Jennifer Chan, Next Level, 2012
Jennifer Chan, Next Level, 2012

IF THERE IS anywhere that the juggernauts of the Chinese media could market art as an aspirational lifestyle, that place is Hong Kong— and yet nowhere else does the reality of art as a lifestyle diverge more absurdly from this imagery. Ironically enough, it was probably through the boom in Mainland contemporary art that Hong Kong, with its established if declining middle class and lengthy tradition of colonial museum culture, became enamored with the visual fantasies of the artist-patron relationship: if a painter like Zeng Fanzhi can make the cover of Bazaar, after all, just imagine what a few paintbrushes and a crisp white jacket might do for the homegrown socialite set. Tsim Sha Tsui will always be the origin and spiritual home of the “Art Concept Mall” as primordially manifested in New World Development’s K11 brand, now with branches in Wuhan and Shanghai and many more to come. The China Club across the harbor in Central has been a coveted reservation since 1991, as much for its view into David Tang’s legendary art collection as for anything else. Paparazzi-shy actors and entertainers made the Hong Kong Art Fair an instant haunt. And the explosion of art institution galas across the photo pages of the Tatler has hit with a speed as remarkable as the profusion of Absolut- and Moët-branded gallery after parties, serving as a kind of communion for these new temples to the idea of art-as-an-asset-class.

This territory— that of art as luxury— is the most visible seam at which contemporary art meets Hong Kong society. But Lee Kit, perhaps the most widely discussed and broadly admired artist to emerge onto the international scene from these shores, made a very conscious decision to move away from all of this by relocating to Taipei just under a year ago, and even that came only after years of near-hermit status in his infamously spartan studio in the New Territories. Notably, Lee considers his practice a demonstrative performance of a livable alternative to mainstream Hong Kong values: rather than art adopting the lifestyles of its patrons, here art offers a lifestyle logic in its own right. Tellingly, the artist is as fascinated with branding as are his monied admirers— only, instead of Bentley, Lotus, and Zonda, Lee paints the logos of Nivea, Johnson’s, and Ivory.

Lee Kit is an exemplar in two important ways: first, in reflecting the reality of the art lifestyle in Hong Kong despite the flashy appearance of a new string of commercial galleries opening every spring and autumn; and, second, in proving that artists and other art professionals with a chance at a career outside of Hong Kong tend to leave— not necessarily forever, but usually quite happily. In some key respects art as a lived lifestyle is far less visible than it was before the arrival of the art fair, the international galleries it encouraged, and recent exhibition- and publication-based surveys of Hong Kong artists. For better or worse, the days of artist bars, artist-run spaces, and studio clusters have come to a close, replaced by gallery dinners (which often continue to welcome artists), collector-sponsored spaces (which support artists infrastructurally as much as ever), and industrial lofts for bankers (who throw parties for artists), not to mention the benefit auctions that continue to rely primarily on artist donations. All in all, not a bad time to be an artist for those willing to bring the studio-chic lifestyle into the limelight, but also probably not the best of times for those who would prefer to stay in the studio.

All this has led the Hong Kong cultural scene, consistently prone to anxieties and nostalgia around disappearance and development, to speak of the erasure of contemporary art and the formation of a diaspora-at-home. Precious few artists with local ties have made it into the cosmopolitan echelon of international art that has recently defined the register for success in the city; more than anything else, this points to the fact that the local languages of art in Hong Kong have been handicapped by their allegiance to the idea of “community” over “contemporary.” There is a strong case behind the argument that the artists feted by the establishment— Lee Kit, Adrian Wong, and Tsang Kin-wah chief among them— maintain a level of critical relevance far above and beyond their more antagonistic peers. These artists sell moderately well, and savvy marketing departments are often eager to work with them, but their work has not been commercialized to any meaningful extent by the limited range of new opportunities made available to them. In Hong Kong, after all, assumptions must be adjusted for scale and intensity: this is a cultural market in which attendance at the one and only Museum of Art hovers at around 1,000 people per day, and even the best galleries see many, many times fewer than that. This means that most contemporary exhibition-making remains the province of a very few, often limited to a particular niche or clique within the art scene proper, so even artists like Lee Kit might be said to have an audience numbering only in the hundreds; this means his value as a marketing tool for a brand or gallery is close to zero— and quite fortunately so.

Other artists, too, have adopted branding and precious objects as focal points in their practices. Cary Kwok, born in Hong Kong, has recently made his way back to the city after some 20 years in London, making his affiliation a tenuous one— like so many others who have harnessed stronger support structures abroad. Educated in womenswear design, further trained in shoe construction, and generally working in a mode of ink drawings that can only recall fashion illustration, Kwok is a natural choice for the kind of brand collaborations that have characterized the mainstream adoption of contemporary art around Asia. Indeed, he has exhibited at Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, drawn the Chanel logo, designed an installation for Joyce in Beijng, participated in a Prabal Gurung exhibition, and sketched Yves Saint Laurent dresses. Most importantly, however, he has also drafted a comb on which his name appears as a logo (Comb, 2010), drawing his ostensibly “fashionable” work into a register that is much more personal, more approachable, and more affect-driven. Elements like this also allow the work to function on a much more profound level: beyond the illustration of objects that represent the material aspirations of a certain class, Kwok works primarily in terms of aspirations toward the potential reshaping of identity and, for lack of a better word, lifestyle. There is, for instance, what passes as performance. Although never trained as a hairdresser, he has inhabited this professional role alongside his work on paper in an art fair environment, enacting a new lifestyle for himself even as he reshapes the identities of the collectors and curators who stop into his booth.

Like Lee Kit, Cary Kwok seems to live in a space of obsession not with brands but with the actions and effects of branding as a set of cultural operations. But where Lee’s work cultivates a particular image of artistic austerity, Kwok’s can only be described as lush in the many varied meanings of that descriptor, from the seductive to the pornographic to the homo-erotic. Unusually for an artist working in Hong Kong, beauty is a concern here while cuteness is not: imagery of choice include intricately detailed hairstyles, exquisitely draped period costumes, technically perfect shoes,ejaculating penises, and the male nudes who frame them. It is a list that runs from consumer products to sexual objects and back again, but the voyeuristic and highly composed gaze that unites all of them seems to place them within a similar register. Kwok has yet to exhibit new work publicly since his return to Hong Kong, but one might expect more of his gentler form of fetishism, a genuine attraction to the things of the world that makes them relatable even as it consumes them through tight lines of purplish ink.

This sympathetic logic of the fetish appears also in the work of Jennifer Chan, another artist who grew up in Hong Kong but has spent virtually the entirety of her career outside of the city. In some cases the notion of fixation is literal, as with the triptych of Chatroulette videos factum/ mirage (2010), in which the artist engages with the randomized chat room platform in unexpected ways; she performs an “unboxing” ritual with a full-spectrum lighting fixture while her chat partner masturbates, for instance, seemingly more interested in the arrival of this new product— and the self-help mentality it represents— than anything else, while at the same time allowing the sexuality of the anonymous stranger to be displaced onto this act of spiritualized consumerism. Sympathetic fetishism is perhaps best developed in Chan’s body of work around pizza and pornography, culminating with the video Young Money (2012) and the Future Gallery exhibition of the same title. Here the porn genre typified by “BigSausagePizza.com” becomes a simultaneously comedic and slightly embarrassing site for a more in-depth analysis of race and gender with reference to the “brogrammer” archetype that Chan mobilizes at various points throughout her work. In the video, shot as an earnest and sincere take on what could easily become an irony-laden endeavor, the action of shaking shaved cheese over a pizza on the floor is quickly mirrored by a young white male masturbating and ultimately ejaculating over a pizza print t-shirt. Only then does Chan make an appearance, impassively putting on the shirt in a realignment of the more typical penis-to-face-and-breasts cumshot. As the artist further suggests in a set of photo-printed fleece blankets titled Big Sausage Pizza (2012), pizza’s reference to bro culture somehow functions simultaneously as a signifier of the prosaic, of consumerism, and of sexuality, a perfect storm of the normative and the deviant.

Chan advances in her work a subtle ideological tweak, adopting the language of hype video in order to sell ideas that are critical of their vehicle and imbuing actual objects with mystical powers that turn the notion of consumer fetishism into something else entirely. Totalrelease.org (2012), for instance, offers a DVD and manual package that promises to teach the buyer to “Think Yourself to Orgasm with Self-Hypnosis” / “MINIMAL EFFORT MAXIMAL RESULTS.” More recently, UNITY Unisex Pheromone Fragrance (2013) comes with the tagline “Attract All That You Desire” [sic]. Titled after the three-dimensional rendering software, branding around the scent features imagery of marital union and monogamy; the combination of these two references gestures toward the digital molding of identity in a way that can only be understood as the structuring of subjectivity and basic affect through consumerism. These are products; there is a PayPal button at the bottom of the sales page that is as real as the object itself. You can buy these things just like any other product— and indeed, just like art. Almost like enchanted talismans, the charms they promise sit somewhere between those of sculpture and Taobao. The same holds for Next Level Club Card (2012), Chan’s contribution to a project by Anthony Antonellis in which he curates his “credit card design as an exhibition space.” Chan’s image depicts herself holding a globe in various poses, and is accompanied by a confessional textual message (“Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®”) about her experiences with the Hong Kong international school system, serving as a searing if highly oblique indictment of the same mainstream Hong Kong culture that Lee Kit tries to avoid and Cary Kwok seeks to tame. Uniquely, however, Chan’s production of “spam products” further populates (and complicates and confounds) the terrain of consumer junk in which these other artists attempt to carve out a space for themselves outside of mass culture.

Art and corporate branding are certainly having a moment: DIS Magazine has launched a stock photography database, Metahaven has exhibited at PS1, Ubicouture has translated a Tumblr following into an art world presence, MadeIn Co. has made the Western world forget the name Xu Zhen, BFFA3AE has released one of the first art pieces distributed in the (iPad-only) App Store, and Ryder Ripps seems closer to a deal with Under Armour than ever before. Consumerism, in this sense, supersedes other lifestyle options by containing within it both the mechanisms of capitalism and their critique. Via overblown irony, new sincerity, prosumer production, online circulation, or any number of other techniques, these artists are entitled to the claim to be working against capitalism even as their work outwardly celebrates its visual forms. Whether this makes such exercises in art-and-branding a radical or recidivist practice thus becomes a matter of perspective, but there is ample evidence for the view that the embedding of such semi-alternatives into mainstream upmarket consumer culture does effect change on at least some level, as demonstrated by the recent uptick in visibility and recognition for many artists affiliated with Hong Kong. Ultimately, however, the gallery is a retail space as much as any other, and it is these dynamics to which any alternative market machinations find themselves beholden— providing that art without consumption can only come under the guise of a false prophet.

Hong Kong, the mythical “shopping mall with an airport attached,” plays a key role in this broader network, if only in functioning as a conduit by which artist-centered branding projects might be able to infect the visual culture of Chinese corporate media. And yet it often seems intangible as an actual platform for art. As of this writing, none of the artists discussed in this essay are present in Hong Kong, and yet there is an argument for reading all of their work within the very specific matrix of art-and-luxury that Hong Kong culture has come to represent. Notably, one of the few practical markers uniting artists as disparate as Lee Kit, Cary Kwok, and Jennifer Chan is the fact that their work rarely requires a white cube gallery space for its presentation; inhabiting small rooms with a domestic slant, diminutive frames or notebooks, and Internet video sites, respectively, their objects make evident a secondary arena of circulation that can be decoupled, at least somewhat, from the malls and offices that dominate the urban fabric of Hong Kong. This is a place where art is interested in engaging with its own consumption against a broader social backdrop of excessive consumption, but not necessarily within it; artists may be further and further from living the “art-as-a-lifestyle” they have played an unknowing part in marketing but, at the same time, their interventions into the imagery of this same lifestyle are increasingly adopted as the spiritual gospel of the enlightened collector. Contemporary art, in all its opacity and faith, becomes a new age self-help fad, a moment of self-flagellation: Next Level, Transcended.