The online alternative to Art Basel Hong Kong, called off in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, has a number of pluses, writes Charles Seymour.
Takashi Murakami, Kiki, 2018–20, Gagosian. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Although Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms, launched on March 20, came into existence by default, the portal provides a necessary alternative to experiencing art in the time of a global emergency forcing people to stay indoors. The viewing platform was created in the wake of the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) — the city’s flagship international art event — as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The fair’s inaugural digital edition has seen participation by 90 percent of its exhibitors, showcasing premium works of art to potential buyers. Over 2,000 pieces of art, with an estimated value of US$270 million, are on offer as part of the new initiative.
John Chamberlain, Continuousentanglement, 2001; Hauser & Wirth. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The most obvious difference between visiting an art fair online and in person is the dramatic alteration of the physical viewing experience. Galleries have responded quickly, providing high-resolution images of their ware to the online platform. Some of these have been photographed against a white wall with a viewing bench in the frame to create a sense of scale. Still, looking at digital versions of a work of art could mean losing out on the experience of watching how the said work responds to light and shade in the environs it is placed, as well as the textural qualities of the painted surface.
George Condo, Transformations, 2019, Hauser & Wirth. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
As for sculptures and installations, multiple photos of each piece, shot from various angles, are on show, to give viewers a sense of what it might look like in the physical realm, although that is hardly a substitute for the scale and immersive potential it might have, which can only be experienced in real life. Online viewing also makes it difficult to get a sense of how the curation of art pieces comes together at each booth.
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Botticelli Primavera), 2017-2020; David Zwirner. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
However, putting together an online viewing facility is probably the next best option for art lovers at the time of a raging global pandemic, when mass gatherings of people are discouraged. An online viewing platform provides an effective alternative for galleries to stay in touch with the art community and keep the sales going as much as is possible.
Lari Pittman, Found Buried # 1, 2020, Lehmann Maupin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
In fact, online viewing is not a novel idea at all. David Zwirner started virtual viewing rooms back in 2017. However, Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms is perhaps the first instance of an online exhibition run on such a large scale. It can be seen as a new form of collective experience that has implications beyond a contingency measure adopted to cope with the exigencies of COVID-19 with the potential to revolutionize how art fairs are run in the future.
Another difference is the presence of price tags, or in some cases a mention of the price range, which do not usually figure in art fairs. Furthermore, it is possible to track down the works that have been sold as some of these are then removed from the website. While this may not seem like a big deal, in the art world, such a move marks an important step toward more transparent sales, benefitting both buyers and dealers.
Julian Opie, Sam Amelia Jeremy Teresa., 2019, Lisson Gallery. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
One of the prime attractions of ABHK seems to be missing in the digital edition. Talks and panel discussions on the latest developments in the contemporary art world featuring artists, gallery owners, curators, collectors, architects and critics do not figure in the fair’s virtual avatar.
Also missing are the high entrance fees and exclusive tickets, contributing to the fair’s elitist image. The outbreak of COVID-19 has indirectly resulted in democratization of art.
Do Ho Suh, Main Entrance, 388 Benefit Street, Providence, RI 02903, USA, 2016, Lehmann Maupin. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Alexandra Thorold, a London-based, art gallery associate and frequent visitor to ABHK, feels not being able to check out a piece of art in person “will not derail a sale” where a buyer is looking “for investment potential”.
“However, for a client looking for artwork to integrate into their personal collection, it might be much harder to make a concrete decision without seeing the work in the flesh.”
She adds that buyers are feeling more unsure and unstable in the current economic climate and therefore many of them are less likely to purchase works of art. “Interestingly and somewhat ironically, though, this could be an opportune moment to buy art as you might find excellent deals on works that are usually hard to come by.”
Wesley Tongson, Mountains of Heaven, No. 366, 1994, Galerie du Monde. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
“There is a magic in so many artworks that cannot simply translate to the screen,” she says. At the same time, she admits, the need to make the transition to online viewing cannot be underestimated at this crucial juncture when a huge section of people the world over are confined to their homes. “I think the galleries and ABHK have done an amazing job to come together at short notice and make the online experience as good as it can be.”
Overall, the response to the virtual reincarnation of ABHK has been positive. While the online edition has little scope for visitors to mingle and talk about art, it could be a harbinger of a time when art fairs can use advanced technology to reach out to a worldwide audience, cutting across the boundaries of geographical location and economic status.
HONG KONG NEWS