A life-sized sculpture of a naked old woman greeted visitors to this year’s Hong Kong international art show that ran from May 17-20.
It was one of the more controversial exhibits, attracting scores of admirers and detractors. Part of the attraction was the fact the sculpture seemed so real: An electric motor made the woman’s stomach rise and fall gently as if the wizened creature were alive.
The sculpture, by Shen Shaomin, was called “I want to know what infinity is”. It had an eternal beauty, despite the woman’s shriveled dugs and almost bald head. She reclined in a deck chair on a bed of salt, her legs spread to reveal a withered pudenda.
The Hong Kong art show, in its fifth year, is now a fixture on the international circuit. From next year it will be known as Art Basel, to become one of the major art shows on the world circuit in terms of size and glitz. Almost 270 galleries from 38 countries exhibited this year.
Fair director Magnus Renfrew said one thing could not be denied: “Asia is now clearly centre stage on the international art market.”
Despite the Shen sculpture, nudity was relatively lacking at this year’s event. So were bow ties. Mercifully, I saw only one man wearing such an aberration.
Highlight of the show, in terms of political impact, was the installation by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist. He has done most to publicise the Chinese government’s dreadful track record in explaining the tragedy of the earthquake at Wenchuan in Sichuan province in May 2008.
Ai’s exhibit was called “Cong”. A “cong” is a jade tube with a circular inner section and a squarish outer structure. It is believed to be a ritual object though the original purpose has been lost in time.
For the Hong Kong show Ai Weiwei built a huge cong, five metres long and three metres high. The circular inner structure contains the names of the 5,196 students killed when the earthquake toppled scores of schools.
Between October 2009 and May 2010 volunteers at Ai Weiwei’s studio sent 183 letters to Chinese government departments seeking information about the earthquake, aiming to discover why the buildings collapsed so easily.
Replies to the 183 letters are displayed on the outside walls of the “cong”. Those replies are almost identical, suggesting a bureaucracy uniform in its refusal to disclose what it knows about the earthquake. The notes that accompany the “cong” said, simply: “So far, not one government department has given a direct reply to any of the questions asked.”
This exhibition explains why the Chinese government seems to hate Ai Weiwei so much.
Another memorable exhibition included the photographs of Chen Jiagong. Chen displayed huge images of China’s ugliness – polluted cities and industrial sites, and derelict towns. Yet each photograph showed in the foreground the face and figure of at least one beautiful Chinese woman. These images were haunting, sad, and exquisite.
Thousands of people flocked through the turnstiles. Organisers said the total would be the highest to date. Most were much younger than the kinds of people who attend art events like this in the UK.
Tickets to Hong Kong’s international art show cost 255 HKD. The catalogue cost 250 HKD, setting attendees back 41 pounds for the combined items. The tote bag given away with the catalogue had these words on the outside: “Money creates taste.” Let’s hope it was meant ironically.