Multimedia artist Li Zhenhua, who has curated the film sector at Art Basel in Hong Kong since it was introduced in 2014, promises a line-up of “incredibly new” and “very beautiful” works this year. Specific details, however, are being kept under wraps. Among the programme’s highlights last year were films by Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese artists such as Yu Cheng-ta, Yao Jui-chung, Liu Xinyi and Liu Shiyuan.
The quality and variety of nominations for his 2016 programme have “developed amazingly” compared to previous editions, says Li, who is the founder and director of Beijing Art Lab. The curator’s selection includes 60 works, of which more than half were made in 2015 and two were not finished until earlier this year. He is thrilled by the influx of new entries, many of which will be world premieres, and says it speaks to the strengthening of film and new media art in general.
During its heyday in the 1970s, the term “video art” tended to describe works that broke free of the conventions that define theatrical cinema—the use of plot, dialogue and actors, for example. One of the pioneers of the form was the late Nam June Paik, whose works were shown at a recent exhibition at Hong Hong’s Gagosian Gallery. The Korean-American artist was one of the first to incorporate video into his practice, at a time when the technology had become newly available outside corporate broadcasting.
In the digital age, however, the boundaries between film and fine art are blurring. This ambiguity is reflected in Li’s inclusion of documentary and feature films this year alongside series created by recognised artists and shorter, more experimental works.
When the film section debuted at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2014, Lars Nittve, then executive director of M+, the city’s long-awaited museum of visual culture, told reporters, “The relationship between what they call art, video art and, of course, film is mixing and blending.” Now context, rather than content, could be all that distinguishes a movie from an artwork. Li explains that in a cinema, viewers of a documentary about a river may be inclined to engage with its factual aspects, to think about climate change and ecology, for example. But an exhibition space is more likely to bring out the river’s symbolism.
Film and video art are enjoying a new kind of heyday. Collectors are less and less intimidated by the medium, which tends to command lower prices than paintings. In an interview with this magazine ahead of last year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, Li advised that “right now” is the best time to invest in new media art. “The Andy Warhol of the digital art world,” he pointed out, could be a young, as-yet-unknown Chinese artist.
“With a lot of the works, we are taking risks that are challenging and interesting”
— Li Zhenhua
Li believes the rise of the movement is due in large part to advances in technology, with devices such as smartphones having vastly expanded the general public’s opportunities to both make and consume videos. “Film should be considered the medium of now,” he says. In the post-internet age, “it’s a common [form] that everybody shares and understands.”
The offering at Art Basel in Hong Kong has grown in response to a marked interest among local audiences, which Adeline Ooi, the fair’s director for Asia, attributes as much to the city’s rich cinema history as to the current trends. It was her interest in establishing a connection to this heritage that drove the decision to expand the film sector at the fair.
“The interest in film is very strong,” Li observes. “From the beginning, our programme has had a full house.” As with many things in Hong Kong, however, it was a question of space. The seating capacity at the programme’s original venue, the Agnès B Cinema, is 119. This year, the addition of a 600-seat cinema at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, where the art fair is held, is a significant boost. The extra venue will allow Li to schedule a wider variety of films. “My intention is always to showcase as many artists as I can,” he says. “With a lot of the works, we are taking risks that are challenging and interesting.”
This year’s theme will continue Li’s prior focus on art and activism. “In the previous two years, I’ve thought a lot about Hong Kong pre- and post- revolution,” he says, referring to the Occupy Central upheaval of 2014. “Now I’m thinking more along the lines of how we can construct a better world through art.”
Li’s comment recalls the 2015 James Crump film Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, which screened at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December. It features a group of New York artists who sought to transcend the limitations of painting and sculpture in the 1960s and ’70s by producing monumental earthworks in the deserts of the southwestern US. The film casts these artists as courageous iconoclasts who changed the landscape of art forever.
Troublemakers won’t be part of the line-up in Hong Kong, but Li stresses that he has some equally astonishing projects on the cards. The films will be both beautiful and brave, and will relate to Asian cultural traditions. Time is among the themes Li will explore through the notion of “the world as a garden” whose appearance shifts with the hours and seasons. More concretely, he says, “the triangle between Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China” is an issue he seeks increasingly to address.
Art Basel in Hong Kong, March 24-26, Convention and Exhibition Centre. artbasel.com
Text by Samantha Leese