Top galleries from the three hottest art capitals in Asia

Art lovers, look no further than Beijing, Seoul and Hong Kong for works to buy and behold

Hanart TZ Gallery (above) has played a key role in promoting Chinese contemporary art in its 30 years of existence. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Hanart TZ Gallery (above) has played a key role in promoting Chinese contemporary art in its 30 years of existence. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Gallery Exit is located in a factory building (above), creating more space for artists to develop bigger bodies of work. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Grotto Fine Art, owned by Mr Henry Au-yeung (right, with an ink painting by artist Hung Fai), is dedicated to showcasing contemporary works by artists in Hong Kong. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Artist Jeon Joon Ho’s The Last Master (2012) on display at Gallery Hyundai. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery. -- ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA
Long March Space gallery director Theresa Liang, with a work by artist Wang Jianwei. -- ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA
Three Shadows +3 Gallery (above) is dedicated to photography by home-grown Chinese artists such as Ren Hang, who held a solo show at the centre. -- ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA
Three Shadows +3 Gallery is dedicated to photography by home-grown Chinese artists such as Ren Hang, who held a solo show (above) at the centre. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

When faced with a clean slate, as one is at the start of a fresh year, it is time to contemplate a year of inspired living, enriched by art and travel.

Life! susses out the three hottest art capitals in Asia - Seoul, Hong Kong and Beijing - and their lively art scene to bring you three top galleries from each city that will slake an art collector's thirst for collecting, satisfy an art lover's curiosity for home-grown art and offer travellers a taste of culture in these cities.

A version of this article first appeared in the November 2014, December 2014 and January 2015 issues of The Life digital magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app.

Beijing: Surging demand for art

The boom in China's contemporary art scene shows no signs of slowing down. Since the 1990s, art galleries and art fairs have sprung up in cosmopolitan Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, buoyed by the rise of moneyed art collectors.

The recent rash of private art museums in China, which often showcase contemporary art, has further cemented the country's reputation as a key player in the art world. At the heart of much of this buzz is the country's capital, Beijing.

Seminal moments in contemporary Chinese art history have, for one, unfolded in the city. An example is the 1989 China Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

The artist-driven show at the country's premier arts venue featured more than 100 artists from across China and 300 provocative works ranging from performance and installation art to political pop and experimental ink paintings.

The city is also home to the nation's top fine arts academy, The Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the birthplace of key art spaces such as the 798 Art Zone, an enclave of galleries and artist studios.

The art district rose to prominence in the early 2000s as important artists and galleries occupied buildings in the abandoned factory complex on the eastern fringe of the city.

In recent years, some high-profile galleries have also set up shop in the nearby Caochangdi Village, where they occupy elegant grey brick buildings that stand out from the more rustic environs.

The following three galleries are among the top home-grown arts spaces at the forefront of China's contemporary art scene.

Three Shadows +3 Gallery

This two-year-old gallery, dedicated to photography by home-grown Chinese artists, shows how far the photography art scene in China has come.

It is an offshoot of the not-for-profit Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

Dedicated exclusively to photography and video art from China, the centre was founded by prominent Chinese photographer Rongrong and his Japanese wife, Inri, in 2007 to raise awareness and recognition of the art form in China.

Rongrong, 46, says in Mandarin: "Contemporary Chinese art started gaining popularity around 2005, both here and overseas. But photography was given the cold shoulder in China. Many here still had the perception that photography is a low-level skill and not a form of fine art."

Eager to change things, he opened the 4,600 sq m art centre, designed by artist and friend Ai Weiwei, to house exhibition halls, a library, a cafe-cumbookstore and a darkroom.

The centre holds photography exhibitions, talks and workshops for the public.

Since then, growing interest in photography, as well as the rise of emerging artists working in the medium, has made it feasible for the centre to start an independent platform to promote the works of promising artists commercially.

The gallery's roster includes prominent film-maker and artist Zhao Liang, photographer Zhang Kechun and upcoming artist Ren Hang.

Where: 155A Caochangdi, Chaoyang District; tel: +86-10-6431-9063

Open: 10am to 6pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Mondays

Long March Space

Founded in 2002 by curator Lu Jie, the gallery is an offshoot of his Long March Project, one he conceived in the late 1990s as a curatorial studies student at London's Goldsmiths College.

The project takes off from the Long March, a historic trek made by the Chinese Communist army in 1934, from south-eastern to north-western China, and which marked the rise of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong as the unrivalled Communist Party leader.

Mr Lu uses the march both as a metaphor and narrative framework to connect contemporary art practice with social development and change.

More than 250 artists, scholars and curators from China and abroad have been involved in the project through periodic performances, exhibitions and discussions held at points along the 10,000km route.

Of the many artists he met through the project, Mr Lu was keen to continue working with some of them in a sustained manner.

This eventually led to the formation of a permanent gallery in Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Well-known artists Zhan Wang and Yang Shaobin are among those affiliated with the project and represented by the gallery.

While not all artists shown by the gallery have links to the iconic project, they all share a singular trait - they are often seeking new ways of making art, never content to rest in their comfort zone.

The artists' restless pursuit is mirrored by the gallery in its push to advance discourse on contemporary art through thought-provoking exhibitions.

Gallery director Theresa Liang, 33, says: "China has more than what it takes to sustain an art market locally and if we want to drive art forward, such discussions are crucial."

Where: 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, 798 Art Zone, Chaoyang District; tel: 86-10-5978-9768

Open: 11am to 7pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday

Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery

Opened by a Frenchman in 2009, this eponymous gallery stands out for its focus on contemporary works of art on paper.

Mr de Montferrand was previously a marketing manager for French auction house Artcurial and a development manager at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

He chose to spotlight original paper-based works, even though the modern and contemporary art scene has been dominated by mediums such as oil on canvas and installations, because he believes paper works have been overlooked for their artistic rigour and relative affordability. His decision has proven to be savvy.

The gallery's 2012 exhibition History In The Making, which featured rarely seen preparatory drawings from the 1950s to 1980s for historic paintings in the collection of Chinese museums, drew 12,000 visitors and was a sold-out show. Its success spawned a sequel exhibition last year.

Gallery director Marie Terrieux, 34, says the gallery's focus on works ranging from charcoal and ink to gouache and watercolour on paper has also allowed it to surprise art lovers and collectors with "another face" of well-known pioneer contemporary Chinese artists.

"It may not be the paintings or sculptures they are known for, but works on paper are an important part of any artist's output," she says.

The gallery shows works by artists such as Chinese contemporary art pioneer Huang Rui and rising stars such Liu Bolin and Sun Xun.

Where: 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, 798 Art Zone, Chaoyang District; tel: 86-139-1165-1353

Open: 11am to 6pm (Monday to Saturday), by appointment on Sundays

Seoul: Modern art haven

In the last decade, Seoul has established itself as a major player in the art world, with growing demand among art collectors for South Korean contemporary art.

Acclaimed artists, curators and critics have also been flocking to the city to attend major art exhibitions and biennales such as the Seoul International Media Art Biennale, which is fast gaining a reputation as a critical voice on new media art.

The opening of a new National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2013 has further burnished the city's cultural cache.

Art galleries in the metropolis have likewise been integral to its rise as a magnet for contemporary art. They have been tireless in raising the profile of home-grown artists for more than two decades, playing the roles of both art educator and salesman.

It is perhaps fitting then, that many of the city's big-name galleries are built like mini museums, with multiple buildings in a compound and designed with the flair of luxury boutiques.

We bring you three galleries that showcase beauty both inside and out.

Gallery Hyundai

This pioneer art gallery in South Korea has been instrumental in the development of the country's modern and contemporary art scene since it opened in 1970.

It is founded by Ms Park Myung Ja, then a young housewife who cut her teeth at a state-supported gallery in the 1960s.

Artists who got to know her during her time there persuaded her to start her own place after she left. They believed she had what it took to make a go of the business - a discerning eye and an easy rapport with artists.

They were right on the money. Gallery Hyundai, whose name means "modernity" in Korean, quickly became the place to view art by Korean artists of the time. Many of the upcoming artists the gallery exhibited in those early days are now heavyweights in the country's modern and contemporary art scene. The list includes painters such as Lee Jung Seob, To Sang Bong and Chung Sang Hwa.

While Ms Park no longer oversees the business, her legacy lives on, says the gallery's exhibitions director Kwon Young Sook, 39.

The gallery continues to seek artists with talent, albeit casting its net both within and outside of Korea. Its roster now includes both famous foreign artists such as China's Ai Weiwei and Germany's Thomas Struth, as well as South Korea's Jeon Joon Ho and Moon Kyung Won, who will represent the country at the Venice Biennale next year.

Where: 80 Sagan-dong, Jongno-gu; tel: 82-2-2287-3500

Open: 10am to 6pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday


In a city crowded with art galleries, this one stands out for being a meeting place of the old and new.

While Hakgojae is dedicated primarily to contemporary art, the gallery is known to show traditional Korean calligraphy and painting from the 18th and 19th century and sometimes presenting them alongside pieces from more recent decades. Contemporary works that show in the gallery, on the other hand, can often trace their roots back to traditional art and culture.

The gallery certainly lives up to its name, which means "house for learning about the timehonoured". Its unique philosophy of embracing the wisdom of old to forge something new stems from the background of its founder, Mr Woo Chan Kyu. Instead of enrolling in a conventional high school or college, he attended a seodang, or traditional village school, where he was steeped in classical texts and learning.

The influence of his formative years is also evident in the gallery's selection of artists, which skews towards Korean and Chinese artists, among them South Korean photographer Atta Kim and well-known Chinese artist Ma Liuming. The gallery, however, also represents Western artists such as prominent German artist Gunther Uecker.

Where: 50 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu; tel: +82-2720-1524

Open: 10am to 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday, from March to October), 10am to 6pm (Tuesday to Saturday, from November to February, and all Sundays), closed on Monday

Kukje Gallery

Located a stone's throw away from the tourist attraction Gyeongbokgung Palace and the presidential residence, this chic gallery goes beyond selling works on walls to brokering a holistic experience of art and culture that the gallery's founder and art-lover Lee Hyun Sook believes in firmly.

The gallery's premise houses and runs a Japanese-influenced French cafe, restaurant and wine bar that serves food as art on plates.

The walls of the cheerful cafe also bear artworks by Korean artist Hong Seung Hye, who is represented by the gallery.

The architecture of the gallery, which is made up of three buildings, is equally a work of art. The newest block, added in 2012 and coinciding with the gallery's 30th anniversary, stands out for its slinky chainmail facade.

Designed by New York architecture firm SO-IL, the building snagged the Architecture Institute of America Design Award in 2012.

The main draw, however, remains the gallery's trenchant exhibitions of contemporary art, which offer both breadth and depth. An example is the show, The Art Of Dansaekhwa, which ran last year and was curated by noted Korean scholar Yoon Jin Sup. It featured works by seven influential modern masters of the Korean school of monochromatic painting, known as dansaekhwa, including artists Park Seo Bo and Ha Chong Hyun.

The gallery's exhibition programme also features artists ranging from the famed Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder to prominent contemporary Korean artists Kimsooja and Haegue Yang.

Its diverse offering mirrors the gallery's name, which in Korean means international. The gallery's sales director Sunny Kim, 27, says: "Our mission is twofold - to bring the works of iconic international artists to South Korea while promoting the works of talented Korean artists on an international level."

Where: 54 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu; tel: +82-2735-8449

Open: 10am to 6pm (Monday to Saturday), 10am to 5pm (Sunday)

Hong Kong: World's third-largest art auction market

Where money goes, art often follows and Hong Kong, a leading financial centre, has gained fame as an Asian art capital.

It is the world's third-largest art market by auction sales, behind New York and London, a reputation it enjoys in part because there are no taxes on imports and exports of artworks.

In 2012, a flurry of big-name international galleries, including the White Cube and Gagosian Gallery, opened outposts in the city. With them came shows by high-profile British artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn.

And when the first Asian edition of the prominent global art fair, Art Basel in Hong Kong, premiered in the city in 2013, it drew nearly 250 galleries from 35 countries and more than 60,000 visitors.

Home-grown galleries have also sprung up around the densely packed city, raising the number of art galleries to more than 50 and offering everything from traditional Chinese art to cutting-edge contemporary works.

High rents and a competitive art market, however, mean only the fittest galleries survive.

Of them, three Hong Kong galleries stand out for making the city more than just a gateway to art in Asia.

Grotto Fine Art

Make this your first stop if you are looking to dip your toes into contemporary Hong Kong art. When it first opened in 2001, Grotto Fine Art was the only one of its kind, dedicated exclusively to contemporary works by artists in Hong Kong. Fourteen years on, its focus remains unchanged.

Gallery owner and Hong Kong native Henry Au-yeung, 43, has been unwavering in his support of home-grown talent and tireless in nurturing interest among art lovers and collectors of local art.

He says: "When we started, there was just one fine arts programme in Hong Kong. Now, there are four. But we have always thrived in the niche. Our focus limits what we do, but what we do, we do it well."

Mr Au-yeung, who holds a bachelor's degree in sculpture from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and a master's in 20th-century Chinese art history from the University of California Santa Barbara, has an eye for emerging artists with potential and has helped to launch their careers by giving them solo shows.

Artists who exhibited at the gallery early on in their careers and who have become famous since include Lam Tung-pang and Wilson Shieh. The gallery also represents rising stars such as Joey Leung, Bovey Lee, Wai Pong-yu and Hung Fai.

Where: 31C-D Wyndham Street, Central, 1-2/F; tel: +852-2121-2270

Open: 11am to 7pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

Gallery Exit

Its neighbours are a market and an eldercare home. It also shares a floor in a factory building with a contemporary music ensemble. This is no cookie-cutter gallery.

Since Gallery Exit's opening in 2008, its founders, Mr Aenon Loo and Mr Anthony Tao, have been committed to supporting the practice of emerging artists and promoting their works.

With this in mind, they relocated the gallery from the buzzing Sheung Wan neighbourhood to a faraway corner in Hong Kong Island in 2012, trading visibility and rising rent for bigger digs that allow greater room for creativity for the artists it works with.

The gallery's director of exhibitions, Ms Arianna Gellini, 30, says of the move: "There has been an opening of minds and ideas and some artists have been developing bigger bodies of work."

Most of the artists the gallery represents are from Hong Kong, but beyond geography, they all share similar sensibilities - conceptual clarity in their creations, a yen for engaging with contemporary life in East Asia and skilfulness in expressing their ideas through art.

The gallery's devotion to emerging artists has helped to groom rising stars. Artist Kwan Sheung Chi, whom the gallery has exhibited and promoted since 2009, received the Hugo Boss Asia Art prize worth 300,000 yuan (S$64,300) in 2013. Similarly, Lin Xue, an artist the gallery has been showing since 2008, was included in the prestigious 2013 Venice Biennale.

Where: 25 Hing Wo Street, Tin Wan, Aberdeen, Blue Box Factory Building, 3/F, Southsite; tel: +852-2541-1299

Open: 11am to 6pm (Tuesday to Saturday), by appointment at other times

Hanart TZ Gallery

In a world where taste for contemporary art is persistently fickle and a gallery's fortunes equally volatile, Hanart TZ's longevity is an achievement in itself. It celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, making it one of Hong Kong's longest-running galleries.

Its anchor through the vagaries of the art market has been its tireless owner and curatorial director, Mr Johnson Chang, who has an enduring curiosity about contemporary Chinese culture.

Working out of a basement beneath a block of flats in Kowloon in 1983, Mr Chang began by showing contemporary art from Hong Kong, Taiwan and later China. His move to promote Chinese contemporary art in the late 1980s proved pivotal to its rise in the art world.

The exhibition, China's New Art Post-1989, which he co-curated with Chinese art critic Li Xianting in 1993, for example, became the first major international showcase on Chinese experimental art when it travelled to Australia and the United States in the 1990s.

Many of the emerging artists in the show are now well-known names, including auction-house darlings Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi.

The gallery, now in the swish Pedder Building that is home to other big-name international galleries such as Gagosian and Simon Lee, continues to pack its calendar with hard-hitting shows by prominent artists such as Fang and Gu Wenda, and pioneers of the art scene in Hong Kong, including artists Gaylord Chan, Chu Hing-Wah and the late Luis Chan.

Where: 12 Pedder Street, Central, 401 Pedder Building; tel: +852-2526-9019

Open: 10am to 6.30 pm (weekdays), 10am to 6pm (Saturday), closed on Sunday

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