Thanks to South China Morning Post for interviewing me & other local artists for a feature about alternative art spaces in Hong Kong!
Below an image of Winnie Lam, owner of Philia, with the art from my current exhibition in the background. If you haven't checked out the exhibition yet, please do so! The show will be up at Philia in SoHo until Nov. 30.
Wall or nothing
Fed up with waiting for space in conventional galleries, emerging artists are hanging their work in some novel spots
Nov 14, 2008
For someone holding her first exhibition, woodblock-print artist Karden Chan Ka-yuen has done pretty well - half her works were sold within a fortnight of the opening. But that's not the only thing buoying Chan's spirits.
"It feels wonderful to have people look at what I do and give me their opinions. It's a defining moment for any artist, but I never thought it would come this early," says Chan, a freelance graphic designer.
Most emerging artists take a while to gain enough recognition for conventional galleries to show their work, or must finance their own exhibitions if they can't wait. But Chan has found a hassle-free route by exhibiting at ACO Books, an upstairs bookstore at the Foo Tak Building in Wan Chai. There was no waiting and it didn't cost her a cent.
Chan was the first artist to join a scheme launched last month by arts promotion group Art and Cultural Outreach (ACO) to showcase artists at its bookshop. Viewing it as a form of patronage, ACO manager Kobe Ho Ting-ting says the scheme is a partnership with the artists "because we share the belief that we have to get the good works out".
"We get a small take from the sales to cover the basic costs, and the rest goes to the artist."
ACO is the latest among a number of private venues, from bars to boutiques and bookstores, committed to providing a free platform for emerging artists. Art supplies company Artland has long provided free access for student artists at the 400 sq ft exhibition space attached to its Wan Chai store, but the trend among other venues began about four years ago with gallery cafes such as Les Artistes Cafe and Cafe Corridor and has spread across the city from Mong Kok to Causeway Bay.
The Second Floor Gallery in Prince Edward has hosted more than 20 exhibitions since it opened in 2004. Fanny Ng Fung-yee started the gallery cafe with a few friends to tap into the popularity of upstairs cafes while indulging their passion for art. When her partners pulled out because of a lack of time, she kept the place going with her husband.
Ng, who studied graphic design, is keen to showcase works that deal with social issues, for instance, photos reflecting the grim life of sex workers and children from poor families. It isn't popular material, but Ng says it doesn't matter if nothing is sold.
The cafe is profitable and "I love the way the artworks enrich my space and some customers keep coming back for that," she says. "It's a win-win situation and it feels good to give these artists a good start."
Owners of these venues often do much more than donate wall space. Some, such as Winnie Lam Wing-yan, promote the artists' work.
Lam, who quit a senior banking job to open SoHo bar Philia two years ago, says she often sponsors openings and helps line up press interviews for the artists.
"My brother is also an artist so I understand their plight. Commercial galleries here are only interested in more established artists or international art," she says.
Lam was partly inspired by a decade in San Francisco, where it's common for restaurants and hair salons to give artists a boost.
"Art is part of everyday life. As long as the artists show they are passionate about what they do, I'll host them," she says.
Arnault Castel, owner of lifestyle store Kapok, is equally passionate about promoting talented people; he even devotes part of his window display to showcasing their art.
Castel says he started the practice as a favour to friends who wanted to organise a show at his shop, and has since expanded to include anyone with material that tallies with his taste for the frivolous.
"I want something alternative and not serious, which you won't see in commercial galleries. I don't mind it being a bit strange because I am not under pressure to sell the works," he says. "I just have to like it since I also work there."
Castel is now figuring out how to keep up the displays now that the shop has moved from Tin Hau to a quiet alley in Wan Chai.
"Hopefully, I can make the shop window available soon. One good thing about promoting art is that it raises the profile of my shop, too. The new location is a bit hidden, but I'm not worried because I have built up a client base," he says.
Besides low commission rates, artists are drawn to exhibiting at free venues because owners make it simple.
"It's easy," says American illustrator Emily Eldridge, who is showing her work at Philia. "I spoke with Winnie, discussed my ideas and had a few months to prepare."
The lounge setting also seems to suit her colourful illustrations of Hongkongers. "It reaches a wider crowd than perhaps a typical gallery would. People are able to sit and have a drink and enjoy the art, and in this way, I think I am able to share my work with an audience who might not normally take the time to visit galleries," Eldridge says. "I like the idea that my work can be more accessible to the average person."
Free spaces are a great boost to the Hong Kong art scene, says Eldridge, 26, an artist-in-residence at an international school. "Artists need time to establish themselves before they are granted access to higher-end galleries or larger-scale projects. In Hong Kong there aren't as many outlets or venues for underground or emerging art as there are in other cities," she says.
Alternative spaces have also attracted established artist Winnie Davies, who tired of waiting for space at conventional venues.
But Davies, a sculptor and portrait painter, says the free spaces have their limitations. "Some don't have what established artists are looking for. Ultimately, we want to get the attention of art buyers, and if you want to raise your profile in the art scene, it's not easy to achieve that with free spaces," she says. "You have to know what you want so you'll go for the right places."
But there's no doubt boutiques and cafes offer far greater flexibility. "You can do a show even if you have fewer than 10 works," says Ng.
For Chan, the free space has helped more than she imagined. "Woodblock print isn't popularly practised here, so I hope people will be intrigued and want to know more about it," she says. "It's not just helping me but also the art form."