HK: Perfect Platform for Commodification of Culture?

Yue Minjun at the opening of exhibition
The Tao of Laughter
(Courtesy: Harbour City)
The cultural event that has received the most attention from the media this week has to be mainland artist Yue Minjun's first Hong Kong public sculpture exhibition opening at Harbour City's Ocean Terminal forecourt.

Although there are only five of those sculptures of Yue's signature self portrait enigmatic smiley face (as compared to the 100 Doraemons that have just been removed from the site), and the smiley faces are already bit tiresome in the art world (since his painting Execution setting a record as the most expensive Chinese contemporary art work sold at auction, fetching US$5.9 million [HK$46 million] at the Sotheby's auction in London in 2007, his recent prices aren't as strong as those in the past), it has generated enough publicity in many of main news pages - including my story in Tuesday's South China Morning Post City section - as well as TV news.

While most of the local media focuses on the artist's big name and the somewhat political nature of the symbolic smile - one of the great highlights of the "cynical realism" movement in Chinese contemporary art, there is one important point that hasn't been discussed.

HK$3,500 YMJ Mahjong set
This exhibition should be seen as a classic example for the commodification of art. Also launched alongside the opening of this exhibition is a wide range of merchandise available for sale at the Harbour City gallery. There's a crazily pretty set of mahjong, with the signature smiley face engraved on four of the tiles as "white" [pak baan]. The set packaged in a pink wooden box in limited edition (of course) is asking for HK$3,500. There's also a HK$300 necklace, with the smiley face being a pendant; a T-shirt (maybe more than one); and an umbrella (which I previously wrote about).

As I have written in my previous post, I personally have no objection against the commodification of art. Andy Warhol was a pioneer and did a wonderful job. I happily consume the lovely objects and even biscuits under the Yayoi Kusama brand simply because they are adorable and I can't afford any of Kusama's art works. And so I was glad to see Yue's merchandises, as China and Hong Kong have been a little behind in developing art merchandises.

Superstar Carina Lau received
a set of mahjong from Yue
(Courtesy: Harbour City)
Yue admitted in our interview that staging an exhibition at a shopping mall, as opposing to staging at a museum, helps his works bond with a greater public. But that was only part of the whole interview.

In response to my questions about the commodification of art, Yue said: "It's just a different way of showing art. Some art works should be shown in a dedicated space, others might work better as commodities."

However, the Beijing-based artist also admitted that the wild success of the symbolic smiley face has put him in a difficult position in his artistic career. "It's a little embarrassing," he said. "I want to get rid of it but I just can't. I think what I can do is to keep growing the smiley face series while developing other works."

Mobbed by fans at gallery
He did not reveal what the "other works" are. But the growth of the smiley face series is certainly there, judging from the new range of commodities available. And Hong Kong, like Yue has said, evolves around shopping malls and commercialism. There's no better place to serve as a launch pad for art commodities. And his intuition was proved to be right, as I witnessed the sale of two HK$3,500 sets of mahjong during our 10-minute pre-interview rendezvous at the gallery, together with a number of T-shirts and other accessories sold. And Yue was a superstar just like Andy Lau - every single visitor at the gallery wanted to take pictures and get an autograph from him. I was asked by a number of them to take pictures of them with the Chinese contemporary art master with their smartphone cameras.

What I hope to see next is more Hong Kong artists succeed in turning their art around into commodities - without losing their artistic integrity. Any talented artists deserve to be rich.

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