Hong Kong, 20 Years After the Handover, Part II: Uncharted Territory

Magnus Renfrew admits to feeling somewhat apprehensive about publishing his first book – especially one with a subject as meaty, complex and divisive as that of Hong Kong’s future. The author behind the newly published Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World says that writing the work, which focuses on the future of Hong Kong’s art scene, has been a rather stressful task.

Despite the struggles that came with producing such a slim and concise work on such a big topic (the book weighs in at less than 100 pages), he stands by everything he wrote, including a treatise on how Hong Kong’s upcoming M+ Museum could become one of the world’s most important institutions. “There is no doubt in my mind that given the right degree of support, M+ has the possibility to be as important for the 21st century as MoMA in New York was for the 20th century,” he writes.

Renfrew’s title is published by Penguin as part of a series of books that take stock of Hong Kong two decades after the handover. Renfrew was first approached to write a book about Hong Kong’s burgeoning cultural sphere and the opportunities and pitfalls that come with it two years ago, on the recommendation of a noted industry insider who said he was “the best man for the job.” An art historian by training, Renfrew moved to Shanghai to work with gallerist Pearl Lam. Having studied art history in his native Britain, where programmes tend not to go beyond offering Western-centric viewpoints on aesthetics and art criticism, learning to appraise Chinese art proved quite a challenge, but one that was made somewhat more manageable under Lam’s guidance.

In 2008, Renfrew became the founding director of Art HK, Hong Kong’s first international art fair, which was purchased by Swiss giant Art Basel in 2011. Three years later, Renfrew left for a stint at auction house Bonhams. He now works as an independent consultant, and he is regularly touted as one of the world’s most influential art figures by publications like Art ReviewArt + Auction and Le Journal des Arts.

Moving to China forced Renfrew to question many of his preconceived ideas and biases. Like learning a new language for the first time, it was a humbling experience, one that required him to constantly reassess his inclinations. Learning to appreciate Chinese and Asian art, with their distinct aesthetic, was uncharted terrain for Renfrew. These spheres of art tend not to be subject to the intense academic scrutiny much of the Western canon enjoys – and non-Western art has a long history of being sidelined and othered. Only recently has there been a institutional shift towards giving these canons the attention they deserve, as academics seek to widen their scope and do away with reductive assessments that speak to the specific tastes and biases of white men.

Meeting and working with Chinese artists meant learning to understand their motivations, and discovering a different and perhaps more sentimental approach to art making. When one artist responded to a question about his own artwork with the statement “It came from my heart,” Renfrew says he resisted the urge to scoff at the statement. That kind of insight helped him create a new, personal system for art valuation in this region. He calls it the Four H’s. A strong and enduring work should tick the four following boxes: Head, Hand, Heart, History. In essence, it should be made of good ideas, good technique, authenticity, and it should relate in a considered way to its context.

Renfrew’s attitude towards art, what it means, what it’s supposed to do, and what qualities will make stand the test of time, have shifted dramatically since he first arrived in China, and will probably be subject to more changes as time wears on and new art emerges in response to the vastly changing, increasingly transnational world we now live in. Moving to Hong Kong meant he was able to build on that understanding of Chinese art, while engaging with the peculiarities of this city’s own art scene. The art world here — with its history of being an in-between space that enjoys a unique kind of cultural autonomy — is a somewhat different beast, but one that Renfrew believes has great potential.

Uncharted Territory contains Renfrew’s own spirit of open-ended, scrupulous inquiry. Nuanced, readable and well-argued, it covers the years Renfrew has been in Hong Kong, from 2008 onwards, and argues that Hong Kong could become a great cultural capital of the 21st century. This time period has coincided with an important chapter in Hong Kong’s cultural sphere. Art Basel has effectively put Hong Kong on the global art map, with more and more galleries opening here, including big names like Gagosian in 2010 and White Cube two years after that.

International auction houses ramped up their Asia departments as China’s stake in the global art pie increased dramatically amid deepening pockets and despite the financial crisis. But Hong Kong’s position as a good place to buy art, thanks to its lack of sales taxes and import/export duties, is not the be all and end all of the local art scene. Despite complaints that Hong Kong’s cultural scene is too commercial or elitist, the blossoming of new local galleries, artists and art projects has added a more organic layer to the artistic ecosystem.

In his book, Renfrew argues that Hong Kong’s homegrown infrastructure and talent have played valuable work in setting the stage for a cultural rise. He is careful to give credit where it is due, pointing to galleries like 10 Chancery Lane, Alisan Fine Arts, Hanart, alongside local non-profit initiatives such as Asia Art Archives, Videotage and Para Site. What’s missing, he says, is a museum that can serve as a space that can help create much needed benchmarks for appraisal and valuation of Asian art. That responsibility will ultimately fall on M+, which is pegged to open in 2019. This is where local and Asian artists can strive to be included, and where curators can puzzle through the big Asian and global art questions outside a Western-centric context.

“There is a need to re-evaluate the importance of the artistic contribution of artists in Asia and elsewhere, and set the groundwork for the multi-narrative view of the art world more befitting the 21st century,” Renfrew writes in his book, arguing that that role is best suited for a city like Hong Kong that lies “only outside the prevailing dominance of any single domestic culture or political motivation.”

A thread of hope runs through Uncharted Territory. Renfrew hopes that the insecurity and confusion of a time that saw Britain vote to leave the EU, and US voters elect Trump as president, will give way to a new chapter as younger generations learn to engage intelligently with their environment and respond carefully to the world’s many pressing issues. Renfrew’s book contains that hopeful framing of the future, while offering enough nuance and touches of scepticism to read like an honest work, not one buoyed by business interests.

A chapter on the questions of censorship and darkening political climate offers a good overview of some of the concerns surrounding freedom of expression in Hong Kong and what these might mean for art. In doing so, he equips his readers to make their own deductions, while also remaining clear on an important point: that good and enduring art is often transgressive and that Hong Kong’s edge is its openness. If Hong Kong were able to find ways around these restraints, then it stands to reason that the city could truly become a very special place for art.

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