Day three of the fifth year of Art Basel Hong Kong saw me preparing for a talk I was to give at the K11 art space, across the bay in Kowloon, close to the site where the M+ ‘mega-museum’ of contemporary art and visual culture has been gestating for a number of years already. Both Art Basel Hong Kong (founded in 2013) and M+ testify to the significance of the territory now within the global contemporary art world. On the one hand, it is the third most important centre for art market activity after New York and London; on the other, Hong Kong is both bridge and border between the west and the People’s Republic of China, although as a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong is now in a volatile process of partial assimilation to mainland China and its government by the Chinese Communist Party. As such, the SAR territory is a key barometer in the global politics and geo-political economy of contemporary art and culture. This system or ecology as a whole has expanded from its traditional sites of authority and validation in Europe and the USA into many ‘emerging’ centres of production and dissemination in Asia and South America (though its flourishing in Africa has yet to occur).
Does the binary opposition of ‘centre and periphery’ still offer to describe adequately the distribution of economic power and aesthetic creativity within the global contemporary art world? Did it ever? In many ways the same question might be asked of the relations between London and the Midlands, and the place of New Art West Midlands in the British sector of the art world. While the art market and the financial value of art activity remains, fetishistically, at the centre of the media’s interest in contemporary art, all other players have always seen a much broader significance in the meaning and purpose of art and its making with modern culture. The geographical relationship between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ has always been dialectical and interactive; the latter, within avant-garde art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century art, offering to usurp the former – as the key examples of Pissarro, Gauguin, Cezanne and Picasso attest. In the SAR the specificities of local production within the dynamics of the city’s relationship with Beijing, with New York, or Sydney are clear to see in the layout of galleries and artists represented at Art Basel Hong Kong, as the territory assumes its own powerful centrality in the Asian art world and increasingly interacts dialectically with Europe and the USA.
The biggest shift necessary is, then, a conceptual and evaluative one – without, however, minimising the difficulties of making a living as an artist, when all the British cities outside London are dwarfed by the cultural economy of the capital. The developmental significance of the STEAMhouse project in Birmingham – bringing start-up companies and entrepreneurial innovation within creative industries businesses to the city – lies in its partnership with Arts Council England funded projects such as New Art West Midlands, in the same way that Art Basel Hong Kong works with the government of the SAR and its myriad independent cultural partners, such as Asia Art Archive and Videotage, a documentary film collective that has been active recording societal transformation here since the 1980s. These relationships – patronal, economic, cultural and creative – are at the centre of my new book, published by Blackwell, that is the focus for my talk today at K11: The Global Contemporary Art World. Hong Kong and Birmingham both feature in it, and are themselves an interconnected and dynamic part of this world.
Jonathan Harris, Head of Birmingham School of Art, March 2017