Halfway through an interview, Edouard Malingue leans in conspiratorially and whispers, “I can’t tell you unless you turn that”—he points to a voice recorder—“off.” He is discussing his gallery’s move from Central to coincide with its 10th anniversary next year, and while he disclosed the neighbourhood the new space is going to be in—Wan Chai—he is keeping mum about the exact location. Lorraine Malingue, Edouard’s partner in business and life, offers little assistance: she smiles and shrugs.
It’s clear the two feed off of each other’s energy. While Edouard is the more spirited of the pair, animating his answers with hand gestures, Lorraine is more poised, usually taking time to think before speaking.
In the last nine years, the Edouard Malingue Gallery has built a reputation for championing Asian artists while forging a quietly confident programme. The gallery arrived at a time when the city only had a handful of contemporary galleries, and the local art market was still dominated by secondary sales. In the years since, the likes of White Cube, Gagosian, Massimo de Carlo and Hauser & Wirth have set up shop, multiple art fairs have been launched, and it’s no longer rare to see videos and installations—less conventional art forms—being appreciated on an equal footing with paintings and sculptures.
The art market’s growth has been good for the Edouard Malingue Gallery, which has moved from its original location on Ice House Street to Queen’s Road Central. “We doubled up the size and paid half the rent,” says Edouard. Next year will mark another milestone for the gallery as it moves to an even bigger location in Wan Chai. “When people visit the galleries in Central, they’re often going from one place to another, it’s all very rushed,” he says. “We want our space in Wan Chai to be a destination in itself.”
Neither Edouard nor Lorraine started out in contemporary art. A Hong Kong native, Lorraine worked at Christie’s New York office, specialising in traditional Chinese art and antiquities. Edouard, born and raised in France, was introduced to the industry via his father, who owns a gallery specialising in modern and impressionist art in Paris.
The two hadn’t yet met when Lorraine transferred to Christie’s Hong Kong office in 2010. Edouard, curious about the region, had moved there with plans to open a gallery of his own. “I also considered Singapore and Shanghai,” he says, “but Hong Kong’s legal framework and its openness to foreigners were extremely attractive.” He also sensed it had a growing appetite for the primary art market, no doubt buoyed by the success of ArtHK, which launched in 2007 and was later acquired by Art Basel.
Lorraine left her job at Christie’s and took up a new post in Edouard’s nascent gallery. They started dating soon after. “We started working together, and very quickly, the dynamic as you would…” he says, suddenly embarrassed and unable to find his words. “There were too few people in the gallery,” Lorraine starts to say. “No,” Edouard counters. “I think what happened is what you’d like to happen when you watch a romantic comedy.”
Although the gallery kicked off with a blockbuster Picasso show, the intention was to develop a contemporary programme with a focus on Asian art from the very beginning. Asian artists make up 80 percent of the gallery’s representation. It’s this focus that gives the gallery its relevance. “We’re a gallery found in Hong Kong, with a focus on Asian artists, so having that engagement is important,” says Lorraine.
But the goal isn’t just to pick the best contemporary artists to show, it is also to ensure that the gallery’s roster of artists engage with Hong Kong and the world. That, perhaps, is still the single greatest challenge of opening a gallery that prides itself on instigating “critical dialogue between Asian and international contemporary artists,” as its press material often puts it. “For Hong Kong artists who were educated in the West, it was easier to find ties between them and the West,” says Lorraine. “But for artists who were born and trained here, their art could be so rooted in local culture that it might be difficult for Westerners to understand.”
It can certainly be hard to pinpoint Edouard Malingue Gallery’s identity just by looking at its roster of artists. There is Wong Ping, the Hong Kong-born artist whose video works, with their brash palettes and irreverent takes on local culture—such as Who’s the Daddy, a film which narrator traces his impotence to a well-known Chinese nursery rhyme—have thrilled both local and Western viewers. On the other side of the spectrum is Ko Sin-tung, a local artist who layers her work with images, graphics and motifs that are often quite specific to Hong Kong, from the city’s high density to the new high speed rail link to mainland China. Then there is Fabien Merelle, a French painter who creates dream-like scenarios that aren’t rooted in any specific culture.
While Lorraine and Edouard can spell out what they like about each artist—Wong’s flagrant disregard for what other people think, Ko’s subtlety, and the intuitiveness of Merelle’s work—there is little to connect them. What seems to be the general consensus is that the gallerists have a good eye. All five of their Hong Kong artists—Wong, Ko, Samson Young, João Vasco Paiva and Kwan Sheung-chi—have been widely exhibited both in Hong Kong and overseas.
“We believe what we see, that’s our first criteria, and it overwhelms other pragmatic decisions,” says Edouard when asked how they pick artists. But he also recognises that their intuitions could reap commercial benefits in the long run. “Over the years, the gallery has become known for having a particular eye – one that isn’t necessarily driven by commercial interests. But here’s the thing – that [eye] also becomes a strong asset. Ultimately what our collectors want to buy into is the uniqueness of the programming.”
In recent years, the gallery has extended its footprint to Europe, with a screening in Liverpool, a video collaboration with art magazine Elephant, and a booth in the Frieze art fair, which led Edouard and Lorraine to be asked to join the fair’s selection committee. “People [in London] are curious about what was happening in Asia, but many have an outdated vision of what Asian art is,” says Lorraine. “When they think of Asian art, they think of ink or Chinese political pop.”
But it isn’t just the West that lacks knowledge. The gallerists find there is a sore lack of criticality when it comes to Asian contemporary art. Even though the likes of Samson Young and Ho Tzu-nyen are being picked up by well-known institutions, Edouard says Asia is still in “desperate need of institutions” to do the critical work expected of them. “We need more depth in the art scene. Since we are showing young artists, we need that validation from institutions,” he says.
He thinks the lack of criticality is tied to a lack of trust in Asian artists. While there might have been an uptick in the number of art institutions across Asia, and a rising number of collectors collecting Asian art, many Asian collectors still seem to place more value in art from the West.
“There is still a drive towards the West,” says Edouard. “Getting knowledge from there, getting educated there. By buying Western art, people feel they’re validating themselves culturally. But people don’t realise the power they have. If you want a cultural impact, you can decide here and now that you want to be a leader. That’s what the Americans did. Before World War II, they believed they had no past so they were buying a past from the Europeans. But in the mid-1900s, they started buying art from the New York School [group of artists]. This hasn’t happened in Asia.”
Why not? Edouard points to the history of Western colonialism in Asia, where only Thailand escaped invasion and occupation by European countries. (Even Japan, once a colonial aggressor, was deeply impacted by its American occupation after World War II and both the Empire and then Republic of China ceded swathes of their territory to various countries) “You’ve shaken off those shackles economically, but culturally, it’s yet to happen,” he says. He dismisses the idea that the West might simply be seen as more stable and reliable. “You have that power to create that stability!” he exclaims. “It’s all down to the question of trust. It’s not about exclusion, it’s about having a more balanced way of looking at the world.”
And yet he remains optimistic, citing Singapore’s new National Gallery, which opened in 2015, and Hong Kong’s own M+ museum of visual culture, whose new home is nearing completion. “I’m confident that there would be a renaissance,” he says. “It wouldn’t just be artists, but also designers and architects – across Asia. I think when that happens, we’d be very proud to have contributed to it, even if it is in a small way.”