The Struggles of Installing Large-Scale Artworks in China

By Bryan Grogan, March 20, 2019

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In the immediate aftermath of the first Taipei Dangdai Art Festival, images of a massive installation titled ‘KAWS: HOLIDAY’ were beamed around the world, and many began to hypothesize about the potential for Taipei’s art market to develop in the same way that Hong Kong’s has. With the opening of H Queen’s in Hong Kong, the region has seen an influx of famed international galleries, but what’s really driven the development of the art market in the city is the presence of Asia’s largest art fair, Art Basel Hong Kong. 

Followed by the establishment of subsequent fairs like Art Central in Hong Kong, West Bund Art and Design and Art021 in Shanghai and JingArt in Beijing, China has in recent years become a necessary way station for collectors, art media and institutions alike. One facet in particular that tends to attract attention from locals and property developers is the integration of large-scale sculptures, paintings and installations. As Art Basel Hong Kong opens for its seventh edition later this month, we spoke with the folks behind the large-scale installations that are spotlighted in the main halls within the sector Encounters, which includes 12 pieces across a 100-square-meter space. 

Chiharu Shiota. Image via Art Basel Hong Kong

This year, Encounters curator Alexie Glass-Kantor has put together works by a diverse range of artists and influences, including South Korean sculptor Lee Bul, Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota, Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset and Chinese artist Zhao Zhao. This sample set of four artists is wildly different, with Shiota’s yarn-based installations standing in stark contrast to Zhao’s floor work, which pays homage to dead cats on the streets of Beijing. 

Tony Albert. Image via Art Basel Hong Kong

This year’s theme is built upon the Maya Angelou poem ‘Still I Rise,’ an idea that occurred to Glass-Kantor after already having picked the pieces that will be included in the exhibition. The artists are ethnically diverse, represent a number of age groups and have starkly different approaches to how art should be made. ‘Still I Rise’ could reference the nationality and political turbulence of some of the nations represented, the potential rise of the region itself or perhaps even the need to rise with changing tides and times. 

Since Glass-Kantor took the helm, the number of pieces featured has dropped from 30 to just 12 pieces. That reduction accompanies her idea that those selected should be more focused and immersive, characteristics that have proven successful in the public art realm. It’s for this reason we’ve seen the expansion of K11 art mall projects, which recently opened their newest outpost in Guangzhou, and the success of public art manufacturing firms like Urban Art Projects in Shanghai. Combined with the growing interest at the local and international levels, one of the things that Art Basel Encounters stresses when it comes to devising the make-up of their annual lineup is the inclusion of Chinese and Asian artists. 

Zhao Zhao. Image via Art Basel Hong Kong

“I feel very passionately about the region, about advocating for collecting within the region and for building the capacity for artists to take on a level of risk and experimentation in their practice that can be supported by institutions and collections,” Glass-Kantor says. “Art Basel is a great opportunity to make space for artists to be able to produce ambitious works that can go into significant collections, which gives them support to invest back in their studios, in their local context, in order to keep producing and exploring the work that they’re making and the audience that they engage with.” 

Meanwhile, ArtReview Asia Xian Chang at the West Bund Art Fair, led by ArtReview Asia editor Aimee Lin and ArtReview editor-in-chief Mark Rappolt, has helped to bring large scale installation pieces to Shanghai, while supporting Chinese artists looking to reach a larger audience. Lin stresses, “ArtReview Asia Xian Chang is not only about bringing international art to China. It also invites local artists to realize works at a specific location and to reach a different audience.”

This balance ensures that collectors, gallerists and artists find Xian Chang’s setup mutually beneficial, while making the subsection and its installations a highlight of the largest art fair on the Chinese mainland. 

Jin Shan, Qiu Xiaofei and Christopher Orr. Image via ArtReview Asia Xian Chang

Part of the reason why Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen haven’t fully cemented their rightful place in the Asian art fair scene is due to the issues of customs duties, which have been well-documented. Lin also speaks to the difficulties of both transporting and setting up large-scale installations, and logistically managing the problems that come from working with older buildings and the physical absence of the artist. Non-Chinese galleries seeking to make an impact often wish to bring their best and most intricate works to be shown during Xian Chang, meaning Lin is sometimes tasked with communicating with artists via social media. 

“Liam Gillick made a site-specific piece for the first edition, and we had to change the plan and material in order to install it. I worked with the artist via WhatsApp, and he had to trust me in terms of quality control. In the end, the artist and the fair team were all very happy.”

Installing work is expensive and complicated, which only becomes increasingly true as they get larger and push further into three-dimensional formats. As the fairs and their capacity to exhibit large-scale works continue to grow, we’re likely to see more installations crop up across China and on our WeChat Moments. 

Art Basel Hong Kong, Mar 29-31; HKD250-1,150. The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Tickets

[Cover image via Art Basel Hong Kong]

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