Saamlung: showcasing Hong Kong's best new art
Saamlung, Hong Kong’s newest and most exciting contemporary art space, is in the last place you would expect to find an art gallery: the top floor of Two Chinachem Plaza, a drearily unremarkable office building on Des Voeux Road.
“We looked at 65 different spaces and this was the only one that had such a high ceiling and a cargo lift,” says curator Robin Peckham, who has just opened Saamlung.
“I especially like the fact that you have to pass through this horribly mundane mall to get here. It’s like a precious little floating box. You come here and you pass into another world.”
Saamlung opens tonight and it could well shape up to be one of the smartest, best-curated galleries in Hong Kong.
The idea behind the gallery is to fill a niche -- “actually more like a gaping crevice” -- that Peckham says has emerged in Hong Kong over the past few years.
On one side of the gap are the “the Gagosians and White Cubes” -- international blue-chip galleries that have recently expanded to Hong Kong -- and on the other side are local galleries like Exit and Osage, which “still don’t have this global vision -- they’re content to be a Hong Kong gallery or an Asian gallery.”
Saamlung will focus on solo shows and thematic group exhibitions by “sharp, conceptual” artists that are on the verge of their first major museum exhibitions. The first two shows, by Hong Kong artist João Vasco Paiva and New York’s Charles LaBelle, offers some clues as to what will come next.
Paiva’s work places natural phenomena within artificial frameworks. In a 2010 installation, he bought a bird from the Mong Kok bird market, rigged its cage with sensors and microphones and had a chorus of plastic birds imitate its sounds.
LaBelle, meanwhile, produces work that explores our relationship with place and space. In 2007, he documented every single building he entered, creating an archive that eventually numbered 10,000.
Being able to exhibit such artists in his own space is a big step forward for Peckham, who moved here from Beijing with his curatorial partner, Venus Lau, in 2009.
For two years, they worked as independent curators, putting together unusual shows like “The Border Show,” which united works by nine Hong Kong and mainland artists in a series of New Territories shipping containers.
Lau and Peckham’s approach to art is rigorously research-based and concerned with topics that art outsiders might consider a bit wonkish. (“Aesthetic developments in object-oriented ontology, post-internet object cultures, animated GIFs, and new materialisms in media theory” are some of the interests listed on Peckham and Lau’s blog, Kunsthalle Kowloon.
Their style might also be described as iconoclastic. They pull no punches in their criticism; they aren’t shy about dismissing artists, galleries and curators they feel are lacking in artistic rigor. Last year, Peckham was the only English-language critic to voice the art community’s sulfurous reaction to Simon Birch’s mega-exhibition, “Hope and Glory.”
They also have no qualms about picking favorites. Peckham and Lau work often with a small handful of Hong Kong artists, including Nadim Abbas, Adrian Wong, Lee Kit and MAP Office, which consists of Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix.
In many ways, they represent the range of the couple’s interests: Wong’s almost anthropological process, Lee’s hermetic un-Hong Kong lifestyle, Abbas’ fascination with hobbyism and MAP Office’s interest in Hong Kong and Chinese urbanism.
But working as an independent curator in Hong Kong is tough business.
“There aren’t enough venues,” Peckham says. “Curating is always a process of failure -- you never look back at an exhibition and think it was a success.”
And without a support structure to help curatorial practices evolve, there is no sense to keep moving on from failure to failure. So, Saamlung will be a commercial gallery, which will allow Peckham to tap into his client base, which is split evenly between Hong Kongers, mainland Chinese and Westerners, mainly Americans, Britons and Germans, according to Peckham.
Next year, he plans to open a second space in an industrial building that will allow for larger installations and group exhibitions.
“Hong Kong is exciting right now,” he says. “We’ve been preparing for this space since we came here.”
Getting there: Saamlung opens with “Palimpseptic” by João Vasco Paiva, November 18-December 5, 2011.
Saamlung, 26/F, Two Chinachem Plaza, 68 Connaught Road Central, +852 5181 5156 www.saamlung.com