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The business of art with Sai Ying Pun gallery director May Wong

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Running a small-yet-super-cool art gallery in Hong Kong is no easy task, particularly when many have closed their doors over the years. May Wong, however, opened Sai Ying Pun’s Above Second seven years ago and it’s still going strong. Over that time, the ‘urban street art gallery’ has seen more than its fair share of highs and lows, though. Sometimes major artists from across the globe have been on the walls inside the small space, with hordes of art enthusiasts stopping by to check out the often famous or up-and-coming works. But sometimes the walls have been totally bare between projects. However, it’s a passion project for Wong who has actually proved that, no matter how small, there’s a market in Hong Kong for art in the gallery format outside that of the big international spaces like White Cube, Pearl Lam or Ben Brown.

As it’s International Women’s Day today (March 8) and we’re also now well into Hong Kong Arts Month and looking forward to a raft of major art events in the coming weeks like Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central, we speak with Wong about her street art gallery, her upcoming projects, the Sai Ying Pun art-loving community and the tough-yet-rewarding gallery and art business in our own fair city…

So, tell us about Above Second…
Above Second is an urban street art gallery in Sai Ying Pun. We opened in 2010. It was on Eastern Street, up the hill from Second Street, and that’s how the name Above Second came about.

The gallery focuses on contemporary art, with a clear emphasis on the new, the fresh, the street and the animated. Is this fairly unique for our city?
When I first began in 2010, it was unique and fresh. Hong Kong was mostly home to Chinese contemporary art galleries and Above Second simply just wanted to offer something different. It was set up as a place that young creatives could gather in and hang out and exchange contacts.

You’ve collaborated with local artists and artists from across the globe, from Japan to Denmark. How important is this?
My thought then and also now is that the globe is a melting pot of culture. I’ve always maintained that it’s interesting to show how different artists from different countries across the world interpret their ideas of graphic design, comic books, music, pop culture and fashion.

You’ve got an exciting new project coming up…
The gallery will open American contemporary artist Ron English’s exhibition in May at PMQ in Central. Ron English is the perfect artist to debut his exhibition in Hong Kong. He is mostly known for his signature ‘POPaganda’ creations that mock consumer culture. His characters include ‘MC Supersized’, an obese fast food mascot, and his twists on a cereal mascot called ‘Cereal Killers’. We will have a lot of exclusive debuts and, of course, this also includes English’s large-scale paintings. I’m looking forward to hosting a larger exhibition at PMQ than we do at our own space. Watch this space for details!

What are you doing during the city’s ‘art month’ of March surrounding Art Basel Hong Kong that we’re now in?
I’m opening ‘Discordant’ by Nevercrew from Switzerland. It’s a special exhibition that links up street art and environmental issues such as climate change. This group is known for its large-scale murals and in this exhibition we have original artworks, prints and sculptures. It’s gonna be very exciting. We’re also releasing limited edition prints of a mural that Nevercrew did in Grenoble, France, called ‘Ordering Machine’. It depicts two whales wrapped in a towel. It’s such a great piece because the amount of plastic that Hong Kong consumes every day is appalling and I really hope people will consider this theme when they purchase plastic products like bottled water. I hope and suggest that parents buy these prints and place them in their kid’s rooms to educate them during their early years about respecting animals and protecting our environment. Plus, to tie it all in, part of the proceeds from this exhibition goes to Foodlink, a non-profit organisation dedicated to fighting hunger in Hong Kong by redistributing excess food from the food and drink industry to hunger shelters and other places.

What is it about Art Basel and the buzz in March that’s so important to Hong Kong?
I think Hong Kong should be more alert regarding art and culture in general. It doesn’t have to wait until ‘art month’ to be active. Supporting local galleries and artists is so important for our future.

We notice your gallery is sometimes bare between exhibitions. How hard is it to sustain an art gallery year-round in Sai Ying Pun?
It’s tough to have exhibitions on constantly so, in between them, while we’re getting ready for new artworks to come in, we work on side projects, collaborating with businesses like restaurants and retail stores. I love working on these projects. They’re great opportunities to integrate the artists’ works with interior spaces and designs.

How has the art gallery business in Hong Kong changed over the years?
It’s really changed a lot! People are no longer scared to walk into the gallery and ask questions. They don’t feel like they don’t belong any more. They also feel they can now afford art. Nowadays, most of the people who visit or buy at Above Second are pretty knowledgeable about global street art culture. They really follow a lot of my artists on Instagram, Facebook and other social networks. They have seen a lot of my artists’ works all around the world. They come to Above Second because they want to celebrate and be a part of the global street art movement.

What would you say to new gallerists who are looking to launch a space in Hong Kong?
Well, most of the small galleries in Soho have closed down recently due to rent hikes and the bad economy. It’s a tough business. But I’d say stick to it, since I know that the art market will always exist. We need new startup galleries in Hong Kong to keep the scene vibrant. Ask other gallerists like myself for advice!

How are you looking for new ways in which to exhibit art?
I think, as a street art gallery, we’re constantly asked how we translate a large-scale mural into a canvas. I think a lot of successful street artists have answered this question successfully. And so have we. The definition of ‘street art’ no longer limits itself to streets and alleys and public spaces. It’s more a visual embodiment of a very distinct attitude. It’s an aesthetic of defiance and irreverence that really can represent itself on any surface, be it a wall or a canvas or a sculpture. Now I’m looking for new ways to take canvas works and translate them into multimedia, LED, video, neon and other interesting art forms.

Advertising your events at your gallery must be hard. What challenges do you face?
It’s very hard as a lot of the print media in Hong Kong has shut down. Seeing HK Mag go is really a big blow to small galleries like mine. Of course, there’s also limited art writers and columns in the city, so small galleries do have a tough time when it comes to competing with the big galleries for a spotlight nowadays. We rely a lot on social media to promote our exhibitions these days but we wish there were other viable promotional options out there. Word of mouth also remains strong and we owe that to the fact that there are so few galleries like ours.

Above Second has achieved a lot over its seven years, not least remaining in business and still showcasing top artists. How have you kept ahead of the times?
Street art is, by its nature, ahead of its time. As an art form, it translates social attitudes and critiques into something concrete much quicker than other art forms can. It’s also more immediate, communicating to its audience in a much more direct manner, speaking a vernacular that is ‘on-the-streets’, so to speak. And there’s a taste for that in the art market that isn’t being satisfied by other galleries. So we’re very lucky to have art that speaks for itself and that has helped a lot throughout the years.

What about the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood? Do you have loyal followers and buyers?
Yes. We definitely do. Our Sai Ying Pun neighbours are super-friendly and open-minded. The gallery is definitely here to stay because of them. Of course, with all the new high-rises, Sai Ying Pun had changed a lot since I opened my gallery in 2010. It has become so multicultural. I’ve met so many different people from different countries who say that Sai Ying Pun is their home.

Is this an area that can become an arts hub?
Yes. I think it very well can. Not just for galleries but for Hong Kong arts in general. It’s already a great cultural hub, a sort of geographical buffer zone where East quite literally blends into West. Just walking through the streets every day, you see new restaurants, new shops and new people. We’ve already seen the trend of how arts and culture hubs evolve in Hong Kong. Areas of activity push west. First it was Central and then Sheung Wan and now here in Sai Ying Pun, especially with the opening of the MTR station.

In what ways do you work with other businesses in Sai Ying Pun?
We’ve done a collaborative event with the Locofama restaurant, as well as its sister eatery in Central, Sohofama. They’re really supportive of the art scene. It’s always effective to have good partners. But, in a more general way, the recent proliferation of street art on the many walls of Sai Ying Pun is a kind of collaboration with the entire area in general. In that way, we’re kind of giving local artists more avenues of representation. We’re very proud of this.

What would you say to someone who’s never ventured into Above Second before?
I would say ‘please come and check out some works by amazing street artists!’ I would also let them know that we will work with more charities too in all our upcoming exhibitions. We really hope to raise more social awareness through our exhibitions.

Nevercrew’s ‘Discordant’ exhibition is at Above Second between March 18 and April 22, 2017. The opening reception is at the gallery between 1pm and 9pm on March 18. Find Above Second at 9 First Street. For more details call 3483 7950 or head to above-second.com. Above Second is open Tue-Sat, 1pm-7pm.

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