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From Paris to Hong Kong

European street art and historic comics are up for grabs at Sheung Wan's Liang Yi Museum

French auction house Artcurial is showcasing European street art and historic comics at its new exhibition. Olivia Lai talks to associate director Isabelle Bresset about what makes urban art just as important – if not more important – than traditional art

Written by
Olivia Lai

Mid-Autumn has passed and a new season is here – auction season. Right now in Hong Kong, art buyers and lovers can shop for everything from paintings to antiques to sculptures. But there’s a gap in most catalogues: urban art. French auction house Artcurial is looking fill that space by bringing a wide range of European street art and historic comics to Hong Kong for sale and display. 

Flying in artwork all the way from France, the aptly named auctioning exhibition From Paris to Hong Kong is showcasing 130 unique artworks. The associate director of Artcurial, Isabelle Bresset, is here hoping to shine a spotlight on a genre that Hong Kong’s art market is not entirely familiar with. “Hong Kong has become an international art centre but you always have to make [the art scene] stronger in a city,” she tells us. “Street art is one way to make it more visible.” The Paris-based auction house is famous for its urban art department and after a successful debut in our city last year, Bresset and her team are back to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paris department’s establishment with this new exhibition. “People are coming to Hong Kong from Asia and every part of the world during the auction season. It’s going to be interesting for Hongkongers and international viewers to see different art objects,” Bresset remarks.

From French cartoonist Moebius and Tintin creator Hergé to graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Invader, as well as renowned London street artist Banksy, the auction displays a diverse selection of non-traditional artworks that have been part of a movement reshaping the art market landscape. But despite its origins, street art is not so different compared to traditional art like paintings and sketches. “Like traditional art, urban art is a means of expression,” says Bresset. “It’s about the expression of ideas, of emotions. Basically, expressing oneself in one way or another.” A branch of contemporary art, street art comes in various forms and visitors and buyers can see many of these at the show: Basquiat’s pastel and crayon drawings border on the chaotic; artist/graphic designer Hopare creates hyperrealistic illustrations that incorporate
dense lines and geometric shapes; and graffiti artist Invader’s artworks are well known for being based on the pixel graphics of old video games. 

 Despite increased recognition, street art continues to suffer many prejudices and accusations that it amounts to little more than vandalism and defacement. But Bresset rejects those claims and insists urban art is in fact a form of political discourse and freedom of speech. “Street artists use public areas to express themselves when they cannot do it in a school or in a gallery,” she tells us. “When you have artists as well known as Banksy, although he is very political, he is also expressing ideas. Street art is a way to have your message spread. Urban art is important because these artists don’t have access to galleries.” 

Of course, there’s an irony making money off artists like Banksy, who’s famous for critiquing consumerism. Bresset understands the awkwardness but claims it was ever thus. In fact, she says, selling Banksy’s work can help spread his message more effectively. “Of course it’s controversial,” she admits, “but if Banksy wasn’t as famous as he is now, we wouldn’t have heard his message. We wouldn’t know what he’s saying. That’s the way the world works and I think it’s quite idealistic to think it could be different. Now, people from around the world are aware of his message thanks to the sale and auctioning of his works.” What’s more, adds Bresset, Banksy’s fame and artwork has helped change people’s perspective on urban art and acted as a way for other artists to garner the attention of the public,” she says, “He’s done a lot for other artists and for bringing recognition to street art. Because of Banksy, a lot of street artists feel they can express themselves without feeling their art would be automatically removed.” 

Aside from street art, this on-sale exhibition also focuses on historic comics. Anyone who grew up reading the adventures of Tintin or enjoyed the recent film adaptation in 2011 can get the chance to view and handle original comics and artworks by the series’ creator, Hergé, dating back to the 1930s. One such artwork is a rare paper sketch made in 1979 for the fresco decorating the main stairway at the Cultural Center of Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris. The one-of-a-kind sketch, which Bresset expects will fetch a high price, is one of Hergé’s few works to feature every popular character that appeared in the Tintin series. Other comic rarities to look out for include French comic book artist Olivier Ledroit’s drawings, which favour a gothic fantasy style, as well Moebius’ Harzach series, where he creates entire new worlds through beautifully detailed illustrations. 

There’s an increasing number of art collectors purchasing urban art and comics. Bresset believes this is primarily due to the draw of nostalgia. “They buy comics because they are original drawings and pieces,” Bresset insists, “and they remind [individuals] of their childhood and memories like their mother reading them the books. It’s about keeping the emotional connection.” Graffiti is also increasingly popular among buyers and gaining more recognition from both the public and within the art world. “People want to leave street art untouched because it’s an attraction that tourists will come and see,” Bresset remarks. “It becomes part of the identity of an area and [house] prices go up as the area becomes a hip, trendy spot.”

This is certainly the case in Hong Kong, where street art has become more salient with the help of artist groups like HK Walls and pop-up events throughout the year. Areas, most notably Sheung Wan, have become Instagram worthy hotspots thanks to the surrounding graffiti art. “There’s a lot of street art happening, many of which is larger than life,” says Bresset. “Artists are collaborating with landlords to have the wall space, allowing them to express themselves and not have others disturb what they’re doing. I think it’s a great thing.” Bresset names King of Kowloon as our version of Banksy, a true Hong Kong pioneer. “He was a poor man who enjoyed drawing calligraphy in the streets,” she states. “Yet no-one appreciated his work in the early days and his calligraphy was erased by painters. Now, his calligraphy works have reached such high prices that people want to keep the works. It’s a crazy world.”

Taking place near the heart of Hong Kong’s street art scene, the auction is being held at Hollywood Road’s Liang Yi Museum. Bresset is looking to recreate the style and vibe of the exhibitions Artcurial presents in Paris and hopes visitors enjoy seeing a new type of auction. “When you go to auctions at the Convention Centre, you always see the same things,” Bresset suggests. “I think people are going to be happy and excited to see something completely different. I hope people, especially Hong Kong people, welcome having a new player in the city. And I hope they understand my French accent during the auctions [laughs].”

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