Q&A: Adeline Ooi - Asia director of Art Basel

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She’s got big shoes to fill but new Asia director of Art Basel, Adeline Ooi, tells Ysabelle Cheung that she’s ready to take the continent’s art boom in her stride

When Basel announced that Magnus Renfrew was stepping down from his role as Asia director last year, the question of who would replace him was tinged with trepidation – the stakes were high. It wasn’t so much who ‘would’ but also who ‘could’. In Hong Kong’s burgeoning arts industry, every player is essential in their  role – artist, curator, gallerist, critic – and to remove just one from that structure would be tantamount to a jenga collapse.

Which is why Basel made a smart move in selecting Adeline Ooi, one of their own. The Malaysia-born (where she was based up until now) curator is already familiar with the fair, having been the Southeast Asia VIP relations manager for the past two years, and she brings with her a strong background in curation and gallery know-how. More importantly, as an art lover with her finger firmly on the pulse of an aggressively growing market, she snugly fits the Basel equilibrium of creativity and commerce, one that has made the fair so successful over the past 45 years. We chat with her about the market, vision and Basel just before the fair descends on Hong Kong for the third year...

Adeline, we remember you first came to Hong Kong in 2003 to work with the Fringe Club. What was your impression of it at the time?
I knew very little about Hong Kong then. I remember I was in awe of the cultural scene as there were so many people who came to see the shows at the Fringe and the people that I talked to were generally interested in art. That was a huge difference to most people I would come across in Malaysia.

And what’s your impression now?
The gallery scene here is active, with regular openings and activities. There is a strong community of collectors and local supporters, as well as the presence of institutions and non-profits – these are key factors that indicate a dynamic scene. But every art scene is not without its challenges. Space and rent is always a challenge in Hong Kong. That said, it is a community of resilient and passionate people. I am also very excited about M+ and can’t wait for the building to be ready.

There’s a lot of talk about there not being enough support for local artists in comparison to support for international. What’s your take on this?
Hong Kong’s cultural infrastructure is growing in a positive way. Events such as Art Basel, Art Gallery Week and various others throughout the art calendar provide platforms to showcase and highlight local and international talents. These events also tell us that there is a solid gallery scene that is operating on the ground as the Hong Kong galleries are usually quite well represented. I have also learned about the younger generations of Hong Kong-based artists through local galleries (for example, Gallery Exit and Edouard Malingue Gallery) from my years of coming here regularly, and this is a positive sign. I am certain I belong to a wider group of people interested in the Hong Kong scene and I look forward to seeing more support becoming available to local artists as their work is exposed to wider audiences.

A few female artists in Hong Kong have mentioned that the glass ceiling is still intact. What’s your opinion on this?
Sure, the ‘white boys’ club’ label still has resonance but I think the situation has changed a lot. There are female leaders around the world. Consider the powerful women in the art world who are not artists within the Asia Pacific region alone, from Sheikha Hoor of Sharjah Art Foundation to the influential female gallery owners across Asia. I would say that women have carved quite a strong territory for themselves. We also have a number of major female artists being presented at Basel this year: Cao Fei, Yayoi Kusama, Mariko Mori, Pinaree Sanpitak and Shahzia Sikander, just to name a few. Fighting the good cause for gender equality is an ongoing process but I would say women stand a better chance at equality in the art world in general.

Art from different Asian regions is often categorised singularly as ‘Asian art’. How have you responded to this?
Asia is a slippery term in that it is difficult to define. Asia is so vast. It basically stretches as far west as Turkey and goes all the way east towards New Zealand. That’s a lot of geographical distance to cover with civilisations that date back thousands of years. How respective art scenes have developed is a result of histories and cultural heritage, influences of socio-political conditions, religious beliefs as well as traditions that have shaped our respective societies. The differences are quite clear. But at the same time, I am struck by the similarities. Sometimes I see connections in our culture, sometimes it’s in our history and sometimes it’s in the way we approach foreigners, or in the way that we are non-confrontational. I am constantly fascinated by these shared nuances. Rapid development is also something that most Asian countries share. Having been involved in the art scene for only 15 years, which is not a long time for most people, I feel like I have experienced three different lifetimes.

When were you first truly moved by art?
There are a few vivid moments but I’m not sure if I can call them my ‘first’. One of them was Rebecca Horn’s piano hanging upside down at the Tate [in London]. I remember the exact feeling of keys ‘crashing’ down on me. It struck me in the deepest possible way ever and I felt strangely ‘cleansed’ by the sounds. I think ultimately one’s connection to works of art is subjective. A lot of it is dependent on time, place and state of mind.

How do you think Asia’s market will develop over the next few years?
Asia’s art scenes are developing at a rapid pace. This will provide artists and galleries with more opportunities to show works to different groups of audience – local, regional and global, and on different platforms. I am looking forward to seeing more opportunities for emerging artists from Asia to present their works. It is a great time to be working in Asia. I feel like this is our time to shine and I am very excited to see how we will develop.

Finally, are you excited to be joining the Basel team as Asia director?
Absolutely! I think what sets Art Basel apart is its focus on quality and making meaningful connections between the different sectors of the art community. I wouldn’t be working in the art world if I didn’t have a strong love for art and for people wanting to bring these sectors of the community together. 

Art Basel Hong Kong Mar 15-17, HKCEC. Tickets: $250-$850; hkticketing.com

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