The crowd trying to get into the new Pearl Lam Gallery was so big that people blocked all the elevators of the elegant prewar Pedder Building. A line snaked out of the lobby and down the street, past the alley where the shoe repairmen work.
Those who opted to walk up found the stairs in a serious state of disrepair. Even Magnus Renfrew, director of the ART HK fair, had to squeeze past bamboo scaffolding. Women in stilettos minced around tubs of plaster. French art dealers smoked with Chinese painters in the stairwell as if they were high school delinquents instead of art world luminaries.
The scene nicely summed up Hong Kong’s cultural ambitions: There was plenty of interest and potential, not to mention plenty of money, but the infrastructure was clearly nowhere near being done.
Those who made it to Pearl Lam’s (林明珠) big space six flights up were rewarded with the best gallery show this year. The art scene veteran — an eccentric, petite figure with bouffant violet hair — eschewed the trends that made contemporary Chinese art so popular.
There were no Mao caricatures, no garish rainbow shades, no cartoon faces, no cynical commentaries on modern life.
Lam put on a subdued, nuanced group show of Chinese abstract works, a breath of fresh air in a city where galleries usually go for the eye-popping. The show, “Mindmap,” which runs until July 15, was beautifully curated by Gao Minglu (高名潞), who worked closely with Paul Moorhouse of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The two collaborated on the show — which gave a gentle nod to Chinese calligraphy, ink-brush painting and landscapes — after Lam invited them on a tour of artists’ studios in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu in Sichuan Province.
“For some time, Chinese abstraction was considered second-hand and derivative. But we have a sense of abstraction that is distinct to ourselves,” said Lam, who has long had galleries in Shanghai. “My first show had to help bring international audiences in, to help them understand a type of Chinese art that is not Pop, not political, but rooted in Chinese literati culture.”
The opening had an intellectual air that has been missing from the Hong Kong scene. Claude Hudelot, a French historian of China, arrived with a pile of the English-language version of his illustrated book, “Mao,” which had been delivered from the printer’s that morning. “This is the show to be at,” he said. “It is a piece of technical mastery.”
Hong Kong’s evolving cultural landscape experienced another seismic shift last month when five new galleries opened in a week just as ART HK was under way. (That fair has been taken over by Art Basel, which will organize it from now on.)
Much has been made of the spending power of newly moneyed Chinese collectors, at Hong Kong auctions and the fair. The strength of the art scene here, however, cannot be judged on the revenues of one five-day event, but on what is left behind after the dust settles.
Downstairs from Pearl Lam was a new addition by the London dealer Simon Lee. Lee was chatting with potential buyers next to eerie cast-bronze animals by the American artist Sherrie Levine.
Lee decided to establish a small foothold in Asia because his business in Britain was seeing increased interest from Asian buyers.
“We didn’t feel like we needed a huge space, not like in London,” he said. “We’ve always worked with collectors in some Asian countries. In Korea and Taiwan, collectors are quite sophisticated. And now, with our shows in London, we’re getting quite significant business from mainland Chinese.”