ART: Sign of the times

Last week’s Young Art Taipei, which took place in a local hotel, was poppish, cartoony, tech-inspired and surreal. It sheds insight into how a young generation views itself

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Sun, May 26, 2013 - Page 12

It is difficult to write critically about art fairs. News coverage on fairs is generally about business transactions or art celebrity gossip, and the mountains of images that galleries supply defies category or interpretation. Yet the age of the art fair is upon us, and their influence in the art world is unquestionably growing.

Last weekend saw Young Art Taipei (台北國際當代藝術博覽會), a hotel fair for contemporary art that has become a local pop phenomenon. This weekend, Hong Kong will see the biggest art fair ever in the region with Art Basel Hong Kong. Success at these events is mainly related to statistics on total sales, visitors and media coverage.

Art Basel Hong Kong results from the purchase of the Hong Kong Art Fair — a young, rapidly growing fair established in 2008 — by the world’s largest art fair, Art Basel. It becomes Art Basel’s third international hub, along with the mother fair held every summer in Basel, Switzerland, and Art Basel Miami Beach, which focuses on North and South America. Art Basel Hong Kong brings a cachet of old-world art establishment to the status-hungry new money of Greater China. It couldn’t be a better fit.

Celebrity sightings in Hong Kong began by the middle of last week. Supermodel Kate Moss, Russian tycoon and owner of Chelsea football club Roman Abramovic, artist Takashi Murakami and LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch were all seen at pre-fair events.

CNN and BBC World devoted major coverage to a new work in Hong Kong by Ai Weiwei, Baby Formula 2013, which was made from almost 2,000 tins of baby formula and meant as a critique of China’s miserable record on food safety.

Though half the galleries at Art Basel Hong Kong are regional, top international galleries include Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace and White Cube. As one of the fair’s special projects, British artist Jeremy Deller has created a full-scale inflatable sculpture modeled on Stonehenge.

ART FAIR SPECTACULAR

Young Art Taipei may be small beans by comparison, but it similarly shows how contemporary art is fast becoming a form of ticket-selling pop entertainment that is at least on par with indie music or arthouse film.

The three-day art fair, held at the Sheraton Taipei from May 17 to May 19, drew 6,000 visitors, the vast majority of them young people. Art works on display at 61 galleries (39 from Taiwan, 17 from Japan, four from China and one from Singapore) was poppish, cartoony, tech-inspired and surreal. With most artists under 45 years old, it perhaps sheds insight into how a young generation views itself.

For this is a generation with its own pantheon of master artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Makoto Aida and Yayoi Kusama. Their influence was ubiquitous at Young Art Taipei, but even so, art directly inspired by cartoons, manga, superheroes and other pop culture icons seemed to be at a relative ebb this year. One exception was the oil paintings of Iron Man by Kent Koeng Tan (陳傑強), a bit of kitschy fan art crassly timed for the release of the latest Iron Man film in local theaters.

Also at Young Art Taipei, there was graffiti art, street art, pop chinoiserie, fascinations with pattern and texture, geometric art that reflected a digital, technology-driven world, and no shortage of representations of nymphettes, seductive females and sexualized girls. There was a major emphasis on technique and individual style, and often works felt like illustration or graphic design. There was little that was confounding or “hard to get,” and nothing you could call conceptual art.

GRASPING AT REALITY

As at all art fairs, the work represents a bit of a free-for-all. The predictions of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard came to mind. He saw unrestrained capitalism and the extreme proliferation of images parts of a single phenomenon and feared that total immersion in images would leave us unable to grasp reality altogether. Art critic Jed Perl saw this happening at least within the frame of the art world and gave art fairs much of the blame. He coined the term “laissez faire aesthetics” to describe a total relativization of aesthetic and moral values in art.

Yet while wandering through the 61 hotel suites of Young Art Taipei, with paintings perched on beds and windowsills, one could pick up threads that are weaving the mindset of a new generation. These young artists are preoccupied with childhood and claim a view that is intentionally naive, representations of sexuality included. There are too many images of young boys or girls to count, and as a rule they are shy, withdrawn and solitary. Often, they are surrounded by some sort of fantasy space, dreamscape or animals. Browsing the galleries was like flipping through different versions of the same children’s book.

There were also frequent tinges of surrealism, but not the world-inverting surrealism of Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte. In Old Person 1 (舊的人一), Wu Yu-ting (巫宇庭) painted a little girl ballerina with the head of a fish. Lin Shihyong (林世雍), one of three artists given an independently juried award at the festival, painted nostalgic scenes of rural Taiwan in which all the people had heads of bananas. Dreaming Naoko/Night of Carnival by Mitsuru Watanabe looked like it could have been painted by the great, naif post-impressionist painter of fantastical allegory Henri Rousseau: It shows a schoolgirl with a Hello Kitty shoulder bag asleep and floating above an autumnal wooded landscape and carnival people.

These are not necessarily great paintings, but they do have uncannily similar themes: childhood, dreams and a desire to remain naive. And there were many more such works. And they sold.

CULTIVATING ARTISTS AND COLLECTORS

Within the three days of Young Art Taipei, nearly 600 prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs were sold for a total of almost NT$30 million. The total was down only slightly from last year, the drop attributed to the poor economy by organizers.

“The goal we set for this fair at the beginning has been achieved to a certain extent,” said gallerist Rick Wang (王瑞棋), whose Aki Gallery was one of the original organizers of Young Art Taipei in 2009.

That goal was developing a market for young, untested artists and cultivating a new group of collectors, especially individuals making a first-ever purchase of contemporary art.

“Now I think we need to upgrade,” Wang continued. “We need to not only catch all those youngsters, we also need to fulfill the expectations of serious collectors.”

Young Art Taipei director Richard Chang (張學孔) meanwhile said that the fair saw no negative effects from its proximity to Art Basel Hong Kong.

“This fair is for young artists and inexpensive works,” explained Chang. “International collectors for expensive artworks will go to Hong Kong next week. By comparison, almost all the collectors here are local. It is a completely different market.”