not just a trading platform,” he adds. “It’s an appreciation of design and art history.”
It should also be said that the fair does its utmost to support local artists by allowing students from the Department of Fine Arts at The Chinese University and Hong Kong Art School to showcase, and sell, their work in the hall. “We want to encourage students to stay in the art business,” Hei says. “Hong Kong needs that. It’s a chance for them to get in touch with the real art market.” In addition, Fine Art Asia supports the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, with the latter receiving the proceeds of a charity auction of works donated by local artists.
“My father taught me that if you gain something from the market, you have to give something back,” says Hei. “We’re not just taking Hong Kong as the venue for an art fair, we’re supporting it every way we can.”