Landscape or a portrait? White and small or large and dark? The mathematics of Asian photography market in the interview with a Hong Kong art gallery owner

One of the characteristic places to visit in Hong Kong mentioned in all the top 10 sights is Hollywood Road – a busy street favoured by both young locals and overseas tourists, full of antique and fancy stores, lively multinational bars and designers’ clothes chains with posh names. The parade of shop windows really reminds anything but Asia. But there is one place where definitely you will get immersed into the Asian style and feel its paradox nature. It is “Contemporary by Angela Li” – an art gallery dedicated to the promotion of contemporary and avant-garde artists from China and Hong Kong, as well as foreign artists whose art is inspired by a desire to untangle the mysteries of Asian reality.

Photography plays a considerable role in Angela Li’s gallery shows. Since its establishment in 2008, the gallery has made the local public acquainted with the names and works of Chen Jiagang, Chi Peng, He Chongyue, He Xingyou, Peter Steinhauer and others.

Apart from organizing indoor shows, the gallery also provides art consultancy services, having successfully implemented projects in selecting art pieces for dozens of corporate clients, among which there are big hotel chains, casinos and clubhouses in China, Hong Kong and Britain.

The gallery founder and curator Angela Li tells “Bleek Magazine” about the specificities of working on the Asian art market, local collectors’ tastes and topics China and Hong Kong-based photographers address.

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Angela Li’s portrait. From the private archive

Bleek Magazine: How can you describe the current situation on art market in Asia and Hong Kong? Is there a lot of demand in purchasing and collecting art pieces, photography – in particular?

Angela Li: Talking about a more general art market, I can describe it as still upcoming. Although thanks to auction houses which have been here in Hong Kong for more than ten years we have one of the highest transaction amounts in the world. But the primary art market is relatively young, as well as the collectors’ base.

It is good that in the last three years there has been a lot of more focus and attention to the art. We can see the market growing slowly, but I feel there is nothing comparable with the Western world where art is very much about life, it is considered to be its natural part and thus art collecting scene is much broader than here. In Asia a lot of people are still trying to learn about it.

When I opened my gallery almost 9 years ago, my first show was photographic. At that time, not only in Hong Kong but in Asia in general photography was not really seen by collectors as a media to give a lot of attention to. It was very new to them. In early 2000s in Hong Kong there was very little photography, really very few art shows dedicated to it. So, they did not see and did not understand it.

So, in the beginning there was a lot of looking and wondering and asking questions about the technical side of photographs we showed. People were a sort of exploring it, they did visit the photography shows but mostly to look, not to buy. And I can say it took them a long time to start feeling comfortable about collecting photography. I feel that now the market has become much more open and photography has turned into one of the hottest media to collect. But it was a long journey… the result did not happen right away, it took time.

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Chen Jiagang. Conveyor Belt, Photograph, 2012. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

Bleek Magazine: How would you describe your clients? Are most of them from Asia or expats and business people living and working in Hong Kong?

Angela Li: In the beginning, there were a lot more expats living here or just people travelling from outside. Speaking about Hong Kong clientele ten years ago, in particular, the collectors were very less advanced. Now we are seeing a lot more of young faces, quite more Asians, especially mainland Chinese and slightly fewer expats. I think it just reflects a general decline in the number of foreigners living here. It is not that they are not collecting, but just because they have moved out of Hong Kong.

Bleek Magazine: Is it true that many photographers from Hong Kong prefer architecture as the topic of their works, whereas people and their private surroundings somehow remain out of their focus of attention?

Angela Li: In our gallery we did have the whole exhibition dedicated to portraits, but generally speaking I think that maybe it is the market which prefers to show something more “neutral”, like buildings and architecture. I do not know whether it is so but the trend might really be seen.

But it does not mean that photographers shoot only neutral landscapes. For example, the first photographer whom I showed in the gallery in 2008 was a Beijing-based artist Chen Jiagang who travels all around China taking photos of old industrial buildings but he actually does put a person or a few people in there. The central topic of his works deals with looking back at the times of industrialization and its consequences, studying what is left behind.

I have worked with Chen for a very long time and we still have very close relationship, in a way also because he does not speak English and I do all his overseas management being rather his own agent and not only just a gallery representing him. By the way, 3 years ago we did his show in Moscow at MAMM, where we exhibited good 20 images.

But, coming back to your question, I would say that probably Asian clients really find putting a portrait in their home a rather difficult thing to do. In Asia, especially in Hong Kong, private spaces are very small. So, if you put a portrait that is not related to you, yes… it feels a bit… strange. You do not know that person, you do not relate to him or her, but the images is there with you every day!

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Chen Jiagang. The Great Three Gorges – Ship in Changshou, Photograph, 2012. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

Bleek Magazine: What about other culture-specific aspects that might characterize the tastes of the Asian public in terms of art and photography purchasing?

Angela Li: I think the ultimate choice is down to personal preference, there is no strong trend in that sense in terms of colour and size. But, unfortunately, in many ways our living environment does introduce a lot of limitations…

For example, whenever I show big format images, I see that people cannot really buy them, due to the sizes of their homes and the walls… As for the colour, a lot of collectors themselves or interior designers who come with them to the gallery immediately specify their preference to buy pieces matching their interiors. Certainly, since many walls are white, we have always sold very well pieces of that colour.

I personally find especially strong the white images from Peter Steinhauer’s series “Cocoons” about wrapped up buildings in construction. Peter Steinhauer is an Amercian photographer who had been based in Hong Kong and different parts of Asia for about 20 years before he recently moved back to the United States with his family. Especially when living in Hong Kong, he did quite a few different series on various things about Hong Kong and “Cocoons” is one of them. Looking at the images from this series takes a lot of attention, you really have to study each picture carefully before you see the details. Otherwise if you look at it very quickly, it would seem very abstract.

Moreover, I see this project as unique to Hong Kong. And I do not think Peter could have made it anywhere else in the world. The structures he photographed are all made of bamboo, they are hand-built by workers who have to climb up and down putting sticks and wrapping them manually. In a way searching for all the visual details calms you, architecturally all those “cocoons” look very beautiful!

Bleek Magazine: …like an art object per se…

Angela Li: Yes, a bit like Christo. All man-made, all bamboo… By the way, the structure itself is very light, at the same time very resilient! It is amazing! It is a part of the history of Asia, they used to have it all over the continent, but now I think Hong Kong is the only place that retains that.

But in fact if you personally go up to that building, you would see that it is the messiest thing ever! Because it is still a construction site. There is dust, sand and rocks everywhere. And this striking contrast is also something that tells a lot about our culture… So it really moves us… well, me, anyway. A lot of people can relate to it. And I think that in terms of art this feeling of “relating” to what is shown is very important.

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Peter Steinhauer. White Cocoon #1, Hong Kong – 2010. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

Bleek Magazine: Your gallery also provides the services of art consultancy. Can you dwell a bit more on that, please? What strategies do you use in helping your clients understand what art to collect?

Angela Li: In some way, our consultancy works more for bigger corporations or collectors who have a need to have somebody professional helping them select pieces or organize their collection. But surely we are always ready to provide advice to individual collectors, since we start talking to anyone who enters the gallery and it is not a fee-charging service. Whereas when you look at our consultancy page, you would see a list of mostly bigger corporations whom we helped with their projects – for example in dressing up their newly built hotels with a hundred of art pieces.

All of such clients have very different requirements, so in each case the approach is individual. One might want something very pop, another – something very sophisticated, or very zen, very colourful or very traditional. So, it is all very down to them. Plus, they have budget requirements and time line we have to meet. Also, I have to work in close cooperation with interior designers and sometimes architects, and bear in mind the branding of the whole group and the whole project. The owner also may have a lot of input and surely at the end of the day it is he who pays the whole bill.

This side of our work is a lot more complicated and cooperative rather than dealing with a particular individual client who only has to answer to himself. When working on such a big project you have to answer to many different parties. But at the same time I also find it really rewarding.

You see, whenever we sell pieces of art to an individual client, we might or might not be able to visit that space and hence we might or might not be able to see the painting, or photography, or sculpture any more. Certainly, many of our clients become our friends, very many of them are based in Europe and the USA and they do come back to the gallery once or twice a year – the client. But not the work of art. So, whatever we ship away, we never see it again. It is kind of a shame…

Certainly, we are very grateful that they support us on the long-term basis, but the feeling of satisfaction we have when working with our corporate clients is really a bit different. I may call it in a way more physical. We know that after working on a big project for 9-12 months, we can always go to that place and see all the art pieces there. I mean, you may come back and stay in a hotel which you dressed up with paintings one or two years later, and they would still be there. So, you feel the results of your work as something really physical, and the satisfaction is very high. We feel very proud and happy.

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Peter Steinhauer. Blue Cocoon #1, Hong Kong – 2008. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

Bleek Magazine: And what pieces of art does the gallery owner and curator has in her apartment…?

Angela Li: In my apartment? Well, I tend to change…. I do not keep a lot of pieces at home, first of all because I have dogs and their hair is going everywhere! Also, I tend to change a lot of things around due to my changing mood. And then for an art gallery owner the experience of having an art piece at home is very different because we know the answers. So, there is a lot of sentimental element attached to every work which I see also as a part of personal relationship I have with this or that artist. It is much more than just the look of it or the statement behind or an art technique.

So, if you ask me about my favourite artist my answer would change every day! Because of my interaction with the artist, you know. Today I might have had a five-hour conversation over the phone with somebody, the next day I might go and visit an artist and we would have a big meal and lots of drinks – so for me that “personal” element is too strong. So, both at home and in the office I tend to change the pieces all the time. In the gallery – once a month. In my office, probably, four times a year, in my home maybe even less often. One day I might come home and say like, “Oh, I cannot look at that anymore!” Maybe I have just had an argument with him! Just joking, of course.

Bleek Magazine: Are there any other photographers apart from Chen Jiagang and Peter Steinhauer whom you would recommend as working with topics representing Asia-related issues?

Angela Li: Sure, a couple of years ago we had He Chongyue’s show. This is Beijing-based photographer whom I had known for a long time before I started working with him. He works in interior and architecture photography, but also investigates social-political issues, for example in his portrait series.

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He Chongyue. The Exempted #7, 2014. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

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He Chongyue. The Exempted #5, 2014. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”

In the gallery we exhibited portraits of old farmers and peasants, very poor people left behind who are not taken care of by the “great motherland’s” government. With the youth having moved to big cities, the elderly mostly felt abandoned, unimportant and forgotten, actually doing nothing but just waiting to die. So, in a way with these portraits the artist gave them back their pride and individuality – when they were asked to do the portrait, they were very happy and put on their best clothes, gold earrings and so on. He Chongyue made the images in very high resolution and printed them in a big size, so when you look at them you can see all the details of the people’s clothes which despite being their best ones are still very old and mended here and there… One more particularly iconic aspect was that all of them were living to a city of the birth of the communist party. The contrast was really sticking and very touching at the same time.

The people were also asked not to smile because as the author explains when you smile you put on something, whereas he just wanted them to sit very naturally and relaxed. And although they are very proud of being photographed and for them it is a very happy moment, sometimes you can see sadness coming out. You can feel what hardship and loneliness they are going through.

So it was a great project and many people who came to see the show noticed how beautiful it was, and it was really pleasant to hear back. And although we always say that it is hard to sell a portrait and when making this exhibition we did not really expect to sell many pieces, we did end up selling because the people were moved the same way we were.

Bleek Magazine: And if the images move you personally, visitors who would share your emotions would definitely show up, too…

Angela Li: It is true. Showing art that moves us sometimes can be a bit risky. Sometimes it might not give you a good financial return, but I want to do it… Yes, it is important to sell in this market, and this is not an easy task, taking into account that in general the costs in Hong Kong are also astronomical. But we position ourselves as an art gallery, not an art shop, so first of all we want to show people very simple things that move us.

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The interior of “Contemporary by Angela Li” gallery. Courtesy of “Contemporary by Angela Li”


© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich