Art Basel Hong Kong recalibrates with a digital-only edition

Following the cancellation of its Hong Kong fair, Art Basel has bounced back with Online Viewing Rooms, where Asian art takes centre stage

Aluminum tube in blue colour with black background
Antony Gormley, Breathing Room II, 2010. Aluminum tube 25 x 25 mm, Phosphor H15, and plastic spigots, 386 x 857 x 928 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Continua. Installation view Art Basel Unlimited 2019. © the Artist
(Image credit: Andrea Rossetti)

There’s much talk in the art world about the untapped potential of virtual gallery viewings, online curator’s tours and digitally driven sales, and, propelled by world events, Art Basel Hong Kong is putting them to test.

This year’s edition, from 20-25 March is an online-only event, with 234 galleries from 31 countries displaying works through virtual viewing rooms.   

More than 90 per cent of exhibitors from the cancelled Hong Kong fair decided to take part in this experimental iteration, and since more than half of these have exhibition spaces in Asia, art from the region was an obvious highlight.  

Chiang Yomei delos x

Chiang Yomei, Delos X

(Image credit: Courtesy of TKG+)

Lisson Gallery collaborated with Antenna Space from Shanghai, Beijing’s Boers-Li Gallery, Singapore’s STPI and Taipei’s Tina Keng Galleries and TKG+ to provide a VIP virtual walkthrough of their booths. Each gallery gave a ten-minute presentation to an online audience of hundreds, providing descriptions of its artists and insights into their methods. Up to ten works can be displayed per booth and unlike a real-time fair, these come with a title and a price tag. 

Red square with white background and black stripe

Carmen Herrera, Camino Negro, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm, 60 x 60 in.

(Image credit: © Carmen Herrera; courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Technical hitches aside (and there were a few), David Tung, Director of Lisson Gallery Shanghai who master-planned the virtual walkthrough, reveals other challenges; ‘You lose texture and feeling online, so we selected works differently to try and replicate this.’ Among Lisson’s heavy-hitting pick were Julian Opie, Ai Weiwei, Cory Arcangel and Carmen Herrera, whose Camino Negro sold at the preview for 850,000 USD. Lisson’s Alex Logsdail explains, ‘While a viewing platform is not a substitute for the pace and interaction of a fair, business is still active and we have made sales in parallel to the fair this week.’

Aluminium nylon and lights with blue background

Julian Opie, Sam Amelia Jeremy Teresa, 2019. Aluminium, nylon and lights, 290 x 300 x 12 cm, 114 1/8 x 118 x 4 5/8 in. 

(Image credit: © Julian Opie; courtesy Lisson Gallery)

STPI director Rita Targui adds: ‘the online format provides an opportunity to be nimble. We can change works round with ease.’ Each day, two different artists are exhibited at its booth, accompanied by images of the works in progress, (adding narrative that might well be lost in the traditional fair setting). All the works on show have been made in STPI’s on-site paper mill. First up were Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi and his Autumn Trees series and paper pulp pieces by British artist Jason Martin, while additional exhibitors include South Korean artists Do Ho Suh and Haegue Yang who incorporated ground spices purchased in Singapore markets into her canvases. 

Green textured stone with cream colored background

Su Xiaobai, Ripple

(Image credit: Courtesy of TKG+)

Opie’s distinctive, reductive language may work well online, but other artists translate with less success; viewing Antony Gormley's Breathing Room II, an environment that uses phosphorous to conjure architecture as if from the air through Galeria Continua’s portal, or seeing James Turrell’s new circular glass work at OMR’s online gallery, leaves you feeling underwhelmed. You just wish you could be there.

Perhaps inadvertently, Heemin Chung, on show at P21 Gallery, sums up the reality of this year’s Art Basel. The Seoul-based artist explores the lack of tactile sensations – and our desire for them – in a modern world that is filled with virtual images. She strives to capture those senses that are overstimulated or deficient in the digital realm and portray them on canvas; direct touch, not digital media, provide true reality.  

But who gets to touch big-ticket artworks anyway? Collectors often know what they want without having to see it at a fair, and a time when we need to reduce our carbon footprint, Art Basel’s virtual version may just be a trailblazer.

Powder coated aluminum white with grey background

Alice Aycock, Twister Again, 2019. Powder coated aluminum white h 93.98 cm. Edition I/I (3). © Alice Aycock, 2000. 

(Image credit: Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Thomas Schulte.)

Jeff Wall Parent Child 2018

Jeff Wall, Parent Child, 2018. Inkjet print, 231 x 261.5 x 6.4 cm | 90 15/16 x 102 15/16 x 2 1/2 in. 

(Image credit: © Jeff Wall)

Olafur Eliasson Your event horizon of knowing

Olafur Eliasson, Your event horizon of knowing, 2020, partially silvered glass spheres, paint (red, black), stainless steel, 171 x 169 x 67,5 cm. Berlin

(Image credit: © Studio Olafur Eliasson, courtesy the artist and neugerriemschneider)


Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms, 20-25 March.

Emma O'Kelly is a freelance journalist and author based in London. Her books include Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat and she is currently working on a UK guide to wild saunas, due to be published in 2025.