Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

At the Heart of Art

Hong Kong’s Central district was the obvious choice for the first Asia branch of gallery supremo David Zwirner

Words: Kee Foong
Photos: Nic Gaunt

David Zwirner (seated) with artist Michaël Borreman

The opening of the first permanent space in Asia by one of the world’s most powerful art dealers was always going to make headlines. David Zwirner, whose eponymous galleries are headquartered in New York, could have played it safe and opened with one of the superstar artists he represents, including Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama, whose shows draw huge crowds around the world.

What Hong Kong got was a series of confronting works by lauded, though lesser-known Belgian painter Michaël Borremans. The large, classically-styled canvases in earthy, golden palettes, seemed innocent enough – cherubic infants and children at play. Then you notice the blood-stained faces, missing limbs, ghastly body parts on the ground, and some of the children gorging on them.

It’s a calculated risk that Zwirner hopes will pay off handsomely, as he joins the ranks of international galleries setting up shop in Hong Kong, the gateway to Mainland China’s lucrative market. It’s the sort of risk that has propelled him to the top of the art world since launching his first gallery in New York 25 years ago, when the inaugural catalogue listed his home address because, at the time of printing, he did not have a confirmed space.

Today, with three locations in New York, and a new Renzo Piano-designed flagship on the way, as well as a space in London, Hong Kong was the obvious choice for an Asian base. “I’ve never seen an audience who is so eager to learn and to understand as the one I’ve witnessed in Hong Kong,” says Zwirner, who has had a booth at Art Basel Hong Kong since its inception. “It made me realise it would be foolish not to have a gallery in Asia.”

David Zwirner is one of several big-name galleries in the H Queen’s building, making it an art epicentre

Zwirner and his team scoured the region before concluding: “it was hands-down Hong Kong for me.” The German-born New Yorker is attracted by the mix of east and west, and the similarities between his home city and Hong Kong. “This is a city that is full of energy and it’s open for business, but more than anything, I was impressed that Hong Kong is a pan-Asian metropolis,” he says, adding: “It feels to me like everybody who lives and works in Asia, or Europe and America, for that matter, feels welcome here.”

The gallery, located on Queen’s Road Central in the new H Queen’s building, is spread across 10,000 square feet over two floors. The building, specifically designed for the visual arts, houses several powerhouse galleries, including Hauser & Wirth and Pace. It cements Central’s position as not just Hong Kong’s art epicentre, but also Asia’s, with Zwirner confident that the purpose-built tower will become a go-to destination.

Although Zwirner predominantly represents European and American artists, he has hired two directors – Leo Xu and Jennifer Yum – who are experts in Chinese and Asian art to run the Hong Kong programme. Whether that translates to signing on artists from the region remains to be seen. Following on from Borremans is a show by renowned German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, then one on American minimalism, with works by Donald Judd, Dan Slade and Richard Serra.

During summer, however, Xu, who ran the influential Leo Xu Projects gallery in Shanghai, will curate an exhibition that will, for the first time, have both Asian and Western art together in the space.

Other nods to the local and regional market include the publication of the first in a series of catalogues in Chinese. “We will try to accompany most of our exhibitions here with a meticulous catalogue that will be published in both English and Chinese,” says Zwirner, who has also launched a pared-down Chinese-language website.

It’s part of a broader strategy to strengthen his digital offering. “As a global gallery, we need to reach those who can’t come to our spaces,” says Zwirner, who revamped the gallery’s main website last year to make it more accessible. The enhanced site features a micro site and a digital viewing room, which will curate shows that can be visited online exclusively.

Zwirner knows that he cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach, and that China is different to the rest of the world in the use of social media platforms as a commercial tool. “We now have an account with WeChat and Weibo to help us spread the news. We want to really become part of the social media culture of Asia, and to learn from it.”


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