THE FAIR WARNING - Episode One: The Moon

A tale of greed, rivalries and broken hearts revolving round the art circus



Not everyone dares to dream big, but those who do must have an agenda, and this is particularly true in the art world. Take my friend Lily May Wong, for example. Her day job was as a professional psychic, reading Tarot cards and astrological omens for the rich and famous while writing an astrology column for a local newspaper. But she was not satisfied with that. She felt that art was her true calling and she wanted to make it big in the art world. “I’m destined to be an artist,” she declared when we first met over a decade ago at the vernissage of ART HK, Hong Kong’s first decent modern and contemporary art fair, not long after she earned her MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. “THIS is going to make Hong Kong an art hub. I know I’m right.”

In hindsight, Lily May might have been a better psychic serving others than reading her own fortune. Nearly 10 years since, she was still nowhere near realising her artist dream. The fortune-telling business fared far better. Her conceptual performance art, inspired by her New Age theories, just did not interest any curators or gallerists, not even her dealer boyfriend Raphael Kunst, who inherited the gallery business from his parents living in Cologne and recently opened an art space in Berlin. Raphael had secretly told me that Lily May’s art was simply not up to standard and not sellable. But he did not want to upset her and told her only that performance art was too avant-garde for his young gallery at this stage. And as for me, I simply declined to review her shows - a critic should never write about their friends.

Lily May had been telling me how wonderful Raphael was since they met in Berlin last summer, and how much she was in love with him. She said she was ready to spend the rest of her life with him at any moment.
“Are you ready to give up everything in your life here and move to Berlin? And more importantly, have you resolved everything with you-know-who?” I asked.

“The universe will come up with the best solution. Besides, I can focus on my art in Berlin. The transit Pluto has just entered my ninth house of higher education and long-distance travel, making a nice angle with my natal Sun. I think this is it,” she said happily, all that psychic-speak going over my head. “Don’t worry about you-know-who. It’s long over.” She probably needed another psychic’s help.

I could see why Lily May was so eager to find her place in the art world. A big part of the art world was made up of vanity. From the glitzy art openings and private dinners saturated with free-flowing champagne to headline-grabbing, multimillion-dollar auctions, there was no other playground as dazzling and alluring as the art world. It was fuelled not just by the power of money. It was an exclusive little universe that would open its doors only to a handful of privileged players.

Decades ago when Hong Kong was still a British colony, fundraisers endorsing charities for the poor, the sick and the suffering were prime showcases of the upper class. Socialites dressed to the nines posed for society page photographers and gave press interviews as if they were strutting down the red carpet of the Oscars. It was pretty easy and straightforward to get into the game. It didn’t matter if you knew nothing about the latest research on cancer or the political reasons behind the famine in Africa. All you had to do was simply to act charitable and buy your way in. And pictures of your compassionate self in a gown or tux would appear in the next issue of some high-society glossy magazine that 99 per cent of the city’s population had never heard of. But that was already so last century.

These days, the art world operates on a completely different scale and dynamics. Money is still essential, but the exclusivity of the art world is now built upon knowledge, taste and class, which money cannot buy. Dealers and auction houses would be over the moon for having closed a lucrative sale, but genuine respect for the buyer, the artist, the curator, the journalist or critic, and other players in the entire ecology is not guaranteed in the process. This is exactly what makes the art world so fascinating to a lot of people, and plenty of them try their hand at finding their way in and climbing up the ladder using various means besides money.
"There was no other playground that was as dazzling and alluring as the art world."
First, one must demonstrate a love for art. This August, I ran into the aforesaid lovebirds while queuing for Gregor Schneider’s N. Schmidt, Pferdegasse 19, 48143, Münster, Deutschland, an eerie installation featured at the Skulptur Projekte Münster for the summer. Locating his work on the top floor of the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, the German artist had created a residence occupied by one N. Schmidt, according to the doorbell name plate. The residence comprised two symmetrical flats. Occasionally the alarm went off as disoriented visitors found themselves trapped in the space pushing the wrong door. Since only one person at a time was allowed to tour the private space of N. Schmidt, the wait could take up to one and a half hours. Bragging about your travel to the lesser-known German town and patiently wait for your turn to view the artwork was certainly one good indicator of your passion for and insider knowledge about art, perhaps along with some sense of subdued artistic elitism.

There was no better time to have Lily May and Raphael join me in the queue. Lily May was more charming than ever. Her skin was glowing. Her long black hair shone under the sunlight. I had never seen her this happy before. Art and romance. She had it all there.

To Raphael, on the other hand, I suspected the installation outing was more than just to keep his girlfriend happy. He had missed an opportunity to mingle with the travelling art circus during the opening weekend of the decennial Münster sculpture project in June, being busy preparing his gallery for its first LISTE art fair, which opened just a few days afterwards, coinciding with Art Basel. To ensure that he had something to talk about with his clients (and tout his relevance to the contemporary art world), he had to come to this decennial event in the name of research.

It was 28 degrees Celsius and there were still a few people ahead of us. Raphael ran off to buy some cold drinks for us. Lily May turned round as soon as her boyfriend was gone and whispered into my ear: “Something’s off.”

I raised one eyebrow and asked her to tell me more. My friend said she had a funny feeling about this outing. “I drew The Moon last night,” she breathed, trembling.  

“Sweetheart, I do not speak your Tarot language.”

“This card means uncertainties ahead, and secrets are to be revealed,” Lily May continued. She took out her iPhone and showed me an image of the card. There was a big moon hovering over two white towers, and two dogs in front of the towers, surrounded by a body of water. “See this crayfish at the bottom? It’s climbing out of the water to walk on the path to the moon. Crayfish are not designed to live on dry land. My intuition tells me that once the cat is let out of the bag, it’s dead.”

I was confused by the cat and crayfish talk. “Lil’, you think too much. You need Raphael’s cold drinks to cool you down.”

Someone had just joined the queue behind us. I thought it was Raphael with his cold drinks but it wasn’t.

“Hello, Prudence! Oh my God! What a surprise to see you here!” Lily May said, suddenly snapping out of her musings and brimming with enthusiasm.

“Lily May my darling, what a delightful surprise!” exclaimed Prudence Miyazaki, one of Asia’s most powerful collectors who lived between Hong Kong and Tokyo. She was wearing an elegant black wide-brim hat, a pair of Chanel sunglasses that covered half of her face, and white wrist-length gloves. The style was typical upper-class Japanese, a graceful shield against harmful UV rays. No wonder Prudence looked 20 years younger than her age.

Prudence was originally from Hong Kong. Thirty-five years ago she married Ryuichi Miyazaki, scion of the Miyazaki Corp, one of the biggest electronics manufacturers in Japan. The pair had met when she was studying art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The Miyazaki family held one of the most important collections of Impressionist and Modern paintings, acquired in the 1980s during the Japanese economic bubble. Prudence might be filthy rich but she was restless in the role of a tai tai who spent endless days shopping and getting beauty treatments. Fortunately, the family needed someone to look after all those paintings, so she put her knowledge of art history into good use by managing - and expanding - the collection.

She turned to me and greeted me politely. I had interviewed Prudence a few times before, but I certainly did not know her as well as Lily May did. It turned out that Prudence was one of Lily May’s fortune-telling clients.

I had always had trouble with carrying on a conversation with these super-rich people, who sounded like they came from another planet. Just as I was scratching my head trying to come up with something intelligent to say, Raphael returned with three bottles of ice-cold Coca-Cola.

They “air-kissed” each other’s cheeks. I did not know that Raphael had known Prudence since he was a child. “Prudence came to our house in Cologne for dinner on a regular basis. She is my parents’ best client,” Raphael said, taking a sip of the coke. “You should come visit my new space in Berlin. Its in Potsdam Straße. I’m taking the family business to a new era and showing more avant-garde contemporary art pieces there. You might find something you like.”

“But you won’t see any of my works,” Lily May sulked. “Apparently my works are not good enough for the Kunst Galerie.”

“Babe, YOU are in my private collection,” Raphael playfully kissed Lily May’s cheek. To be honest, I was surprised to see how much Raphael was into my friend.

“By the way Prudence, are you here alone? Where is Mr Miyazaki?” Lily May asked.

“He has business to attend to. I decided to reward myself with a solo holiday - technically I’m not alone. My assistant is with me but she has gone to run a few errands. I decided to come now so that I don’t have to run into that travelling art circus. You know what it’s like,” Prudence laughed awkwardly. “I haven’t done this since my freshman year at university. I deserve a break after 35 years of marriage.”

The three of them chatted away while awaiting their turns to go inside the door guarded by a man in uniform and sunglasses. People emerging from the big black door all carried an intriguing puzzled face. Some of them appeared to be in awe, but most looked lost and disoriented. I just couldn’t wait for my turn to experience the work - listening to these three talking about rich people’s problems made me feel so much like an outsider.
"There went her ticket to the art world and possibly her true love."
Prudence kept herself entertained with romantic snippets volunteered by the couple. There were just two more people ahead of us. “It’s going to be our turn very soon,” she said with a hint of excitement. Then she turned to Lily May. “How was Menorca? The photos you sent me were lovely. I assumed you two had a great time there for the New Year’s?”

Lily May’s face went ashy. Raphael turned to her, trying to keep himself composed. “As a matter of fact, I was in Berlin at the time. Obviously, an invitation to celebrate the New Year’s in frigid Berlin was not as tempting as a trip to the sunny Menorca albeit it was winter. What did you do there, Lil? I thought you said you had to stay in Hong Kong because of an emergency appointment,” he questioned her.

“It was…,” Lily May’s words trailed off as a shiver went down her spine. In an instant she knew this was what The Moon meant. “There was an emergency and I was meant to tell you earlier.”

“In Menorca? Was it an emergency secret meeting with him?”

“Let’s talk later,” Lily May managed to utter while gripping Raphael’s hand firmly. But Raphael shook her off.

The guard swung opened the black door again and signalled one of us to go in. There was no better time for Prudence to escape from the tension that she had set off with her throwaway remarks.

“I better get going. I’ll see you after this intriguing art experience,” she said quickly and headed inside.

Raphael glared at Lily May after Prudence walked away. Tears welled up in Lily May’s eyes. “I always knew there was something you had been hiding from me. If you cannot be completely honest with me then… I thought we were going to be together for a very long time,” he sighed. “I need to be alone now.”

“Don’t go, Raphael. Wait. I can explain.”

Raphael did not listen. He left.

I held Lily May’s hand and tried to comfort her. There went her ticket to the art world and possibly her true love. She was in tears, trembling. “I knew this was coming. I knew he did not trust me 100 per cent. And my card was right.” She never forgot about self-promotion even at the worst of times.

Guarding Gregor Schneider’s N. Schmidt, Pferdegasse 19, 48143, Münster, Deutschland

“Just let him be. Give him the space he needs,” I said. “It will be your turn next. Just go enjoy a bit of solitude while you are inside. Don’t waste our efforts queuing.”

Lily May strived to smile as she glanced at the snaking queue behind us.

“But speaking of which, why did you go to Menorca? Why couldn’t you tell Raphael?” I could not help asking. “Honestly, what do you see in Raphael?”

Before I could get an answer out of Lily May, the guard opened the door and Prudence emerged from the inside. She put her sunglasses back on as soon as she saw us - trying to avoid eye contact, obviously.

“Lily May, it’s your turn,” Prudence held Lily May’s hand gently. “Don’t worry about Raphael. He will come to his senses. Enjoy the installation - and don’t get yourself locked up,” she quipped.

“I’m sorry about what had just happened, though,” Prudence said. Right, so finally she had realised that she was guilty. “Both you and Raphael are dear friends of mine. But the truth is, if a man does not have the capacity and patience to hear you out, you should move on. It’s better to find out sooner than later. A girl must protect her heart.”

Prudence planted a kiss on Lily May’s cheek before saying goodbye to us. Lily May then headed inside the staircase while I continued to wait. Watching Prudence’s lonely silhouette depart from the museum, I had a feeling that what Prudence said was not an allusion to the Raphael situation but to something else, something that could explain why she was in Münster alone unaccompanied by her husband, also a renowned art connoisseur.

I couldn’t wait for Lily May to return from Gregor Schneider’s installation.


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