What is Hong Kong art? Is it art that is pluralistic, like the city itself? Is it art embodying an “East-meets-West” aesthetic, as cliché as that might sound? More importantly, who should define Hong Kong art? Artists? Curators? Museum and gallery directors?
The answer is elusive, and it may well always be. There isn’t any one party who could—or should—define Hong Kong art, if it can be defined at all. But if we were to seek the opinion of one person, few would be as qualified as Henry Au-Yeung, the founder of Grotto Fine Art, which specialises in showcasing living Hong Kong artists. Last March, 20 years after the gallery was founded, Au-Yeung opened his second location in a 3,000-square-foot space in the podium of a residential building in Shau Kei Wan. The gallerist’s family owned the former building on the site, and when they decided to redevelop it, he suggested turning one floor into a gallery space.
Au-Yeung has long had an interest in Hong Kong contemporary art. “Growing up in Hong Kong during the 70s, there weren’t many arts activities,” he says. “I always wondered, where do arts graduates go?” In his case, the answer was the United States. After getting a BA In sculpture at SUNY Stonybrook in New York, Au-Yeung read 20th century Chinese art history at the University of Santa Barbara. His interest was post-World War II Hong Kong, and he wrote his thesis on Hong Kong ink master Wucius Wong.
After university, Au-Yeung worked at Plum Blossoms Gallery in Hong Kong for five years and had stints as a client advisor at Sotheby’s and lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. When he opened Grotto in 2001, it was one of only a few contemporary art galleries in the city. And it was one of even fewer that focused on Hong Kong art. “20 years ago, very few thought Hong Kong artists had the breadth or collectors’ base to support their careers,” he says. With growing interest in mainland art, and few venues for Hong Kong artists to exhibit, there was a perception that nothing much was happening here.
But that wasn’t the case at all. The gallery’s 20th anniversary demonstrates just how much talent was being overlooked. The show comprises 25 artists the gallery has shown in the last two decades, but Au-Yeung is clear that it is not meant to be a survey of Hong Kong art over that time period. If that were the case, “I’d need at least triple the space!” he exclaims.
Wandering through the space, one comes across a mix of young stars like Bouie Choi, well-established names like Wilson Shieh, Ho Siu-kee and Fiona Wong, and successful mid-career artists like Chow Chun-fai. “He had his first exhibition with us in 2004, even before he did his MFA,” says Au-Yeung.
It’s clear he takes pride in his gallery’s role on the vanguard of Hong Kong art, something reflected by the motley array of press clippings of the gallery’s past shows that are displayed near the entrance of the space. But Au-Yeung is also excited by the role Grotto continues to play in the art world, amidst the explosion of art galleries over the past decade, as well as the impending opening of the M+ museum of visual culture.
Much of it comes down to his vision of himself as “co-producer” rather than just a middleman selling artworks. When he first struck out on his own, he was advised to “keep his collectors from meeting his artists, or else they would start making deals without him,” he says. It was advice he didn’t take. “I always feel I need to be transparent with what my gallery does. As a gallerist, you are always striving to show the works in the best light possible, you are educating artists and collectors.”
He sees contemporary art as a “collective discourse of the art ecology,” rather than simply a focus on individual art objects. That point of view might cause discomfort to those who feel artists should steer clear of the more commercial aspects of the art world, but he says this approach is critical to making Hong Kong’s art scene more than the sum of its parts. “Everyone can call themselves an artist, but not everyone can call themselves a professional artist,” he says. “If you are a professional artist, you need to work with different parties in society. [It’s] about how you conduct yourself in addition to producing your work.”
Au-Yeung says he is “simply recognising that the artist is also part of the art, as is the gallery, as we make certain decisions on how the art is shown.” He judges the success of a work by whether it can gain a spot in a university, museum or corporate collection. “I always tell my artists, when your work is placed in a collection, it can begin its second life, where an even bigger audience can appreciate the work. For me, it’s always about the journey of the art.”
Grotto does little to promote its achievements – in fact, it does very little publicity, and its website hasn’t been updated since last year. But works by the gallery’s artists are now housed in major institutions in Hong Kong and around the world, including most recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Oxford’s Ashmoleon museum. It’s the fruition of two decades of determination to “get Hong Kong artists shown and heard,” says Au-Yeung.
This quiet determination has also allowed the gallerist to weather the challenges of the last two years, when the city was rocked by protests and Covid-19. The political upheaval threw the gallerist into the dual role of a counsellor and mediator, navigating the different political viewpoints and sensitivities of artists and collectors.
“Artists are concerned for their livelihood, asking if they would still be able to create the works they want to create [after the passing of the national security law],” he says. “They are also asking if collectors who harbour a different political stance from theirs would want to buy their works again.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s—yes—been a very difficult few years.”
Yet he also recognises that great art can be created during periods of great social upheavals. Life in Hong Kong has become precarious, which hasn’t been the case for many decades. In 2005, Au-Yeung told the South China Morning Post that Hong Kong art offers more personal interpretations, compared to its mainland Chinese counterpart, which is more influenced by politics and pop culture. “I remember that article,” he says today. “I believe I used the term ‘middle-class syndrome.’ Back then, Hong Kong people had relatively stable livelihoods. There wasn’t as much turbulence, the challenge, or pressure, came from society, their families, about their own struggles as artists, for example.”
That assessment no longer applies. While Au-Yeung notes Hong Kong artists had always used art to question the nature of Hong Kong identity, he has never seen artists being as politically-minded as they are now. “A lot of artists are deeply affected by what happened in the last two years. Some of them internalise it, and manage to create really beautiful art pieces.”
One of these artists is Bouie Choi, who creates surreal tableaus with strong undercurrents of anguish and unease, rendered beautifully in ink and acrylic on teak wood. The Hong Kong-born and based artist had a highly successful solo show at the gallery late last year.
But while he recognises the role politics play in art, Au-Yeung is also adamant that the gallery not be used as a political platform. In early 2020, he openly rejected a proposal by three artists to show works based on political slogans. “I cannot let the artists use the space to show propaganda,” he says. When the artists accused him of self-censorship, he told them that, “as artists, they need to start with the art, not the message, as they weren’t reporters.”
As a gallerist, Au-Yeung appears to walk a fine line between allowing artists to stay true to their practice and ensuring they don’t contravene existing laws – though he also says that, with the national security law in effect, the “red line” is now clear. But even though certain political slogans are now illegal, what about the worry that even thoughts or sentiments will also be censored? “Unless you are already on some lists—and I don’t think I am!—one doesn’t need to be too worried,” says Au-Yeung.
And what will Grotto’s next 20 years look like? “As long as I can help it, I won’t retire. I really do enjoy working with artists,” says Au-Yeung. One of his latest finds is Xie Chengxuan, a 23-year Chinese University arts graduate who is set to have his first-ever solo at the gallery in mid-November. He says he is impressed by Xie’s “craftsmanship, the combination of different mediums—there is charcoal, ink, acrylics—but most importantly, a kind of ambiguity.”
Despite Xie having no previous record, all of the artist’s works have been sold since the gallery started working with him. As usual, Au-Yeung trusted his instincts. “I don’t want to sell an artist’s work because someone has done it, and therefore, it is safe,” he says. “I want to create an audience and a market for young artists.”
That’s a mission that has not changed since day one. And it was one of the reasons Au-Yeung set up the second space in Shau Kei Wan. “I want to send a strong message to Hong Kong artists,” he says. “We have been around for the last 20 years, and we are not leaving.”
Grotto Fine Art‘s anniversary exhibition runs until October 9, 2021 at Grotto SKW, 2/F East 17, No 17 Main street East, Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong