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Hong Kong: The World’s New Art Capital

How creativity and commerce have transformed a city of business into the world’s newest art capital.

Photographs by Grant Harder

JOHNSON CHANG KNOWS HOW to throw a party. The legendary art curator is celebrating the 30-year anniversary of his groundbreaking Hong Kong art gallery, Hanart TZ, in the city’s equally legendary restaurant and bar, the China Club. When I step from the elevator, I’m blown away by the visual splendor. The club feels like a luxurious opium den from the Jazz Age, except that every wall is decorated with contemporary artworks from mainland China that reflect the radical changes the country has experienced over the last three decades. The pieces were collected by Johnson (who also goes by his Cantonese name, Chang Tsong-zung, the “TZ” in his gallery’s name) when the artists were young unknowns. Many of the paintings toy with classic images of Communist propaganda, such as an irreverent pop art version of Chairman Mao alongside Whitney Houston, called With Love, Whitney, by Yu Youhan. Other works, created in the new capitalist era that began in the 1980s, explore more individualistic styles. There are haunting family portraits; figures in business suits with raw, bloody skin; and pink-faced men maniacally laughing, as if on the verge of madness. The pieces focus on the pressures of living under authoritarian rule, as well as the anxieties of leaping from a controlled socialist economy into a capitalist free-for-all.

The China Club’s top floor is crammed with power players from throughout the Asian art world. Renowned mainland artists such as Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiogang have flown in for Johnson’s party tonight, along with top international curators, academics, and collectors. I meet Indian poets, Japanese painters, directors of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and two polo club owners from Mongolia as the kitchen parades out a Chinese feast of roast suckling pig, sesame prawns, and “assorted fungi.” “This is the place to be in Asia right now,” I’m told by Doryun Chong, a dapper Korean American who left his high-flying career at New York’s MoMA to become chief curator at M+. A museum envisioned as the centerpiece of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, M+ will feature space-age exteriors and cathedral-like interiors when it opens in 2017.

“If you’d asked me just a few years ago, I would have said nothing was going on [in Hong Kong],” Chong says. “It’s a huge transformation.”

Johnson Chang

Curator Johnson Chang has nurtured generations of Hong Kong artists at his Hanart TZ Gallery.

Johnson, 63, has seen it all. Raised by a well-to-do Hong Kong family, he studied
at Williams College in Massachusetts, then returned home in 1977 to set up a gallery dedicated to classical Chinese art. In the mid- 1980s, as a new generation of Chinese artists began to reinterpret 4,000 years of tradition for the modern era, he also began collecting contemporary work, riding along with military convoys into Tibet to track down artists in remote colonies and visiting other artists in their studios in Shanghai and Beijing.

By the early 1990s, Johnson was curating the first exhibitions of China’s post–Tiananmen Square art, which introduced a new crop of artists working in movements such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism. The exhibitions toured Australia, Europe, and the United States (one had the catchy title Mao Goes Pop) and launched Johnson’s reputation as a leading Chinese art authority. Tonight, Johnson moves through his party wearing the austere uniform of a Confucian scholar—cotton jacket withmandarincollarandhandmadeleather slippers, his trademark homage to Chinese tradition—effortlessly mingling in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.

For years, Johnson practically was Hong Kong’s art scene, almost single-handedly introducing a new contemporary expression and explosion of creativity to the West as China opened its doors to the outside world in the 1990s. Tonight, the crowd that has gathered to celebrate him also celebrates the rise of his hyperactive city.

“Hong Kong is pretty much the center of the art world at the moment,” says a U.S.-born art restorer, Dawne Steele Pullman, who spends half the year in Hong Kong. “There is an energy here that you just don’t feel in New York or London or Paris.”

After talking to the partygoers, I want to understand where that energy is coming from. “You really must come back during the art fair,” Johnson says. “I think you will quite enjoy it.”

Hong Kong’s cultural “coming out” took place in 2013, when the world’s most prestigious art fair, Art Basel, which hosts exhibitions in Switzerland and Miami, began holding an annual event in Hong Kong. At Johnson’s suggestion, I return for the 2014 fair in May, four months after the China Club party.

Diners at Bibo restaurant share space with street art, including a wooden installation by Kaws and a moped covered with calligraphy by King of Kowloon.

Diners at Bibo restaurant share space with street art, including a wooden installation by Kaws and a moped covered with calligraphy by King of Kowloon.

The official heart of Art Basel is the Convention and Exhibition Centre on the Wan Chai waterfront, a vast hangar-style building filled with 245 booths, about half of which are from the Asia-Pacific region, including 25 galleries from Hong Kong itself. It is a dazzling and slightly overwhelming experience, as I take in beds made of television screens by South Korean artist Nam June Paik and pop art skateboards created by Indonesian art duo Indieguerrillas, alongside Andy Warhols and Giorgio di Chiricos. The centerpiece is Gu Wenda’s United Nations project, national flags woven from human hair gathered from people around the world and hung as a surreal conceptual tapestry.

Johnson is there in his Hanart TZ booth, greeting visitors and putting the final edits on a catalog coming out this month. An overview of his Hanart 100 art collection—100 key works from his own trove of Chinese art—the publication also presents the ultimate insider account of how Chinese art has developed since the 1980s.

Johnson suggests that after taking in the convention hall, I should check out the satellite events throughout the city. He quickly sketches out an art tour that will take me far from the harbor into a parallel universe of creativity. My first stop is the financial district, bluntly named Central, which on the surface seems like a tropical Dallas, filled with office towers and designer clothing stores. The ground floor of the Pedder Building, a rare neoclassical survivor, is filled by an Abercrombie & Fitch store, but the upper floors house blue-chip international galleries such as the Gagosian (headquartered in New York) and Johnson’s own Hanart TZ.

At Hanart, I run into Gu Wenda himself, who is showing stone sculptures inscribed with retranslated Tang Dynasty poems. He says that the crowds make exhibiting in Hong Kong more satisfying than showing his work in Beijing or Shanghai. “Hong Kong has a strong middle class, which is becoming a serious audience for art,” he says. “You don’t get this sophistication in mainland China.”

Artist Leung Chi Wo stands in front of two works from He Was Lost Yesterday and We Found Him Today, a series of photos by Leung and Sara Wong.

Artist Leung Chi Wo stands in front of two works from He Was Lost Yesterday and We Found Him Today, a series of photos by Leung and Sara Wong.

In this way, Art Basel is a natural extension of what Hong Kong has always been about: commerce. In recent years, the city has been flooded with wealthy art collectors from mainland China taking advantage of Hong Kong’s efficient shipping as well as the lack of sales and export taxes. The city is now ranked just behind New York and London as a world art auction center; Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both set up lucrative offices here.

But money alone can’t explain the city’s creative blossoming. Credit for that also goes to Hong Kong’s artists themselves. In my conversations with Johnson, he had explained that in the 1980s, Hong Kong was still a British colony devoted entirely to making money, a place where art was little valued and artists operated underground. “The trouble was,”
he said, “nobody really knew about the local artists, because they had no platform to show their work.” Today, Hong Kong has 70 galleries and many more creative spaces. Over the next few days, I cross the harbor to Kowloon and the New Territories to meet some of the artists Johnson called the young Turks.

“Start with Warren Leung,” he advised. “He is one of our most important artists.”

My taxi driver takes me to an area called Fo Tan, a gritty enclave with 200 resident artists. From a desolate street I cautiously enter the warehouse. A corridor lit by flickering neon lights leads to an old freight elevator that completes the Blade Runner atmosphere. As the elevator claws its way up to the 18th floor, I’m not surprised to hear the faint echo of Korean pop, but then I push open a metal door and find myself face-to-face with a dead pig. Unfortunately, it’s not an experimental new art project. It is a real pork-roasting plant, with a dozen carcasses hanging from meat hooks. The three workers in galoshes look at me blankly, then go back to hosing the bloody floor. I poke my head around a corner, a door opens, and, relieved, I am greeted by the artist and his wife, Sara Wong. Once inside, I find a refuge flooded with light. One wall looks out over jungle-covered hills where, Leung tells me, tigers were spotted as late as the 1920s. “Capitalists don’t care about this view, but artists love it!” he says.

A former slaughterhouse, the Cattle Depot Artist Village now houses theaters, artists’ studios, and galleries.

A former slaughterhouse, the Cattle Depot Artist Village now houses theaters, artists’ studios, and galleries.

Johnson had recommended Leung (who is more widely known by his Cantonese name, Leung Chi Wo) as one of the artists who most seriously tackles Hong Kong’s confused identity, caught between a British past and a Chinese future. “I feel that I am very different from mainland Chinese,” says Leung over a cup of jasmine tea, “but we’re coming to a new narrative. In some ways, Hong Kong is merging with the rest of China, but I think there is more conflict than sharing. The harsh reality is that Hong Kongers resent mainlanders. There is a growing insistence on keeping our unique character, and artists are a key part of that resistance.”

Leung shows me an ironic piece called A Wish List for Asia’s World City. A wall of
text expresses a fantasy vision for Hong Kong, compiled by Leung from the ideas of a variety of people. It includes “Mandatory Recycling,” “Air-Quality Controls for Factories,” and perhaps less critical demands such as “Cheaper Lychee Martinis.” One of Leung’s best-known works, Domestic Amnesia, part of Johnson’s Hanart 100, resembles an exploded closet, with four antique wooden walls inscribed with a Chinese code related to physical coordinates in Hong Kong. “As the Handover approached in 1997, I realized I didn’t know anything about the history of my own city,” Leung says. “I explored Hong Kong with a pinhole camera, photographing specific locations that showed the city’s past in a concrete way. I felt a sense of discovery, and created a space where I could be apart from Hong Kong and observe it, but still call it home.”

I soon discover that speaking to local artists is a crash course in the issues roiling behind the city’s economic good times. Much of their work is a meditation on Hong Kong’s volatile mix of tradition and modernity, East and West, as well as the downside of being part of the New China—pollution, overcrowding, the flood of new immigrants from the mainland, and the city’s skyrocketing rents.

Angela Su reimagines human anatomy in video and intricate drawings.

Angela Su reimagines human anatomy in video and intricate drawings.

When I meet installation artist Nadim Abbas at a pop-up “art bar” he has designed for Art Basel called Apocalypse Postponed (a nuclear bomb shelter where barmen dressed as emergency workers prepare blood-red vodka cocktails served in hospital drip bags), he explains the ways these pressures are shaping a new generation of Hong Kong artists. “The obvious cliché is that mainland Chinese artists make huge artworks because they live in a vast country, while Hong Kong artists tend to be more introverted and small-scale because of the lack of space,” says Abbas, who works in media ranging from sculptures made of sand to haunting audiovisual works. “But it’s more complex than that. We are both Chinese, and we have always been connected, but we have two very different artistic traditions. Among other things, mainlanders went through the Revolution, with its emphasis on Socialist Realism, while we’ve been a British colony and had longer contact with Western art.” Abbas is a fifth-generation Hong Konger, and on the surface his work is suffused with a poetic sense of the city’s density and claustrophobia: In one piece, Zone (1), a robotic vacuum cleaner incessantly pushes cast concrete balls around a prisonlike room. “There is a sense of confinement,” he admits, “but I don’t want the pieces to be taken so literally. They have open-ended meanings beyond Hong Kong.”

Some artists rely very little on the Hong Kong context. Angela Su, whom I meet at a reception in the experimental gallery Para Site, studied biochemistry in Canada before returning home to Hong Kong to become a full-time artist. She now produces intensely physical images that explore the perception and imagery of the body and the pleasures
of pain. They range from ornate biological drawings in pseudo-Victorian style to a video of an imaginary operation in which a patient is given an extra orifice to be used for sexual gratification. For one performance piece, Su had her back tattooed with 39 prayer fragments to resemble the welts left by a whip, documented by photographs and a video. Inscribed using needles without ink, the burning red lashes eventually healed, leaving no permanent scars. “The piece was very well received in Hong Kong,” she says, although conservative audiences were shocked.

“The Hong Kong public loved the daredevil gesture. It echoes the risky way people live and operate on a daily basis in this city.”—Kacey Wong, on his performance art piece Paddling Home

“The Hong Kong public loved the daredevil gesture. It echoes the risky way people live and operate on a daily basis in this city.”—Kacey Wong, on his performance art piece Paddling Home

More clearly engaged with Hong Kong is artist Kacey Wong, with his Chaplinesque sense of humor. On a sweltering morning, I drop by his warehouse studio on the small island of Ap Lei Chau, southwest of Hong Kong Island, to chat on his balcony overlooking a busy shipping channel. Wong, a lanky figure in designer glasses, explores the use of space in this hyperdense city. Paddling Home, one of his most popular performance pieces, involved floating past the skyline of Victoria Harbor in a tiny model houseboat designed to mimic a typical Hong Kong apartment, as a commentary on the city’s booming real estate. “Ads for luxury apartments boast 180-degree views, but I had the full 360!” he chortles, showing me photos of himself dressed up in a white naval uniform, hitting golf balls off the houseboat’s four-foot-by-four-foot roof. “The Hong Kong public really responded to the project’s adventurous spirit, especially when I was nearly run over by the high-speed Macau casino ferries,” he says. “They loved the daredevil gesture. It echoes the risky way people live and operate on a daily basis in this city.”

Wong argues that he and many other Hong Kong artists, who have long tended to be apolitical, are finding themselves now forced to be more engaged in the New China. The result is a pervasive anxiety that Hong Kong will lose its unique character, that the freedom the artists enjoy will erode. At present, though, there is no official censorship in Hong Kong, which is another factor in its cultural emergence. It is hard to imagine that Swiss billionaire Uli Sigg would have donated his collection of Chinese art to the M+ museum if it couldn’t display radical works by artists such as Ai Weiwei. (One photo in the Tiananmen series shows Ai raising his middle finger at the Forbidden City in Beijing.)

French artist Paulo Grangeon’s 1,600 Pandas installation takes over Hong Kong’s PMQ design center.

French artist Paulo Grangeon’s 1,600 Pandas installation takes over Hong Kong’s PMQ design center.

I VISIT JOHNSON ONE LAST TIME time in his gallery after the dust has settled from Art Basel. “It used to be thought that becoming an artist in Hong Kong was a decision to starve,” Johnson muses. “Artists would be nicknamed mo chut sick, Cantonese slang for someone who is hopeless, in a dead-end career. The underground was so far underground that nobody really hoped to break out. That produced some fine work, but there was little chance for it reaching a wide audience. Now, local galleries all want to represent Hong Kong artists, to offer a unique Asian dimension to international collectors. People don’t want to travel all this way and find out it’s just like everywhere else.”

Planning a trip to Hong Kong? Where to eat, sleep, and meet the artists. Make sure to check out our complete guide to Hong Kong

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.