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What to see at the Asia Contemporary Art Show

The Asia Contemporary Art Show is back for its ninth edition. Olivia Lai sits down with Mark Saunderson, the show’s director, to talk about what separates Acas from Art Basel, and this edition's highlights

A popular event for art buyers, collectors and enthusiasts, the Asia Contemporary Art Show returns this month at the glitzy Conrad Hong Kong hotel in Admiralty. Held twice a year, every autumn and spring, this installment features more than 2,500 works of art from over 80 local and international galleries and artists, including big names like Mario Gomez, Francesco Lietti, Wang Min, Patrick Wack and Ala Leresteux. Visitors are invited to browse through up to 80 rooms, spanning four floors, and to purchase from an array of artworks ranging from paintings and sculptures to photographs. Mark Saunderson, co-founder and director of the Asia Contemporary  Art Show, tells us what makes Acas such a special experience.

Hi Mark! Please tell us all about yourself and how you came to work in Hong Kong’s art industry...
I’ve been living in Hong Kong since 1982. I crossed over from a media career, having spent most of my freshman life in that sector. About 20 or so years ago, I started to be interested in art and began buying it – principally as a collector. The next catalyst on that journey was in 2007. I collaborated with two partners on a Banksy pop-up show in Hong Kong. That was my first foray into the art world outside of just buying art. Fast forward to 2010, my partners and I founded the Asia ContemporaryArt Show. For me, it’s been a progression of interest. I wouldn’t say I was schooled in fine arts but I have experience seeing and being involved in the industry. 

What was the motivation behind starting Acas?
One of the motivators was trying to find a way to better connect the buyers of art with the sellers of art. The reality in Hong Kong is that there’s not a strong gallery-hopping culture like in Europe. It’s a combination of factors – the extent to which people are busy, the very hot weather and, increasingly, the galleries becoming more remote. What we’ve endeavoured to do since the first edition is to provide a platform where we engage two groups of people: the people who define themselves as art collectors who buy art on a regular basis, and the sellers. The mission is to broaden the market in terms of consumption of art. A majority of galleries in the city represent contemporary Chinese artists. That’s perfectly understandable looking at where Hong Kong sits. But what we offer are works that typically would never be seen in Hong Kong and to strive for a diversity of artists in terms of their origins and style.

When you talk about works rarely seen in Hong Kong, are you referring to any specific genres in particular?
We want to focus on the character of Hong Kong and the potential consumption of art. That means paintings, sculpture and photography. But the main focus is on paintings because there’s a greater artistic output in that particular media, and space is a huge factor. It’s much easier for buyers to hang a flat painting up than to buy a sculpture. But we’ve seen people with a stronger appetite for sculpture during the last few shows. 

What does this edition of the show focus on?
The show focuses on the work narrative in terms of inspiration and the story behind a work. For collectors, that’s a consideration when buying. Behind any painting you see, there’s a story and an experience that the artist has encountered in life or perhaps the environment he or she is in. What I also try to do is not just display expensive work because the show is about art that is accessible. 

How is Acas different from other big art shows like Art Basel and Art Central?
With Art Basel, Art Central, the Affordable Art Fair and all these art shows, there’s an ecology that’s emerged for the market to grow and expand. We offer something that’s different and distinct. We host the art fair in a hotel - it’s an environment that allows both the veteran collector and the less experienced buyer to interact with the art more intimately. Very often, walking into a gallery, you’re faced with four-metre-high walls. It’s white. It’s chilly. It’s a very different type of experience. If you walk into one of the 80 rooms at Acas, the rooms are around 42sq m. It allows human interaction to take place. At Art Basel, you can see everything in one look, but at Acas, you have to literally go from room to room. The fun part is the discovery. You may walk into one room and feel nothing but then you could walk into the next and be surprised. It’s that dynamic that people find interesting. We also do it twice a year. The frequency contributes to the popularity of the show. While we’re on at the same time as the other shows in spring, come the autumn season we’re the only contemporary art show in town. 

You mentioned Hong Kong galleries are getting more remote. Do you think that will affect the art scene in the long run?
First of all, what’s happening in Hong Kong is not unique. If you look at New York and London, the art community has become more fragmented. The practical reality for galleries is that you need space and space costs money. If you don’t sell a painting, you don’t make a profit. It’s very simple maths. The thing to consider with the industry is that purchases are discretionary. With technology, people can reach out directly and buy art on the basis of an image. The industry has this significant output of artwork and the channel is fairly narrow. The gallery will only hang work for a month or two, then it gets put into storage. Art fairs like us offer a platform to put the art in front of a lot of people over a short period of time. The beauty of the internet is that it doesn’t have to be in a dark room somewhere. The artwork still has the potential of being discovered. 

You’re an art collector yourself. Are you interested in buying any of the works on display?
Guilty as charged. It’s really interesting after spending a long time working with the artists and then seeing the artworks in person. But yes, I do have my shopping list. 

Do you have anything new planned for future editions?
We’re working on a couple of things for the March edition. We want visitors to experience something they wouldn’t otherwise experience. I can guarantee 99 percent of the people who visit our art fairs have never been to an artist’s studio. They’ve never sat down in an environment where the artist works. What we’re planning to do is have a floor dedicated to artists, not just their works. Another curatorial project we’re working on is a bigger Chinese representation. We’re trying to present artists not usually seen outside of China, who are more mature or mid-career. It’s a channel for commentary in terms of social issues and to some extent political issues. We hope it’ll add some freshness to the fair. 

What do you hope viewers can take away from this edition’s show?
The best thing that could happen is someone visits the show and finds art that they like. It’s about making that connection between the artist and the buyer. To see happy buyers take home art. Once the journey starts, it’s like that first glass of wine you ever have. You experience it, you enjoy it and you go back for more.

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