Mark Saunderson is the Director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show and a Co-founder of Hong Kong’s Fabrik Art Gallery.
What initially brought you to Hong Kong?
I came to Hong Kong in 1982 from the UK. I was quite a young man at the time. I started in the media business and spent the better part of 30 years in Asia. I did break out of Hong Kong for about 10 years in the mid-’90s when I went to live in the Philippines. I always considered Hong Kong very much my home, though, even when I was living abroad.
You must have seen a lot of changes over the years…
I have been here for 30 years, but I probably spent half that time travelling. I have seen a lot of changes, though, not least in China. Hong Kong, however, has always had an intrinsic energy and pace, which it has never lost. It is still a very international city. It has maybe matured, though. If we take art as an example, when I arrived in Hong Kong in the early ’80s. That has certainly changed.
What drove you toward the world of art?
I guess it started with my very first art purchase, some 20 years ago. I was also lucky enough to meet Andy Warhol. I walked into a bar and there he was next to me. I had my 15-minute experience with Andy and that kind of kicked it off. Shortly afterwards, I started collecting pop art and more contemporary work.
Does Hong Kong now have a truly robust artistic scene?
It does. Hong Kong’s art scene has gone through a number of fundamental changes, though some things still need to be improved. The first is the studio space that artists need to work in. That has always been an issue here and remains so. I remember talking to a local fine arts professor and he said that, five years after graduation, less than five percent of his students are actually working artists.
I think another factor has been the emergence of Chinese contemporary art and artists. There is now an overwhelming number of them, with thousands more graduating each year. As a result, Hong Kong artists struggle to retain some identity and keep ahead of the game.
As an international city, Hong Kong doesn’t really have its own strong, intrinsic cultural identity. It is very much an amalgam of different cultures and different peoples. It has always been that way, certainly ever since I have been living here. Inevitably, that has an impact on the character of the locally
There often tends to be a political dimension to local Hong Kong art. Why do you think that is?
I think if you look back through history, art is often a proactive channel of expression. In more closed environments, it can be a means of getting communication into the market.
Certainly, Hong Kong has had to contend with a number of issues recently. The locally produced art has inevitably recorded, documented and commented on political events.
Are there any artists who are your particular favourites?
One of my personal favourites and an artist I have been a follower of for many years is Simon Birch, a British artist. He has been in Hong Kong for many years and I was an early collector of his works. He is certainly one that springs to mind.
“After my 15 minutes of fame with Andy Warhol, I was set on collecting contemporary art”
What can you tell us , then, about Contemporary Art Asia?
Hong Kong is basically divided into a primary and secondary market. Everybody knows the secondary market. It’s Christie’s, Sotheby’s and, more recently, Poly and Guardian auction houses. This is what’s sexy, what’s exciting, in terms of the US$200 million Chinese contemporary market. Then there is the primary market, which is what really feeds the industry. These are the galleries that represent the young to middle-aged artists before they have sufficient momentum to move into the secondary market.
The other opportunities that have emerged over recent years are the art fairs – the Asia Contemporar y Ar t Show, Ar t Basel and the Affordable Art Fair. There are now fairs that appeal to every market segment. Ultimately, though, they all serve the same purpose – the need to aggregate a lot of content while creating an environment that is stimulating and engaging enough for visitors to want to spend an afternoon or evening looking at works that wouldn’t normally be seen in Hong Kong.
These days, Hong Kong has the reputation of almost being a conduit to the global market. Ironically, what the art fairs do is almost the exact opposite – they bring the world to Hong Kong. This is very much what we are striving to do with the Contemporary Art Asia show.
You are also involved with Fabrik Gallery…
We founded Fabrik Gallery i n 2007. Be for e that , though, I had been involved with a project relating to a collection of the works of Banksy (the celebrated UK street artist). We then had the opportunity to bring to HK some £6 million worth of hi s works. Thi s was just one of those things that fell into my lap and actually came about after a dinner conversation in London. It was a very rewarding experience. Not only did it create a considerable stir at the time, it also sold well. It was really this that gave the impetus to open Fabrik.
Of course, carrying on through 2007, 2008 and halfway through 2009, Hong Kong was spinning and everyone was feeling pretty good, including the gallery owners. Those were very good years. At the time, what we wanted to do was offer something beyond Chinese contemporary, offer something a little different. From the outset, the approach we took was to focus on edition artists, artists that had an established reputation and whose original works were, for most people, out of reach. The edition works, however, were more affordable, so we focused on the likes of Damian Hirst, Keith Harring and Takashi Murakami.
One of our best experiences of that whole Banksy exhibition actually took place on the second day of the show. There is a bridge right outside the Art Centre and there was all this graffiti on it. The South China Morning Post picked up on this and went into print speculating that Banksy was in Hong Kong as, of course, nobody had met him. It turned out that it was actually a bunch of school kids who had graffitied the bridge, but – by then – it had already made the front page of the newspaper, which was great for us.
“If you are travelling, you really need somebody to share the sunrise with”
Crying – a sign of weakness or strength?
I think it’s a strength. There are times when we all go through tough experiences or relationships and it’s a release valve for people’s feelings. In the same way, I have never felt ashamed to apologise. We all make mistakes. I sometimes offend and they deserve an apology. Crying, as an emotion, is not dissimilar and I wouldn’t say it’s a weakness.
Is there one place you still long to visit?
Actually, a couple come to mind immediately. Egypt is one and I would say another, in a very different way, is St Petersburg. They are two very different locations in terms of national identity and culture. I have always been fascinated by Egyptian history and have never yet had a chance to visit. Historically, Russia has been through so many changes over the last hundred years and St Petersburg was at the centre of much of that. As a city, it has a unique place in Russia’s history, artistic development and musical heritage.
What would you look for in an ideal partner?
I am actually coming up to an important anniversary so it’s a good time to ask this particular question. What did I look for? Mutual respect, support, personal growth, being there for somebody else… I think perhaps, sometimes, the whole is better than the one. Whether that’s with regard to family or friends or perhaps even in a broader context. Companionship of course, that’s also hugely important. I have always been a person who feels more fulfilled in a relationship. I mentioned travel earlier and I enjoy travelling, but I feel travel is always best enjoyed with a companion. You need somebody else to share the moment, see the sunrise or whatever else you may encounter.
Do you believe in aliens?
I think it would be extremely naive of us as human beings to believe that we were the only life forms in the universe. If you look to the sky and imagine there is nothing out there, you are probably mistaken. There has to be, but whether it has touched our planet or not is a different question. There are certainly those who believe that has already happened. Intellectually, I don’t doubt that there is something out there and it would be fascinating to know what it is, how it looks, how it feels and what its attitude to us would be. I would love to be here when that happens. I believe it will happen at some point in human history. It probably won’t involve green skin or pointy ears, but it will be absolutely fascinating to find out.
Who do you consider the greatest person to have ever lived?
I couldn’t choose just one person. That would be impossible. I would have to choose someone who brought about great change in the evolution of humanity. People that come to mind, being British and living the life I have, are such characters as Churchill, Darwin, Einstein, Diana the Princess of Wales. If I look back over my life, many people have had a significant bearing on the evolution of humanity in both good and bad ways.