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Encounters: the curated sector at Art Basel Hong Kong presents 14 large-scale projects

Curator Alexie Glass-Kantor speaks to STIR about the importance of experimentation at a commercial fair and the making of this year’s Encounters at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Mar 22, 2023

An art fair, beyond the commercial and business aspects, lends itself to a huge opportunity to sensitize and educate masses on ideas of contemporary arts. While gallery booths tend to focus on representing art that is collectible, the fair itself must create space that accounts for the experimental. Art Basel consistently weaves in invitational projects that aim to expand the worldview of contemporary visual arts.

At its upcoming Hong Kong edition, the fair will open with 177 art galleries from 32 countries. It will include the sector for monumental works and a new site-specific commission by Pipilotti Rist. Encounters, the curated sector dedicated to large-scale works, will return to the show for the first time since 2019 with 14 expansive presentations.

I speak to Alexie Glass-Kantor, the returning curator of Encounters.

Gravity, 2018-2023, Awol Erizku | Art Basel | STIRworld
Gravity, 2018-2023, Awol Erizku Image: Isaac Lawrence; Courtesy of Art Basel

Rahul Kumar: Why is this section called ‘Encounters’ and why is it significant to be placed alongside the regular gallery booths?

Alexie Glass-Kantor: Since the early 2000s, Art Basel initiated curated sectors for large-scale installation, sculptural performance or site-specific works, that kind of foreground contemporary art in the expanded field. Within the presentation of our Basel, Basel. The first sector was Unlimited, which has its own hall and is a remarkable kind of assembly of up to 100 works. They build rooms, they create spaces, they have performances and films, photography, sculpture installation, it was curated by Giovanni Carmine. At the moment in Basel, they have an outdoor sector and Basel Capacoa for large-scale public works. They have a curated sector in Miami called Meridians. And they have a curated sector for Paris as well. All the curators for Art Basel come from not-for-profit museums, foundations, or alternative spaces. Giovanni is the director of Queen Starla in Switzerland Samuel Leuenberger is the founder of Salts. I'm the director of Artspace in Sydney, and I've been the curator for Encounters since 2015, a couple of years after Basel Hong Kong was established. This is my sixth edition. We've just had a three-year hiatus and so I'm back to curate this year. When I was invited to curate the sector, when they first determined how the installation sector would be shaped for Art Basel, Hong Kong, they did something unique, which is that this is the only curated sector for large-scale installations and sculptures. It's actually within the fair; Unlimited has its own Hall, Parcours is outdoors and Meridians has its own Hall. They are all in different spaces where they are away from the activity of the fair itself. And this is one of the few global fairs at this scale that has large-scale installations of sculptural and performance works within the actual activity of the fair. I really like how Encounters is across four corridors that divide the two floors of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. In 2015, I began to call them meridians, thinking about them as kind of longitudes and latitudes, passion passageways, thinking around landscape urbanism, about how within the kind of formula of placemaking, you can create moments for the unexpected for different kinds of encounter for transformation for idiosyncratic or unexpected moments of reveal to occur within the kind of space or fabric of another form of participation or viewing. It's fantastic to be curating works here with the ceiling up to 10 meters high in the Hong Kong Convention Center; the works are about 100 square meters, occupying significant floor space. The brief is to work with the galleries to identify works and artists that foreground risk, experimentation, ambition and expanded thinking in the field of contemporary art installation and sculpture. And, you know, in my sector I can't build rooms, I can't block the activity of the fair, I can't make too much noise. The entire sector is installed in 24 hours as the entire Art Basel fair goes in over three and a half days. So, it's a highly accelerated, high-intensity, high-impact, very high-expectation environment, where you want to do something that actually doesn't feel bombastic, or at odds with the experience of creating intrigue for audiences. But you want to actually work with the galleries, to think about works and artists who can build an accumulative or layered experience of what the kinds of installations and sculptures at the scale of Encounters can invite or offer within the kind of experience of the passage of walking through the larger fair itself. You have audiences of up to 100,000 people in five days, which is an extraordinary audience. It's one of the most high-density audience experiences for contemporary art in the region. The way that audiences change, engage, and shape the way in which the Encounters is interpreted is always really exciting. It is unlike the other Art Basels. It is a conversation between the institutional scaled works that come from museum installation, Biennial, or public art context, but can be seen in the context of a fair.

Untitled, 2021, Danh Vo | Art Basel | STIRworld
Untitled, 2021, Danh Vo Image: Courtesy of Danh Vo and MASSIMODECARLO

Rahul: ‘This present moment’ references ‘a time of uncertainty in which the future seems increasingly unpredictable’. Why is that particularly of interest to you as the curator, given that probably our environment has always been in a state of change?

Alexie Glass-Kantor:  Absolutely! But I think at this present moment I was invited to come back and curate Encounters for this year in late September 2020. The show was cancelled five weeks out as a consequence of border closures and COVID. So, I think it is a particularly exceptional time to be thinking about transformation, and what it is to be seen or be seeing one another, again, after time spent apart and the impact of the pause, the circumstances and contexts in which different places, communities, and environments were able to find formal meaning or connection throughout the past few years. I think, yes, you are absolutely right to say that our environments are always in a state of change. And we have a climate crisis looming. But I do think that there is something very important about acknowledging this particular moment in Hong Kong, given that it only reopened in October last year, to see that the city is absolutely dynamic and alive. New spaces and alternative, institutional spaces and critical thinking are emerging. And this present moment isn't just a moment that exists in one temporarily. This present moment is really about the past, present, and future and how we think about what is the future. The future is always unpredictable. If you want to make God laugh, tell your plans for the future. No one can predict the future, but we can be looking into the present, individually and collectively. And we can be thinking about what the present moment can offer if we consider different alternatives.

Installation view: Gravity, 2018-2023, Awol Erizku | Art Basel | STIRworld
Installation view: Gravity, 2018-2023, Awol Erizku Image: Isaac Lawrence; Courtesy of Art Basel

Rahul: How did you arrive at this selection of a few artists to respond to the theme? How have you made it inclusive?

Alexie Glass-Kantor: Encounters for Art Basel, Hong Kong is not a biennial. Oftentimes, there are ideas that run between the works that create a common curatorial conceit and connection and that provides the opportunity to weave the narrative of works together. Over the years I have reduced the number of projects from 30 to an average of 14, and as much as I can, I make sure that the works are site-specific. Over the past eight years, I've worked with the galleries to increase the number of female artists to ensure that we always have a third, or equal, gender or non-binary representation. I work very hard to foreground intergenerational practices because ideas emerge at all stages of an artist's career. And this year, I have artists who were born in 1939 through 1988. And I have artists who were born or lived in more than 19 countries. I do always have a strong focus on artists of the region, from Turkey to Hawaii and Australia. In Australia we think about equity, inclusion, diversity, self-determination, agency, and representation. I applied those principles and values as well to curating Encounters. I'm really pleased this year to have the first works in the show from Hong Kong-based artists; Trevor Young and Jeff Milan. But then all the way through, we have artists who were born in Ukraine, born in South Korea, born in the Netherlands, Indonesia, China, Iceland, Vietnam, Denmark, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere. It is a really inclusive and diverse representation of artists that will certainly be familiar to some viewers, but not all artists will be familiar to all viewers.

The Vector, 2022, David Altmejd | Art Basel | STIRworld
The Vector, 2022, David Altmejd Image: Courtesy of the David Altmejd and White Cube, Hong Kong, Global

Rahul: What do you aspire for the audience to take away from this section, more specifically through works like Mr. Cuddles Under the Eave or The Wine Dark Sea?

Alexie Glass-Kantor: What I want audiences to take away is always a sense that they have the ability and determination and that they are empowered to make decisions about what they think about the works. I think it's as much as artists want work to mean or intend something, as much as a curator can carry context or create material or information that can help to support or bolster the artist's intention. It's ultimately audiences that decide what a work of art means. And it's not until work is in the public domain that it finds full form. It's not unusual for artists to work with what's around them. But I think the scale and level of detail with which artists are working with the materials around them is quite exceptional at Encounters this year. Trevor Young's work is actually a work that premiered in Kyiv, in September 2021. It's a seven-by-seven-meter structure that suspends money trees as inverted pyramids. The tree that's at the lowest point is actually at the highest point but can be touched by the tallest visitors. Trevor is really interested in the ideas that are projected onto the notion of money trees as being auspicious or being somehow imbued with the potential to be trendy domestic items.

And similarly, Stanislava Pinchuk, born in Ukraine living in Kosovo, spent some time living in Australia and during the lockdown. She did a residency and apprenticeship with a master grave maker, and she often comes out of drawing and installation that's about energy, memory, topography, and landscape. For this particular work, she gathered together 200 telegrams that were sent by the Australian government, which have been largely redacted as a part of an inquiry into the government's policy on turning back the boats on asylum seekers. Stanislava took the full suite of over 10,000 telegrams, and she read through each one she found passages in the telegrams that actually mirror passages in Homer's Odyssey, a text that she considers the ultimate migrant novel, and she's pulled together quotes from Odyssey that much texts taken from these Australian government communications, and she's etched them into the marble for Art Basel, Hong Kong. I think The wine-dark sea is a really very impactful; one that speaks to how cycles of time are always in a state of change.

Rahul: Lastly, what in your opinion are significant trends to watch out for in contemporary arts of the Asian region?

Alexie Glass-Kantor: I don't really believe in trends. I think that what artists do is work with ideas. They work with ideas and objects and images through time. They use those to inform different ways of creating invitations to think encounter, accumulate or respond to forms of making through forms of digital material performance, expanded non-objective through any form of practice painting, installation, sculpture, video, NFTs. I think what's so exciting is a kind of level of confidence that artists have to work in whatever form or discipline they feel is necessary in order to iterate an idea. So, they don't flinch from using NFT but they don't flinch from using clay. They don't move away from textiles, but they don't shy away from moving images or AI technology. And what's really important with contemporary artists is that they put ideas at the front, and then they use the techniques or materials that are necessary to see an idea to fruition or form.

What do you think?

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