By Jacqueline Leung and Chen Guang
Is a city built on trade, where making a fast buck or a perfect deal come before spiritual enrichment really a place where art can thrive? The question is often asked as Hong Kong pours billions of dollars into becoming one of Asia’s leading arts hubs. But for Korean artist Do-ho Suh, the answer is simple and clear: it’s a great place for the art business.
“I think Hong Kong has a friendly system for business,” says Suh, who is making his third visit of the year. “I don’t think we can simply say that being commercial is a bad thing. The market is very important – not just for artists, but for everyone.” Suh, named Innovator of the Year in Art by the Wall Street Journal in 2013, was vising for the Asia Society’s third annual Art Gala, which took place on Wednesday. He was honoured for his significant contribution to contemporary art along with fellow artists Shahzia Sikander, Wucius Wong and Xu Bing.
Cash raised by the gala will support the society’s work promoting Asian culture worldwide, and Suh is in no doubt of the importance of money in the cultural world. Suh says business sustains venues art appreciation. Many museums support themselves through entrance fees and government subsidies, but also rely on donations and fundraising, with sponsorship largely from art collectors and corporations.
“[The] money goes to museums in the end,” Suh explains. “It’s the general public who benefit from it.” But how does one put a monetary value on art? The difference between what a work costs to produce and its market price can be huge, and Suh thinks the process through which it happens can be absurd. “There’s a structure and a complex system to do it,” he says with a wry smile. “That’s a mystery for me.”
Nevertheless, the meaning of an artwork is about more than mere economic value. Having spent much of his life outside his homeland, Suh explored the nuances of identity and one’s sense of belonging. The two themes recur in many of his site-specific installations and meticulously crafted sculptures. The great size of his work means Suh, more than most artists, faces a dilemma when deciding whether to exhibit in a public space or a museum. Apart from the obvious logistical consideration, Suh points out that using a public space adds different layers of meaning to the work exhibited.“Museums are more protective [of artwork] in a way; in public, you have to deal with so many practical issues,” says Suh. But his experience with public installations is generally positive. “When it works, it’s quite rewarding.”
He uses the example of his installation Net-Work, which resembles a fishing net made up of interconnected human figures and was first installed on the beach of a traditional Japanese seaside village. Net-Work explores individual experience and displacement in a large community, the concept of which is apt for Hong Kong’s metropolitan environment. Yet, the public’s early interaction with the work introduces a warm, communal element to the piece. “I worked with many volunteers from the local village. They call themselves ‘small shrimps’, because it’s an island and a fishing village,” Suh recalls. “There’s a beautiful sort of human interaction. We have completely different cultural backgrounds, but we just get together and have fun.”