Hong Kong has art fever. ART HK 11 (Hong Kong International Art Fair 2011) has generated a flurry of art-related activity on its fringes – talks, lectures, debates, art performances – and Intelligence Squared Asia (IQ2) is grabbing audience attention with a new debate called “Art Must Be Beautiful”.

To lead the discussion, IQ2 Asia has invited acclaimed art luminaries – Lars Nittve (moderator), Stephen Bayley (against the motion), Ming Wong (also against the motion), David Lachapelle (for the motion) and Simon de Pury (also for the motion) – to hash out a resolution . While this may seem to be quite a feat with art being as subjective as it is, the sold out debate on 27 May at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibit Centre is undoubtedly a discussion that many of Hong Kong’s art enthusiasts will not want to miss.

Toting an impressive reputation on promoting contemporary art all over the world, the iconic Simon de Pury (Chairman of Phillips de Pury & Company) continues to be one of the world’s leading figures in art. It was Art Radar‘s pleasure to speak to him about his thoughts on the debate motion as well as pick his brain on different matters involving Asia’s developing art market and Phillips de Pury’s future auction plans.

Simon de Pury. Image from portfolio.com.

How did you get involved with IQ2 Asia?

Well, I had already participated and moderated a debate Intelligence Squared had done in London at the Saatchi Gallery some time ago and they asked me again to participate. They said, We’re doing this debate in Hong Kong, and I was planning to come to the Hong Kong art fair [ART HK 11], so I accepted to take part in it.

As someone who is massively involved in the global contemporary art scene, would you agree that there is an increasing thrust to promote academic discourse in art in different parts of the world?

Interest for the arts has been developing and growing fast internationally. This stems from more information being available, great education about it, and through more education and more information, cultural events around the world attract as many, if not more, visitors than sports events. With this growing interest, [there] is a growing discourse….

In relation to the IQ2 Asia debate, “Art must be beautiful”, what are your initial insights regarding the motion?

Art must be intriguing and exciting and lift you to a different level, and it must stir up some emotions. Now, if it does all the above, it can be beautiful at the same time, but it cannot just be beautiful, it needs something more than sheer beauty. Therefore also skills by themselves are not enough for an artist to create great works of art. In music it is similar, you can sometimes make a great piece of music, [but] it needs a combination of salt and pepper, it can’t be just sugar. Ultimately, what we believe is beautiful is very subjective because we all have our own criteria or views of what we find, or don’t find, beautiful. If a work of art moves me, I tend to find it beautiful, but it might not correspond to what is generally viewed as beauty.

Does artistic “beauty” have anything to do with what people are willing to pay for a piece of work? How does money factor in?

Most of the collectors live with their art and so you want to be deriving some pleasure out of living with the works you acquire. Some works may have an instant visual appeal but that will wear off, so you want something timeless that never makes you tired of it. When a work is totally timeless and of outstanding quality, it obviously has influence on its desirability and therefore on its price. The more desirable a work is, the more contenders there will be for it.

With the highly subjective nature of the art world, does it then rely on individual “gut instinct” when it comes to collecting art?

I think it’s very important to follow one’s gut instinct because we all very much have a visceral reaction when we first are confronted with a work of art, the same way we have a visceral reaction when we hear a piece of music. Now, when you collect art there are, of course, a number of criteria that are not subjective but that also have an influence on the market price. One such thing is that you want the work to be in a condition that does not deteriorate so that you can keep it over the years. Another point is the provenance, the history of the work is important: [a buyer needs] to know where [the work] was before, where it was exhibited, to have the whole context of a piece. One such point as well is quality, on one hand it is subjective, but on the other hand it is not, because with artists, especially artists that are late or mid-career or artists who are no longer alive, overall you want the best work. Even the greatest artists have produced some lesser work, so there are great differences in quality within the work of [even] the same artist. This is why it is so important to buy with the eyes and not with the ears. One impact may be if a market is national or international. Some artists have a local market, [some] a national market and some have an international market. Of course, the more international the demand for an artist is, the better it is for their market, thus giving more commercial value to a work of art.

Coming to Hong Kong for the IQ2 Asia debate, what are your thoughts on Hong Kong’s developing art scene and its place as an art market separate from China? Is it possible to separate what is happening in China and Hong Kong?

I think Hong Kong is a very, very important art centre for the international art market. Hong Kong, New York and London are the three centres of the art market and have been so for a while. But Hong Kong is the one that is developing and strengthening the fastest, and the Hong Kong art fair [ART HK] is an important element in that. The news that, as of next year, the Hong Kong art fair [ART HK] will become Art Basel Hong Kong is yet another element that will strengthen the Hong Kong art market. With the great economic development of Hong Kong and of China over the last [few] years, there has been a very strong and creative boom that went hand-in-hand with it, and this is what one experiences always: when there is a strong economic activity, it usually goes hand-in-hand with strong artistic activity.

Who are the artists in Asia that you are watching closely?

We are following most of the big stars who emerged in the 1990’s, and the most recent artists that began to emerge in the last couple, or three, years. Every season we [Phillips de Pury] introduce artists into our auctions that have never been sold at auction before, besides the big names that are the backbone of our sales. Over the last ten years, many artists reputations and markets have developed, in part with what has happened in the secondary markets, what has happened in the auction markets, so we’ve been championing the work of artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, but also Ai Weiwei….

Phillips de Pury auction house is the only auction house that holds BRIC sales. How (and why) did you begin a foray into that market?

The term BRIC [was] coined in 2001 by Goldman Sachs and you can hardly open a financial newspaper without having some articles making reference to the BRIC countries. We thought it would be interesting to put the spotlight on the artistic accomplishments of the BRIC countries, and so in 2010 we had our first BRIC auction, followed by the one we had this year. What is interesting is that while of course there could not be greater differences between the cultures of those four countries, what they have in common today, aside from a great economic dynamism, is that they all have a vibrant contemporary art scene. This is what we wanted to show.

How does Asia’s art dynamic compare to Europe’s?

I think that Asian collectors are particularly keen on the auction system and they like it because it’s opened the system that shapes a market. The artists themselves like not being tied down by single dealers, so it provides a less structured market, and ultimately a freer market. [The Asian art] market is slowly becoming the strongest market in the world.

China is arguably more insular as a country than Hong Kong (a Special Administrative Region [SAR] of China). How do you see these art scenes informing one another?

There is great artistic activity going on in China, and both the big stars that have emerged in the last fifteen to twenty years and the younger artist generation are producing great, great talent. There is great attention being given [to the arts] in China, thanks to current technology. No artist anywhere is living or working in isolation any longer, and so any artist, wherever they may be, can follow what is happening in China and vice versa. When you think back to the 1970s, where you had artists working in different countries, there is a much greater flow of information today on what is being done.

There are reports that Phillips de Pury is planning their first auction in China this year. What can we expect this to happen and what art will the auction be focussed on?

We do indeed have such plans and as soon as all the details are finalised for our inaugural auction, we will make an announcement.

According to recent financial news, South Africa has joined the BRIC group. Does Phillips de Pury have any plans to include South African art in their BRIC auctions?

We are always interested in showing the best art in the world, so we are definitely interested in African art. We also have had African-themed auctions, have organised seminars, symposiums on Chinese art, Russian art. We always feel that it is very important for collectors to see art in an international context, where you can hang a work by a top Chinese artist next to a top European artist next to a top American artist and ultimately have the quality of the work speak for itself.

Do you foresee more significant developments in the Asian contemporary art market in 2011?

Yes, quite clearly. First of all, one can analyse the art market statistically from 1850 onwards because there is enough documentary evidence for transactions, and when you observe what had happened with art prices over the years, you see that the Asian art market has always gone from strength to strength and has always done extremely well compared to any other market. Therefore in a time of fear or uncertainty or fear of inflation, besides a very keen passion and interest for the arts, even from an investing point of view, more people are viewing art as an alternative investment, and all of this is contributing to a further strengthening of the market.


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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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