Art auction hub celebrates the duck

By Ellen Sheng
Financial News, June 3, 2013

It’s rare for art to make the headlines in Hong Kong, much less the front page. Yet in the past couple weeks, six larger-than-life art installations set up in West Kowloon and the arrival of Hong Kong’s largest annual art fair have pushed it into the spotlight.

A 16.5-metre tall yellow rubber duck by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman (aptly named Rubber Duck) was towed into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour last month eliciting smiles and opportunism. Shops and stalls around the city have been selling replicas of the bath toy while some restaurants created special duck dishes.

The arrival of six other inflatable art exhibits – part of the Mobile M+: Inflation! inflatable art fair held in West Kowloon – coincides with the city’s biggest annual art fair.

This year, Art Basel is making its debut in Hong Kong, replacing the Hong Kong International Art Fair, the city’s premier event since 2008 and in which Art Basel owner MCH Group bought a 60% stake in 2011.
Swiss-based MCH Group is best known as the organiser of the original Art Basel fair in Switzerland, as well as the Art Basel Miami Beach fair.

It’s said that money follows art. That’s certainly the case in Hong Kong. China’s growing wealth has caught the art world’s attention and inspired a burgeoning art scene. China is now the world’s second-largest art market.

According to art economist Clare McAndrew, China had 25% of the world art market last year, up from 5% in 2006. Hong Kong, with its tax-free status, strong financial services industry and business-friendly environment, has become the hub for China’s growing interest in art. Hong Kong has become the world’s third-largest auction hub, behind New York and London.

International auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both ramped up their presence in the city. (Sotheby’s opened a 15,000 square-foot gallery last year in Pacific Place, a popular shopping mall and office complex.) In 2011, Sotheby’s said sales in Asia reached US$1bn – putting the region on a par with the Americas and Europe.

Art isn’t the only attraction. Organisers and sponsors of Art Basel Hong Kong have been doing their best to emulate the same glamorous social scene that makes Art Basel Miami a place to be seen. Art dealers such as Larry Gagosian and Hong Kong’s elite such as Adrian Cheng, executive director at Hong Kong jeweller Chow Tai Fook, are hosting parties to entertain the glamorous international crowd that the fair attracts.

Leap, a Chinese art publication that was distributed for free at the fair, contained a humorous illustrated feature, “Art Party Survival: A Guide”.

But though the art scene has grown in recent years, Hong Kong still has a way to go before it can be considered a cultural mecca. For now, Hong Kong is still a city better known for shopping and eating. Art museums are small and few in number. Most of the city’s bookshops are fairly small and filled with practical business management books, economics textbooks or biographies about rich and successful business owners. There’s not much of a home-grown creative scene either. Hong Kong’s sky-high rents make the city inhospitable to creative types. Some have moved to mainland China, where the cost of living is lower, to open galleries, workshops and design studios.

But, if recent events are any indication, Hong Kong isn’t the most hospitable city for art. Rubber Duck, which has visited 13 cities over the past two years, apparently without incident, mysteriously deflated two weeks ago.

The cause has yet to be determined – some suspected errant cigarette butts, while others jokingly blamed bird flu. Fortunately Rubber Duck was repaired within days and hundreds gathered on the waterfront to cheer its return. But just as one art piece was repaired, another deflated.

Torrential rain forced the closure of the inflatable art fair for several days, as it wreaked havoc with other inflatables, in particular the Complex Pile, a 15.5 metre-high replica of a pile of excrement by American artist Paul McCarthy.

For some nearby office workers, the deluge was literally heaven sent. They had already lowered their office blinds to avoid having to view it all day.

This article originally appeared in Financial News. Used here with permission.