White Cube Ups the Ante in Hong Kong

White Cube Ups the Ante in Hong Kong
Gilbert & George, "Accused," from LONDON PICTURES, 2011
(Courtesy of White Cube)

In the latest endorsement of Hong Kong as the rising art marketplace of the world, London’s White Cube will open its first branch outside the U.K. tonight in the heart of the harbor city at 50 Connaught Road. Opening 6,000 square feet of shopfront space on this Hong Kong thoroughfare, which fronts Victoria Harbour and is already home to such swanky neighbors as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Jardine House, is a show of considerable confidence by the gallery that made its name nurturing the so-called “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Following such a major play the gallery might have been forgiven for playing it safe with its opening show, but instead their opening show – Gilbert & George – is all chutzpah.

The exhibition will be the world premiere of the duo’s “LONDON PICTURES,” a series they have been creating over the past 9 years. Distilled from some 4,000 newspaper headline posters, the pictures, says White Cube’s Asia director Graham Steele, are “a kind of a cacophony of contemporary society’s woes, strifes and weaknesses.” The works, double hung on the gallery’s walls, will be “screaming at you”, according to Steele. “It will be incredibly intense. Anyone who walks into this gallery is going to be completely moved.”

Oddly enough, this is not the first time Gilbert & George have shown in China. Almost 20 years ago in a surreal piece of cultural diplomacy by the British Council, the duo were honored with a major show at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing. Back in 1993 China was still suffering from the chill of ostracization that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Grateful for any cultural interchange at all they took Gilbert & George to their breasts in a way that would be simply impossible today. Nowadays the British Council is better known for bringing such historically approved heavy weights as J.W. Turner to NAMOC, but they were nonetheless more than happy to celebrate the return of Gilbert & George at a series of events yesterday in Hong Kong.

Although both in the dimensions of their space and the eccentricity of their opening act White Cube is upping the ante in Hong Kong, which has not hitherto seen a gallery on this scale, the Londoners are not the only international player planning to take a stake in this Asian art market hub. Gagosian created considerable buzz by opening here in January 2011 (in the more boutique but still landmark quarters provided by Central Hong Kong’s Pedder Building) and will soon be followed by such notables as Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Platform China, Pearl Lam and Simon Lee. All of these will be competing for a foothold in a scene which, though still comparatively small, already hosts experienced dealers in Asia like de Sarthe Gallery, Edouard Malingue and Hanart TZ, the latter being the first gallery in the world to show Chinese contemporary art and who is now Gagosian’s neighbor in the Pedder Building.

All of the new entrants are betting on one thing: that the undoubted dynamism Hong Kong displays at its annual art fair ART HK and in its auction rooms (which have made them the third most important sales venue for Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the world after New York and London) will carry over to the galleries. The experience of those on the scene for a while, however, suggest they may need to be patient.

Hong Kong is important because it is one of the world’s friendliest business environments for selling art, but it has little in the way of a local market. This is not a city — yet — where gallery hopping is a favored pastime and more than one art dealer in the city has confided that the best approach to running a gallery would, in fact, be to only open during auction and art fair seasons when a guaranteed number of cashed-up and art-aware fly-ins are in town.

Nonetheless with so many high profile entrants Hong Kong will soon approach the kind of “critical mass,” as ART HK director Magnus Renfrew puts it, “where you can imagine one day people will travel to Hong Kong just to see the galleries.” Renfrew is quick to say that we’re not quite there yet, but the day “may not be too far away.”

Meanwhile Steele is confident. “There’s a palpable sense of energy here. I’ve had a lot of friends come over from America and London since I’ve been in Hong Kong and they all say it’s got an energy like New York, or like New York was. There’s something happening in Hong Kong, and it’s electric.”

Gilbert & George’s LONDON PICTURES are on show at White Cube Hong Kong from March 2 – May 5 2012