With Art Basel taking over ART HK this year, enthusiastic visitors like me were treated to more than just another great art fair. With half of the participating galleries from Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, it was no surprise that my appreciation for Asian Art broadened. The recent boom in the contemporary art market is one reason why Hong Kong has become the new, burgeoning, global art hub. The Asian focus at this year’s rebranded Art Basel Hong Kong, which ran from May 23 to 26, gave the international audience a chance to take a closer look at the emerging talent coming out of the East.
As always, there was so much to see and explore at this year’s prestigious fair. The two stand-outs for me were South Korean Artists In Sook Kim and Won Seoung Won. Both showcased their large-scale photographic pieces— each exuberantly layered and elaborately staged. And although there are parallels between the two artists- Korean, female, studied in Germany– their visual narratives could not be more different. Still, the similarities were there; both are methodical and painstaking in their approach. I was not the only one returning a second, third and fourth time to their respective booths. As many at this year’s fair might attest, their work had an aesthetic presence that was awe-inspiring and hypnotic.
In Sook Kim’s depiction of modern life is at times shocking and provocative. Kim’s work is doused with themes of voyeurism, darkness, sex and isolation. These ideas are portrayed perfectly in her magnum opus, Saturday Night. At first glance what appears to be the exterior facade of a hotel is actually a grid of 66 individually staged rooms. The viewer is invited to peak inside each: a lonely pilot at the edge of the bed, an old couple sleeping, a young girl curled up crying, a woman hanging from a noose. The piece took three years to complete and sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2012 for $95,352. Her work, Auction furthers her theme of voyeurism and shock. The piece features a tall, blond, naked woman, standing on an auction block at the center of a staircase. A sea of business-suited men surround the woman, waiting for their chance to bid. The image stuns the viewer with contrasts between male and female, skin and cloth, dark and light, sex and business.
Won Seoung Won’s images are less provocative but equally compelling. Her highly digitized montages create ephemeral visual fantasies that draw the viewer in. Her work is similar to Kim’s in scope but deal with themes of childhood, fantasy, memories and light. In her most recent series, My age of 7 in 1978 her own family photographs compose the base elements of the scenes but are layered and woven with pictures of rural and urban life so it is hard to demark the line between inside and out.
Asian artists have infiltrated the art world and will have a strong, lasting effect on the contemporary art market. While somewhat ignored in the past, they are now permanently part of the conversation. CAIS Gallery sold all four of Won Seoung Won’s large-scale works on display during the VIP preview on May 22. Overall, the Eastern focus at this year’s inaugural event garnered much attention from critics and collectors. On a personal level, the experience propelled me into a new spectrum of contemporary art- with South Korea leading the way.