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Elaine Kwok on Hauser & Wirth’s Model New Imaginative and prescient

Elaine Kwok on Hauser & Wirth’s Model New Imaginative and prescient

Hauser & Wirth’s Elaine Kwok talk about the gallery’s newly immersive role – and space – in Hong Kong.

One hour before Hauser & Wirth made its Asia debut in Hong Kong at H Queen’s in 2018 with an exhibition by American artist Mark Bradford, I asked co-founder Iwan Wirth how he’d describe the “brand” of Hauser & Wirth, given that its name might not resonate with the city’s aesthetes in the same way as Gagosian, White Cube, Pearl Lam or even David Zwirner.

‘We’re a gallery and we try to build relationships with collections,” he said. “In many ways, I’m much more interested in the business of building collections. So, if you come to us just for that one purchase, we might not be the best gallery to do that through. But if you’re curious and are open to dialogue, then this is the gallery for you. Coming from Zurich, we’ve had to be extra innovative. We haven’t been at the art centre; we’ve always been at the periphery.”

He was also very candid about his knowledge (or at that point lack of) of local Hong Kong artists. “What we’re seeing now is that we’re very keen to grow in the community; that’s very important in how we function as a gallery. We need to learn more first from being here before we can determine its future. But right now, I’m learning. We need to spend time, go to studios and get to understand and respect the artists. And what I can tell you is that the art and cultural landscape in China is here to stay. It’s not going out of fashion.”

Iwan and Manuela Wirth with Hauser & Wirth president Marc Payot
Iwan and Manuela Wirth with Hauser & Wirth president Marc Payot

Fast forward to 2024. For a so-called peripheral gallery, Hauser & Wirth has since leveraged an increasingly central role in the global art ecosystem – and so too in Hong Kong, given its move to the new four-storey site at 8 Queen’s Road, at the junction of historic Ice House Street, Duddell Street and Queen’s Road Central, in a space previously occupied by French luxury purveyor Longchamp. Featuring exhibition galleries on both the ground and first floors, its design was overseen by Annabelle Selldorf of Selldorf Architects, who’s collaborated with the gallery since 1996. 

According to managing partner Asia Elaine Kwok, the new space, which opened with Chinese artist Zhang Enli, is a natural continuation for the gallery in the city, as it prioritises access. “It’s all about engagement with the community,” she says. “We wanted a space on the ground floor in Central, where people can encounter artists just by looking around. So this allows us to be right in the centre of things. And people walk by, many of whom have probably never been in a contemporary art gallery before. We hope this will pique their curiosity.” 

Traditionally, Hauser has staged exhibitions drawn from its roster of established artists, from modern masters such as Louise Bourgeois (she of the giant spiders) and Philip Guston, to more contemporary practitioners like Zeng Fanzhi, Nicolas Party, Rashid Johnson and Bradford. “We’re planning about four shows per year,” Kwok says, adding how pleased Hauser was to open the new space with Zhang Enli, an artist it’s represented since 2006, and who’s shown at its galleries in New York, London, Zurich and Somerset, England, but until now not in Hong Kong. “He’s been an artist with us, the first Asian artist Iwan and Manuela took on to their programme, and he’s one of the most celebrated Chinese painters of our time. This was the perfect opportunity to give him a show, and we were so happy to open with him.” 

Glenn Ligon, Static #6 (2023)
Glenn Ligon, Static #6 (2023)

During this month’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, Hauser is showing American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s first solo exhibition in Greater China. He’s best known for text-based paintings, and has created new works including a continuation of his Stranger paintings, a new abstracted series entitled Static paintings, and a number of untitled drawings on kozo paper made by taking rubbings of his Stranger works. Notable is the artist’s use of words from James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” (1953), a recounting of the writer’s experience as the only black man in the Swiss alpine village of Leukerbad. The work sees the artist’s radical use of text to explore the politics of racial identity. 

“We’re looking forward to showing Glenn, who’s known for outsider art – he’s African-American, and not only is he black but he’s also homosexual, so looking at society from the margins. And what it is to be an outsider in a community is very relevant to a lot of our cultures, and I can’t wait to share his work with our audience here in Asia,” says Kwok. 

Kwok grew up in a very different Hong Kong art world – one where most parents actively discouraged their progeny from taking part. “When I was growing up, this wasn’t regarded as a viable career, but now so much has changed and Art Basel in Hong Kong has made a huge impact,” she says. “It’s really been exciting to witness the city’s flourishing art scene for my almost two-decade-long career. It’s gone from being a niche industry to one in which lots of people are engaged.”

These days, art is so foregrounded in Hong Kong that Hauser reaches out to universities and post-graduate students, encouraging them to learn about the art world, be it working in a gallery or in the art market. The gallery also conducts tours, talks and lectures, shows films and promotes learning activities for adults and children.  “It’s really meaningful to be able to share this,” says Kwok – and central to the gallery owners’ mantra. “In our conversations with our founders, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, and president Marc Payot, we always talk about how we believe in the transformative power of art, and how ways of encountering works of art can really alter the way you think, and can inspire you, or put you in contact with history and connect you with the wider community. So we always want to bring internationally renowned artists into the space, and talks, lectures, performances that can amplify the work we do.” In February, Hauser co-hosted a talk with Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive on the Zhang Enli opening. Posted online, the podcast registered more than 22,000 views within 48 hours. 

Kwok, a former Christie’s Hong Kong heavyweight and something of a social-media phenom on digital, joined Hauser in 2022 to help build the gallery’s strong relationships with collectors, public institutions and private museums in China and around Asia, which of late has seen fairs opening across the region in Seoul, Taipei, Singapore and Tokyo. “Opening this new gallery also really affirms Hauser & Wirth’s commitment to Asia and to the region, along with Hong Kong’s commitment to Asia,” explains Kwok. “We’re excited, the market has potential to grow and I’m really looking forward to the fair this month, especially as it will be back to its pre-pandemic size.”

Despite the arrival of new fairs in the region, Kwok is still gung-ho on the prospects for Hong Kong’s art market. “I still think Hong Kong is unique in its advantages. It’s geographically central in Asia. There’s an ease of navigation and getting around, and it’s small. English and Chinese are spoken, the two most-spoken languages, and it’s a freeport in terms of trade, plus there’s an increasingly sophisticated local art audience and museum scene, all of which means it’s a great hub for the Asia market for years to come.”

As a former auction-house aficionadess, how has Kwok found the transition to white-walled gallery? “At Hauser, we take a longer-term approach to building the artist’s career than we would in an auction house, and then also in building her legacy … We also take a similar approach with artists and collectors, who can get to know each other and shape their tastes, and that’s different from an auction environment. Galleries are often more of a bespoke option, and collecting through one lets you get to know the artist and build a relationship. So it’s not just transactional, it’s also about learning and education.” 

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She elaborates further on gallery versus auction house. “Growing the client base is always a challenge, and navigating the gallery process is something people don’t understand so readily. Because auctions and auction houses are such big machines, people understand them better. With galleries, even the whole idea of taking interest and placement can be very intimidating to the new collector. But once you understand how to work the system it becomes a very rewarding process.”

Elaine Kwok (Photo: Jason To)
Elaine Kwok in Hauser & Wirth’s new space (Photo: Jason To)

Kwok thinks the presence of M+ has been and will continue to be hugely significant for Hong Kong’s art credentials. “M+ has really changed not just Hong Kong but the environment for the whole of Asia,” she says. “And Tai Kwun has great programming; and HK Museum of Art has really stepped up its programme.” The strengthening of the institutional scene has both broadened and deepened Hong Kong’s burgeoning art status. “We’re seeing greater diversification of the art world and even the art market; when the market is too much ruled by the commercial end, all you see is commercial art. And art that people want at home is very different from what might appeal to an art historian, for example. So, while M+ really only just opened about two years ago, I think as the museum becomes something that more people come to understand and get to know, there’ll be an increasing diversity in terms of the taste for collecting.”

For Hauser and the cities’ other galleries, M+ was something of a double celebration. On the one hand, it meant that galleries might gain access to M+, via the artists they represent who can be considered for group shows of the non-commercial variety; conversely, there’s always the chance that M+ will acquire works from the galleries for its growing collection. It’s no surprise that Chanel became an official sponsor of M+ last year through its Chanel Culture Fund, given M+’s transformative ability to network with like-minded institutions across Asia and beyond. In fact, M+ could do for the non-profit sector what Art Basel in Hong Kong does for the commercial side. Win-win.

Meanwhile, Hauser will continue to innovate in Hong Kong. Following Ligon’s Greater China debut, the gallery will bring a survey of Italian modern master Lucio Fontana in June, featuring his iconoclastic Holes (Buchi) and Slashes (Tagli), which continue to exert influence today, along with the first monograph written in Mandarin dedicated to the artist. This is the final highlight of a trilogy that follows presentations of Fontana’s Environments (Ambienti) works in Los Angeles, and his sculptures in New York. Hauser has saved Fontana’s best for last. “I want to open space,” Fontana famously declared about his holes and slashes, “to create a new dimension for art.” 

All of which means, don’t let misconceptions keep you from stepping inside 8 Queen’s Road this Dragon Year. “I think there’s a great misconception that galleries are out of reach and only for the wealthy or art collectors,” says Kwok. “But I really do believe it’s all about access and community. It’s about the audience
we encounter who get to know the works, and the artists, everyone’s welcome. We’d love them to come and participate in lectures, programmes, events, film screenings and more.”

The art and cultural landscape as rendered by Hauser & Wirth in Hong Kong is here to stay. And if art is the new fashion, then 8 Queen’s Road is your new look. 

Source: Prestige Online

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