Making Sense of Asia at Art Basel Hong Kong: A Conversation With Adeline Ooi and Stephanie Bailey

Strictly speaking, Asia is everything east of the Ural Mountains and the Mediterranean – a huge area that covers nearly a third of the globe’s total land area. The name of the continent reaches back the ancient Greeks, who used it to vaguely define anything to the east of their homeland. Given its enormous diversity, what exactly is Asia? How can one make sense of a continent composed of so many different parts?  

These are questions that coarse through the Conversations programme of Art Basel Hong Kong. Curated by art critic Stephanie Bailey, Conversations includes a series of panel discussions revolving around different themes at the fair each year. The 2019 edition proffers 22 talks, and for the first time it will be located outside Art Basel’s main exhibition hall, opening it up to members of the public who do not have tickets to the fair.

As a teaser of sorts, Zolima CityMag invited Bailey and Art Basel Director Asia Adeline Ooi for their own conversation ahead of Conversations, which opens on 28 March 2019 and runs until 31 March. Our chat took place partly in person, partly by video call – Ooi was in Hong Kong, Bailey in Tunisia.

The two met in 2015, when Ooi first took over the reins of Art Basel Hong Kong and Bailey curated her first edition of Conversations. While Bailey is the more academic of the two, and is at ease with discussing a range of topics, from decolonising narratives to the Agora, Ooi is the more vivacious one. And it is perhaps this zeal that has allowed her to turn Art Basel Hong Kong into more than a place to buy and sell art, but one that pulls people in from across Asia together to talk about Asia’s contemporary cultural landscape.

Communicating via a screen did little to dampen their chemistry, as Ooi tells Bailey towards the end of our conversation, “We’re like an old married couple! You don’t have to speak. I already know what you’re going to say next.” 

Art Basel Conversations

Stephanie Bailey, Curator of Art Basel’s Conversations. Photo by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

Zolima CityMag (ZCM): Why are Conversations and ‘conversations’ important in the 21st century?

Adeline Ooi (AO): There is a lot of seeing on the show floor, there’s a lot of visual information coming at you. But you need the Conversations programme to ground things in context. In Asia, talks programmes with this degree of seriousness are few and far between. I think there are very few platforms that actually bring together Asian voices to discuss the international art world from the standpoint of Asia. Right, Steph? I think this is one of the most important sectors in the show.

Stephanie Bailey (SB): Absolutely. When Conversations first started, it was really just about seeing who was in town and bringing them together to have a conversation. In Hong Kong, Conversations is an opportunity for Asia to start speaking with itself. It’s a space to talk about Hong Kong’s identity, and its long history. It’s also a place where east and west, and north and south pass through. We take this into account. It’s a cliché to describe Hong Kong as a historical and contemporary crossroads, but the reality is that it is, and we want to take advantage of that.

ZCM: This is the second year for the Conversations to be located outside the show floor. How do you ensure that the topics are specific enough to interest the art world, but also relevant enough for the wider audience?

SB: It depends the kind of issues and topics in society around the time of the fair. Last year, it was #MeToo, and we put together an amazing panel on gender aesthetics. It provided an opportunity for us to re-stage that conversation about gender within the context of Hong Kong.

ZCM: You have a talk specifically about performance arts. Why is that?

SB: It’s an indirect continuation of the panel with Antony Gormley last year (“Bodies in Practice”). Sometimes, it is not imposing a topic or theme on artists, but to let the practice — in this case performance art — speak for itself. What would happen if we were to bring these practitioners together who we feel have a lot in common?

In the case of “Body Work — Performance and Practice,” we want to bring five artists from around the world and across generations, Juliana Huxtable, Victoria Sin, Melati Suryodarmo, Sonia Khurana and Wu Tsang, to share their approaches towards the practice of performance, looking at how the boyd is used as a medium to express artistic positions and research trajectories. It’s a way to continue tackling the #MeToo topic. As with the rest of the talks, we’re deliberately taking this coy approach to allow themes to come out on their own. It allows Conversations to be more of a sharing, rather than confrontational, space.

AO: We are aware that we need to cultivate audiences, to take on more of an educational role, which probably negates the notion of a very commercial entity. I think these are some of the contradictions we stand by, and we embrace.

ZCM: Looking at the programme, there seems to be quite a bit of focus on Asia.

AO: A lot of the conversations take you back to what was happening 25 years ago in Asia. I think there is a lot of before and after. There is a talk about what the Chinese market was like in the 90s, and that talk is followed by one on the latest art market report. If you sit through these two conversations, you have already crossed 25 years of development! Hearing these voices are important because reading a report is different from hearing someone telling you about their experiences and struggles.

ZCM: Speaking in particular about two sessions, “Curating ‘Asia’ Now” and “Comparative Futurisms” – both talks appear to set up Asia as an alternative to Euro- and Ameri-centric narratives.

AO: The art world is decolonising and new narratives are being highlighted. And I think it’s important for us to highlight these narratives because a lot of it don’t get seen or heard.

SB: We’ve taken a decolonising approach from the very beginning to re-frame or re-perceive the ways we understand our geographies. The geographies we are bound by – and the geographies that exist in reality. I think this will be addressed in “Geographies of the Imagination.” It’s a panel bringing together practitioners and curators who are engaged with decolonising as a type of re-mapping.

AO: Yes, there is also Asia Art Archive. They’re trying to shed light on key Asian figures in art but who weren’t previously written into Western art history. Some may question whether the art fair is the right place to discuss these issues. Perhaps not, but the show does act as a melting pot during those five days.

ZCM: Is it challenging to use the word “Asia”?

SB: I believe it’s exciting to work with, as it is open to interpretation. Art history is being expanded. I was just at the Sharjah Biennale and that had a lot with this. It is about going beyond the traditional East-West dichotomy.

AO: It’s challenging – but not in a bad way. It’s challenging because our imagination of Asia is shifting all the time. As you learn more, the notion of Asia is far more nebulous than what we’d like to think. Traditionally, you think of Asia, you think of how it looks on a map but there are boundaries between nation-states, and then, there are boundaries between communities. Asia is very fragmented. There is a lot to excavate from the topic.

SB: We’ve been navigating this term from the beginning. I mean, Adeline, we talked about what it means to be an Asian space in a global city like Hong Kong. There are so many layers we’re working with in this fair.

AO: Agree. But should we even use the word “Asia”? After all, Asia was a term given by the ancient Greeks to denote the plot of land east of their homeland. Why aren’t we breaking the region down and talking about Chinese art, Japanese art, Singaporean art and so on instead? Because you realise you can’t. “Chinese” is itself a super interesting category. You talk about Chinese, but what about all of the rest of us who are Chinese by descent but not by passport?

SB: This has been a big question in the region within the last few years. Joowon Park, the curator of MMCA [National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art] curated a show called How Little You Know About Me [editor’s note: Park is also a speaker in “Curating Asia”]. I mean, Middle East wasn’t a term given by the region to [itself] either. It was a colonial term. But, what does it mean when we’re in a position to renegotiate its meaning? What if its meaning has such a complexity that we need to go into the material manifestations of it? Art is a very good place to study what Asia means. In a way, art also prevents you from falling into a nationalistic or 20th-century way of categorising culture.

ZCM: There are also a number of talks about the relationship between art, politics and society. What is the impetus for that?

SB: Last year, we did a Hong Kong-focused panel on why political art matters. In 2016, we had “Rebel City: Hong Kong as Site and Situation,” which looked at the Umbrella Movement and its aftermath. This is very much an ongoing thread. The “Cultural Capital” talk, for example, came out of a question that Rose Lejeune asked: how do activists fit into the art market? How do you reconcile political work with the market? They are questions asked not only in Hong Kong but around the world as well.

ZCM: Can political art ever be reconciled with the market?

SB: I believe that the market is a space of politics. When I think of markets, I think of it in the classical sense, which is the Agora, a social, political and community space, where not just money but ideas are exchanged.

ZCM: Having debates and discussions about art is all and well at an art fair like Art Basel Hong Kong, but what happens after that? How do you bring or translate what’s been discussed during Conversations to beyond those five days, to what’s happening in society?

SB: I think about this a lot. As cliché as this sounds, the real conversations happen after Conversations is done. They don’t just happen on stage, though the results aren’t as quantifiable as the sales prices.

AO: And it continues. These conversations get carried forward without us realising it. We’ve seen friendships formed, even though we aren’t made privy to it.

SB: Yes. In a way, Conversations are as much hands off as they are hands on.


To discover the full Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations program, please visit here.

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