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Hong Kong’s art ambitions on display at Venice Biennale

Almost 20,000 visited the Hong Kong pavilion in its first two weeks, a positive reception that reflects the city’s growing sphere of influence in international contemporary art circles

by Tunae
Since its inception in 1895, the Venice Biennale has captivated art enthusiasts. This year is its International Art Exhibition, which celebrates contemporary art, film, music, dance and theatre, attracting millions of tourists worldwide.

The first biennale was presented in the Giardini della Biennale, a public garden that remains one of the two main locations. In 1907, the biennale introduced national pavilions, providing countries with dedicated spaces to exhibit their art. By 1980, the biennale had expanded to the Arsenale, a historic shipyard and armoury on the city’s outskirts.

The biennale appoints an internationally renowned curator for each edition and highlights a theme. The primary event is held in the Giardini and the Arsenale, complemented by collateral events approved by the biennale curator.

Hong Kong first presented a pavilion in 2001 as part of the collateral events programme. Since then, numerous local artists and curators have represented Hong Kong at Venice, and many have subsequently forged international careers.

I have attended the Venice Biennale on three occasions, initially out of my passion for the creative arts, but this time as chairman of the M+ museum, which organised this year’s Hong Kong pavilion with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

The council has established the Hong Kong pavilion at arguably one of the Biennale’s most high-profile locations. Many national pavilions have maintained their decades-held locations in the Giardini or the Arsenale, and demand for space outstrips supply. So, our location directly opposite the Arsenale entrance is pretty special.

Artist Trevor Yeung and curator Olivia Chow in front of the “Pond of Never Enough” installation at Yeung’s “Courtyard of Attachments” exhibition representing Hong Kong at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Enid Tsui

This highly visible location invites everyone entering the Arsenale to pause and reconsider Hong Kong’s role and growing sphere of influence within international contemporary art circles.

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This includes significant museums and institutions, collectors and investors, gallerists, cultural leaders and policymakers, and the millions of tourists visiting Venice between April and November. The Hong Kong pavilion received almost 20,000 visitors in its first two weeks.

Migration and decolonisation are the key themes of the biennale’s 60th International Art Exhibition, titled “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere” and curated by Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. This is the first time a Latin American has been appointed chief curator.

For me, a highlight of the exhibition was Pedrosa’s selection of Hong Kong artist Isaac Chong Wai, to exhibit in the Arsenele. Now based in Berlin, Chong’s art encompasses performance, video, installation, photography and drawing.

In his video installation “Falling Reversely”, dancers of Asian descent move through meticulously choreographed sequences, supporting each other in a visually and emotionally compelling act of mutual protection. It reflects Chong’s exploration of the violent crimes committed against Chinese migrants within the broader context of Asian migrant communities.

Hong Kong artist Isaac Chong Wai with his work “Equilibrium No. 8 – Boundaries”, at “Myth Makers – Spectrosynthesis III”, an exhibition held at Tai Kwun in 2022. Photo: Jonathan Wong
The Hong Kong pavilion presented “Trevor Yeung’s Courtyard of Attachments, Hong Kong in Venice”. Olivia Chow, another young local talent and an assistant visual art curator at M+, curated the project. The show has been very well received by the art world and the general public.
Yeung’s thoughtful approach delves into the intricate aspects of our everyday lives and taps childhood memories of growing up in the culturally rich and dynamic landscape of Hong Kong. Both Yeung and Chong are graduates of the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

China’s national pavilion was excellent as was the Macau pavilion, but I was also struck by the collateral event presented by the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation. “The Spirits of Maritime Crossing” showcases the works of leading Southeast Asian artists, reflecting the indigenous identities that forged influential cultural pathways between East and West.

It has been the mission of Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi, chairman and founder of the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation, to highlight the creative strengths and culturally diverse voices of contemporary Southeast Asian art.

Throughout my visit and during the opening events, I was reminded of the powerhouse that the M+ brand and its key personnel have become, and of their high profile. Their international peers hold them in the highest esteem. In worldwide art museum attendance figures last year, compiled by The Art Newspaper, M+ was ranked 15th – a remarkable achievement for a new museum.

The efforts of the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council have been instrumental in enabling this success story to evolve.

Our continued participation in the Venice Biennale reflects the ambition of Hong Kong, the West Kowloon Cultural District and M+ to participate at the highest level in the contemporary art world, and the fact that we have arrived.

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