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April 5, 2024updated Apr 08, 2024

Hong Kong’s Art Month Captures the City’s Cultural Revival

A renewed Art Basel and The Peninsula's Art in Resonance puts an ever evolving Hong Kong on display.

By Ellys Woodhouse

This is not a typical night at The Peninsula Hong Kong. The Grande Dame of the Far East may have sat as a beacon on Kowloon’s harbor for more than 95 years, but tonight, the Hong Kong institution is transformed into something almost unrecognizable. 

Each of the hotel’s 10 restaurants is closed for usual service and I doubt very few guests are in their rooms. A DJ booth stands where the string quartet usually plays, guests dance in the lobby where afternoon tea is typically served while colored lights pulsate against the grand fluted ceiling.

Almost 1,000 guests, artists and Hong Kong’s elite are attending a gala to celebrate the launch of Art in Resonance, the Peninsula’s art program.

Since its launch in 2019, the commission-based program has celebrated and supported emerging and mid-career artists to produce significant new public artworks. This year’s showcase features works from four visionary artists – Elise Morin, Kingsley Ng, Lachlan Turczan and Saya Woolfalk – which will be displayed at The Peninsula Hong Kong until May 17, before traveling to other Peninsula properties.

[See also: The Peninsula London: Same Same, but Different]

Elise Morin’s ‘SOLI’ makes a striking entrance to the Peninsula lobby / ©The Peninsula

As crowds stand in awe around Morin’s magnificent SOLI, which shines – quite literally, thanks to the use of thousands of crushed CDs sparkling like crystals – in the center of The Peninsula’s lobby, it’s easy to forget that Hong Kong only officially lifted its Covid-19 restrictions and reopened its borders a little over 12 months ago. 

Instead, this is the Monday of the last week in March, which the LED buildings across Victoria Harbor flash to remind us is Hong Kong’s Art Month.

A Star Ferry jaunt across to Hong Kong Island and they are setting up for Art Basel, which opens for previews the following day. The fair may only run from March 28 to 30, but satellite exhibitions and events have bloomed across the city since March began, in the city’s month-long celebration of its booming cultural scene. 

Art Basel is a showcase of Asian galleries from across the continent / ©Kaikai Kiki Gallery/ Art Basel

When Art Basel closes at the end of the week, it will be celebrated as the most successful since the pandemic. A record attendance of 75,000 visitors will have dropped by to see the 242 galleries on show, with 65 exhibitors being new to the fair and 68 returning following the pandemic. 

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Hong Kong is a very different city from that which hosted Art Basel in 2019. This peninsula in particular looks almost unrecognizable, mostly thanks to the opening of the ambitious redevelopment of the West Kowloon Cultural District, one of the largest cultural projects in the world. Establishing a thriving cultural quarter for Hong Kong, the project has seen the opening of the M+ Museum in 2021, Asia’s first global museum for contemporary arts, the Hong Kong Palace Museum open in 2022, and the Xiqu Centre established as the home of Chinese opera at the end of 2019. 

But that’s not the only difference since 2019. While Hong Kong is no doubt undergoing its own cultural renaissance, this revival is happening against a backdrop of political and economic disturbances. The weekend before Art Basel and Art in Resonance opened, the fast-tracked and expanded security bill known as Article 23 was signed into law, reigniting concerns around China’s legal oversight of the SAR.

[See also: A Luxury Travel Guide to Hong Kong]

A visual display of ‘ping pong politics’ / ©Art Basel

Amid other concerns around the slowing down of China’s economy, it is fair to say that this background noise of uncertainty is not going to diffuse overnight – but then again when have uncomfortable conditions failed to produce great art? 

Art Basel Hong Kong proves no different. 

As the cultural hub for Asia and the Asia Pacific, Hong Kong sits as the gateway to the region’s rich and evolving cultural landscape – which is becoming increasingly more influential, since just last year China (including mainland and SAR regions such as Hong Kong) overtook the UK as the world’s second-largest art market (19% compared with 17%). With more than half of its exhibitors operating in the region, Art Basel offers an unparalleled and dynamic overview of the rich artist scene across the continent and beyond. 

So-called ‘disappointing’ political leaders in childlike form / ©Tang Contemporary Art / Art Basel

For example, Singaporean artist Ming Wong’s large-scale installation Friendship First, Competition Second (2024) references the so-called ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy between China and the US, as a giant ping-pong ball is split into two halves while archival videos and newspapers and magazines clippings from the Cold War era play in the background. 

In one of the most memorable works on display, Once Upon A Time saw Chinese artist Lin Wei position hyperrealistic mannequins of children. Each bears a likeness to global leaders, whether that’s Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama or Osama Bin Laden, which the artist said was a choice to represent leaders who have disappointed the world by failing to improve the world through their politics.

Behind the scenes of the installation of Ng’s ‘Emeralda / ©The Peninsula

Across the harbor and back at the Grande Dame, the works on display at The Peninsula’s Art in Resonance are a similar attempt to use culture to communicate with an ever-shifting world.

As Denis Brunet, vice-president of brand, content and social marketing at The Peninsula Hotels, explained at the launch: “We really want to be part of the cities where we are implemented. We want to go beyond this traditional hotel service, and be very, very embedded in the lives of our cities.”

“We want to make a positive difference into the cultural landscape,” he continued, “Contemporary art is something that really touches everybody; across age groups, across borders.”

It is hard to miss the impact of Hong Kong local Kingsley Ng’s Esmeralda, on both its viewers and on the city skyline. Inspired by the imagined city from Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities, long strips of fabric float and dance above the hotel’s entrance, rhythmically raising and falling while Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel plays overhead (or can be listened to via the hotel’s app). 

Morin installing ‘SOLI’ in the lobby of the hotel / ©The Peninsula

To create SOLI, Elise Morin crushed more than 4,000 CDs to create the curved, wave-like sculpture that spills out into The Penisnula’s lobby. Morin explained that it was inspired by the biblical story, where Jonah is swallowed by a whale and sits in its belly until he repents and is forgiven by God. “It was a kind of allegory of the time-space where we are,” she Morin “Perhaps we are in the belly of the whale.”

The meditative retreat of Saya Woolfalk’s ‘Visionary Reality Portal’ / ©The Peninsula

Tucked away off the arcade, Saya Woolfalk has installed Visionary Reality Portal, which is a surprisingly literal name. The hallucinogenic and multisensory installation, where video projections, calming music, and swirling annihilations work to create a moment of peace away from Hong Kong’s bustle. 

Lachlan Turczan’s ‘Harmonic Resonance’ vibrating pool of water / ©The Peninsula

Lachlan Turczan personally invites people to interact with his work, Harmonic Resonance – but he doesn’t need to persuade us. The pool of 300 pounds of vibrating water, reflecting off the stainless steel pan it sits upon, encourages a childlike curiosity, to touch and create ripples, or simply watch in contemplation. 

Looking between the exhibitions and the installations and the towering city developments, you cannot miss the undercurrent of change that vibrates throughout Hong Kong, and Art Month was just a snapshot of that. Taking into consideration this is the city’s recovery in the aftershocks of the pandemic, it’s clear that the city is not quite finished shape-shifting. 

Art in Resonance at The Peninsula Hong Kong runs until May 17, 2024.

[See also: Guide to Hong Kong]

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