Hong Kong's Art Ecosystem

Hong Kong’s Art Ecosystem

More than 1,700 art exhibitions open in Hong Kong annually (that is, at least four openings daily on average). However, this does not bring about much related discussion. Collector Club therefore initiates Art Appraisal Club, with five experienced front-line art practitioners as members to discuss and write on exhibitions and featured topics in a group discussion every month.
The Collector Club Project comprises two parts: Oil Street Exhibition (from 24 January 2014 to 22 April 2014) and a non-permanent membership programme targeting collectors and contemporary art lovers who would like to explore on Hong Kong’s art and culture. Articles and discussions from Art Appraisal Club will also be uploaded to Collector Club’s website.
Written by: Kwok Ying / Chan Sai Lok / Jeff Leung / Yeung Yang / Leung Po Shan

The “Art Ecosystem” in Hong Kong has undergone drastic changes over the past decade or so. The development of West Kowloon Cultural District (“WKCD”), exhibitions in shopping malls and art conventions all bring countless new opportunities to the field: Number of world-renowned galleries open their branches in the territory; Fine arts undergraduates nowadays get contracted by galleries even before they complete their studies while only few of their predecessors could do so; Art space, once the key platform for artists, has now become scarce.


The local art scene prospers from new exhibition venues and more resources from both the government and commercial sector. However, will this bloom provide diverse manifestations or turn singular by market forces? What situation do local artists find themselves in? Art Appraisal Club explores on the above issues in its debut article.

Ying Kwok: What do you think makes an ideal “Art Ecosystem”?

Jeff Leung: My ideal Art Ecosystem is where each component, including art museums, galleries, art space, art critiques, curation and publications, evolves as times and society change. Examples include commercial galleries replacing non-profit-making art space as main exhibition venues, and increasing number of art magazines (with more art news than critique) brought by the thriving art market. I think there is a lack, not only of breakthrough in the development of local art critique and curation, but also of private foundations and exhibition organizations supporting local art, in the past ten years.

Ying Kwok: The first feeling I have after my 10-year departure from Hong Kong is that independent art space for local artists has shrunk. Where can local artists initiate experimental projects now? Of course many would pick their own studios. While this favours small group interactions and in-depth discussions, I think it is no match for independent art space. As it diminishes, so does the power of art to be viewed, to inspire and to facilitate exchanges. This also partly explains the current situation of art critique and curation Jeff mentioned. The limited room for development does not only hinder the growth of new curators, but also of those quite experienced. This is the gap I witness now.

Chan Sai Lok: The image of “artist” has always been vague for locals. When trying to comprehend the recently prominent grand concept of “Art Ecosystem”, we are at a loss like when navigating a vast rainforest. When it comes to “ecosystem”, I think it shouldn’t be just about elites or those “insiders”. Whether the public feel free and easy or not, when they participate should also count. The “WKCD effects” bring involvement from commercial organizations, but not growth in independent art space. Do public actually need art at all? This is a genuine question that has never been seriously discussed. Is the public just beneficiary of art? Do they recognize the value of art (but not art pieces) on both personal and social level? Who are viewing, appreciating and discussing art at a time when art activities are among many choices of consumption and entertainment? When art exchanges remain superficial, and neither discussion-inspiring professional art critiques nor mediators are present, I think there is a dire need not just for in-depth discussion on art, but also for internalization of artistic concepts.

Yang Yeung: My answer to this question is two-fold: Internal and external conditions, and principles at other important levels. Let me focus more on internal ones as Jeff and Ying had discussed the external ones. First, Equality: are we treating or preparing to treat every art form as equal so as to extend this approach to the society? Second, Mutuality: we need to acknowledge our mutual influence and protect our equal rights of expression. Are we showing enough mutual support, trust and understanding? Third, Freedom: what makes us free as practitioners of art in this society? Is everyone equally free? What is artistic freedom in connection with Equality? Fourth, Room and time for deliberation – in relation to all three above, do we regularly practice (and value the practice of) deliberating the above principles of our survival? Last but not least, there are many more under-explored ways to talk about art than existing, established ones.

Leung Po: I would rather talk about art than “Art Ecosystem”, for the latter would bring a fruitless discussion. Recently I am reading High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2009) by Isabelle Graw, in which the author further develops Bourdieu’s theories. Bourdieu discusses the “myth” between art and money – the self-discipline principle of the field of culture and art engages in relative autonomy with external fields like market. Simply put, art objects to whatever market supports. Graw, however, thinks Bourdieu is only telling part of the fact – The mutually dependent relative heteronomy has also long existed between art and money. This is particularly true for the post millennium contemporary art market after the burst of financial bubbles. When there is only a thin line between priceless art and worthless art, we are bound to return to the materialism of art (a good example will be For the Love of God by Damian Hirst in 2007 featuring a skull in diamonds). The mass is searching for the guiding principles determining the “depreciation proof” nature of art pieces. Art critique should have played this decisive role at a time when neither the contemporary art market nor its symbolic value is clear. In the expanding art market, boards and charts quickly process (or even make up) information favourable to art investment. This phenomenon has been prominent ever since the HK Art Fair in 2008 – Magazines like Timeout would evaluate art personalities every year. These, like guidebooks to tourists, would give readers the impression that they thoroughly understand the local art ecosystem.

Ying Kwok: If we return from the overall environment to creative process itself, is the local art atmosphere in Hong Kong particularly favorable or harsh to the development of any art medium? Would Sai Lok say something about the survival of Chinese ink paintings? Would Yang Yeung elaborate on the required conditions and room for development for sound art pieces?

Yang Yeung: The first and primary thing is to provide the conditions for people to listen. Artists who work with sound as their material don’t worry too much about the availability of physical space. They are more concerned with how the conditions could be made for the hearer to listen – in various aspects in detail. When sound makes space by re-constituting them in their physicality, listening is about listening to space (as relative distances, past and present etc.). Bleeding sound in an exhibition hall, for instance, that ‘confuses’ one work and the other is in itself an interesting and productive experience of the art.

Soundpockets have never been interested in ‘existing spaces’ (perhaps by that we mean, white cube galleries, museums (or spaces that have already become routine and managed in particular ways), not because they are not interesting (acoustically and otherwise), but just that there could be so many possibilities when there is no need to prioritize the conventional. For sound to freely and fully express itself, there are many other things to worry about than just space. In general, I think it’s important to assert our right to use space – which has to do with art in general, not just the art of sound. The right to use space – public space – is regulated by slanted principles. This is a much more important front to move and challenge than the kind of space for a particular art form, for with the right to use public space safeguarded, all art forms benefit.

Sai Lok: I don’t think any art medium would flourish in the territory. Hong Kong is simply too money-oriented and pragmatic; abstract and conceptual art pieces, or works with local themes but not with any so called “Chinese” elements, could only win applause from insiders no matter how brilliant they are. Chinese ink paintings as a medium might well develop like its western counterparts. However, unique changes in environment and concepts across dynasties develop a distinctive pathway for Chinese art, making it rich and lively. The “New Ink Movement” symbolizes the connection between Chinese art and the contemporary syntax; Art museums have featured Chinese art as a spiritual ideal in multi-media exhibitions. While the Chinese artistic circle undeniably has stayed away from the spotlight, we should critically assess how well equipped curators, art critics and public alike in appreciation of Chinese art.

Ying Kwok: The group of successful full-time artists in their thirties set realistic examples for the later generations. Would Leung Po give us a brief analysis as to why male artists dominate the group?

Leung Po: I never set limits on sex and age groups. The fact that my works are gender conscious gives a misconception that my commentaries do the same. During around 2003 to 2004, I tried to sexually segregate male artists as I was particularly concerned about them. Female artists from earlier generations like Irene Chou, May Fung and Ellen Pau paved way for their successors so that female artists in my generation need not worry much about discrimination in our career. That said, I somehow see the need for Hong Kong to “enter” the international art scene. As the stubborn power and aesthetic structures have revived (Clearly seen from biennials and prizes commercially titled, to public cultural institutions operated on equalitarian principles, like museums and sponsored art space,  surrendering its prime position), I see the need to set gender as the focal point again without transforming it into a consumable in the market.

Ying Kwok: Jeff, What is your view on the impact local art environment cast on young artists?

Jeff Leung: Generally speaking, the benefits art brings to the economy and society elevate the social role and position of artists. With more and more news and features on art, the image of artist (like full-time painters and conservation artists) is more vividly portrayed than ever. This in turn attracts more teens to be practitioners of art, for they do not see it just as a romantic identity, but an achievable professional goal. I see two extremes in the paths young artists take after their graduation: some got contracted into solo exhibitions by galleries; the other contribute their creativity to social movements or community developments. Young artists holding exhibitions in galleries produce beautiful works with their excellent skills. They successfully present the literal aspects of mass topics like local cultures and daily life. But there are few experimental works related to universal values, such as equality, environmental protection and war. On the other hand, artists participating in community development free themselves from the conventional boundaries set by art organizations. They are no longer merely observers and enquirers. Instead, they live their life in the community and have first hand experience in its development, Part-time artists working as farmers are a good example.