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How the coronavirus pandemic has forced art fairs and galleries online

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 26/3/2020 Enid Tsui
Art Basel’s digital initiative. Photo: Art Basel © Art Basel Art Basel’s digital initiative. Photo: Art Basel
  • Galleries closed by the pandemic have little choice but to display their art digitally
  • Hong Kong’s art institutions are joining forces to crowdfund an online resource, Art Power HK

Just as Hongkongers were starting to poke their heads out, a second wave of Covid-19 infections boom­eranging back from Europe, North America and elsewhere in Asia has sent many people back into their carefully disinfected homes.

Many locally owned galleries have stayed open throughout this period and, two months after the first local confirmed case of the novel coronavirus, dozens of people were once again starting to show up for events.

One visitor at Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-fai’s well-attended opening at Gallery Exit, in Aberdeen, on March 14, appeared in a gas mask. Everyone else was less drama­tically covered but masked nonetheless. A number of visitors said they could no longer endure cabin fever and had decided to embrace the “new normal”.

The nature of the exhibition, “Portraits from Behind”, was the main draw. Chow showed more than 80 oil paintings of the Hong Kong protests sparked off by an extradition bill last spring. All of the works were making their public debut – and the smaller ones sold like hot cakes.

a group of people standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Visitors at Chow Chun-fai’s exhibition opening at Gallery Exit, earlier this month. Photo: Chen Xiaomei © Chen Xiaomei Visitors at Chow Chun-fai’s exhibition opening at Gallery Exit, earlier this month. Photo: Chen Xiaomei

The same day, a less topical exhibition, by emerging artist Tang Kwong-san, was also at almost full capacity, at Hidden Space, an appropriately hard-to-find room inside a Kwai Chung factory building.

Both shows were good examples of how certain artworks can’t be properly expe­rienced online. Tang used only a mech­anical pencil to execute large drawings that form a cohesive and powerful site-specific installation about identity and mourning. Chow’s depictions of street battles glow with a reddish-orange underpainting that is only noticeable when viewed close up. Both artists’ deliberate use of scale is also hard to appreciate on a screen.

The limitations of virtual viewing are felt even more keenly with sculptures and installations. Which is why Art Basel’s new “online viewing rooms” – rolled out in Basel and Miami – cannot possibly replace the physical experience of the cancelled fair. (Art Central has also replaced its physical edition with an online catalogue.)

At the time of going to press, the Art Basel “viewing rooms” had been live for only about 48 hours . So far, dealers have mixed feelings. “It’s night and day,” says Shasha Tittmann of Lehmann Maupin, comparing it with the start of last year’s fair. Taka Ishii, founder of the eponymous gallery, says the number of inquiries – let alone sales – is down.

Both say clients are discouraged by the impersonal online experience. But the two galleries are nonetheless planning their own online viewing rooms so they can have full ownership of visitor data. Do people buy expensive art without seeing the physical object? “Yes, they do. And we’ve known that because of the response to our emailed exhibition previews,” Tittmann says.

David Zwirner, of the eponymous galleries, is a big believer in online. His team set up an online viewing room a couple of years ago, but linking it to Art Basel’s means more inquiries from people who are new to the gallery, he says.

“This is going to be a leap year for the virtual sales of art,” he predicts.

Lehmann Maupin’s page on the Art Basel website. Photo: Lehmann Maupin Gallery © Lehmann Maupin Gallery Lehmann Maupin’s page on the Art Basel website. Photo: Lehmann Maupin Gallery

Gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac says the first online Art Basel is far more international in its reach than a physical fair held in one geographic location. The four-day virtual fair is accessible to every­one, for free.

The coronavirus lockdown has also seen private museums ramp up their digital offerings – some more successfully than others. I am not sure about motion-sickness-inducing “interactive” sites.

Then there is the “ART Power HK” group of local galleries, auction houses and non-profit institutions that is crowd­funding to build an online aggregator of exhibition information, live feeds and digital viewing rooms.

But will online viewing stick? The Economist magazine recently reminded its readers of a 2015 study that found many London commuters forced to change their routes by a railway strike stuck with their new routes after things returned to normal.

Similarly, the worldwide forced experi­men­tation with video conferencing and remote working is likely to change the way we work and learn for good.

Online viewing rooms make art acces­sible. Still, as the attendance of recent openings shows, people are often so keen to see the “real thing” they will even put health concerns aside. This may change, however, as infection rates rise and Hong Kong, and the world at large, are forced to take social distancing seriously.

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