A year and half has passed since the first protests arose in Hong Kong against the extradition bill which would have allowed for legal cases to be tried in mainland China. The advent of Covid-19 put a visible end to the citywide disturbances that have occurred since, allowing for a new national security law to be passed and pro-democracy activists to be arrested. The teargas might have dissipated, but fear and uncertainty surrounding the long-term effects of both the pandemic and the protests hang in the air. But, owing to a widespread sense of civic responsibility and an inherent paranoia inculcated during the SARS epidemic in 2003, the city has never had to implement a full lockdown. Stringent measures and tight controls meant that Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) was the first prominent international fair cancelled this year, but in recent months other exhibitions, openings, fundraising galas, and even an art fair have gone ahead.

ABHK collaborated with the concurrent Fine Art Asia to stage Hong Kong Spotlight, a smaller-scale iteration of the fair consisting of 22 Hong Kong galleries (or those with local outposts) who had previously participated in ABHK. Monitored by temperature checks and pre-registered time slots, visitors were only able to attend the fair by invitation, so as to ensure that the halls of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre remained at a safe and socially distanced capacity. Lee Bul’s recent additions to her ongoing “Perdu” series, on view at Lehmann Maupin’s booth, dazzled (literally): intricate enamel-like sculpted paintings, the luminous white of mother of pearl set against vibrant background colors. Empty Gallery showcased young painter Henry Shum’s magnetic, charged compositions fusing figurative and landscape elements, encompassing both eastern and western art historical references. Su Mei Tse’s ethereal sculptural and video work on view at Edouard Malingue, inspired by her background as a classical cellist, made for a meditative viewing experience. In contrast, Stephen Wong Chun Hei’s vibrant and busy depictions of Hong Kong scenery at Gallery Exit, inspired by his own hikes, reflected the frantic atmosphere in the city over the past 18 months.

Concepts of resistance, tradition, and healing took on contemporary forms at exhibitions over in Wong Chuk Hang, an industrial area which functions as a mini art hub. At Blindspot Gallery, “Palm at the End of the Mind” featured works by Lau Hok Shing, So Wing Po, and Zhang Ruyi. Lau draws from the classical forms of ancient scholar’s rocks (naturally occurring asymmetrical, cascading rock formations, used for meditative and decorative purposes) to create Remote Islands (2020), a collection of minimalist-looking wooden sculptures, with off-white porous formations placed atop black orbs. Equally serene in concept and dating from the same year, So’s metaphysical Cicada Sound Collector provides a classification of different herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (her family are practitioners), with the added transmission of sound from electrolytic soil between transparent spheres suspended from the ceiling. The work serves as a solar system of sorts, simultaneously evoking the sensations and processes within human bodies.

Mit Jai Inn’s colorful, almost sculptural series of paintings “Royal Marketplace” at Rossi & Rossi, composed of layers upon layers of thickly applied paint on both sides of the canvas, employs a similarly meditative creative process. Rolled up in scrolls and placed on the floor, or cut into strips and hanging from the ceiling, the works are meant to be touched and viewed from all perspectives, quietly resisting unchecked power through their atypical modes of display. The series takes its title from a Facebook group set up in April 2020 for people to freely discuss the Thai monarchy, which soon acquired more than a million users. It was later blocked by the Thai government: one of the many events factoring into the large-scale protests erupting in Thailand throughout this year.

The need to resist established systems, particularly those of the art world, becomes the subject of mainland Chinese collective Double Fly Art Center’s “Double Fly Awkward Pay,” at de Sarthe gallery. Addressing the issue of public funding in China, and the duplicity of the art market, the group creates two- and three-dimensional canvases which reveal hidden layers as the gallery lights change from normal to UV. In double love & filled currency (2020), paintings are revealed to be bank notes, the amount corresponding to the price of the art work, which varies significantly though the works remain the same size, a wry comment on society’s perception of value and the intense commercialization of art.

At Para Site, Vvzela Kook draws from the history of Kowloon Walled City to reimagine a version of it under the control of an AI, in the form of her immersive installation Confidential Records: Overwrite (2020). Part of an ongoing series the artist has been developing since 2016, the piece recalls 1980s sci-fi films and dwells on uncertainty and anxiety about the future. In anticipation of how unbalanced the “new normal” may feel in Hong Kong, conceptual artist Luke Ching requires viewers to take off their left shoe before entering Para Site’s second solo presentation, “Glitch in the Matrix.” Referencing the 1999 film, Ching uses the idea of a glitch in the system to provide a subversive political perspective on the current social climate. In response to the questions remaining over the future status of freedom here, Ching has created Cross Border Convictions—a darkly humorous video installation depicting the artist performing random acts outlawed in other countries, but still considered legal and therefore “free” in Hong Kong.

The most authentic embodiment of the city was found most unexpectedly in the middle of the bustling Wan Chai district. What once was a Japanese restaurant became, for a fleeting moment, a pop-up exhibition—A’fair. Outfitted with jagged edges, dirt, half-pulled-out floor tiles, and exposed brick walls, the gritty impact of the unfinished interiors was intensified by a series of sculptural installations organized by curator Tiffany Leung, artist Lau Hiu Tung, and architect Norine Chu, who chanced upon the vacant space and conceived of this zero-budget collaborative project. Local artists, invited to respond to and reflect upon the site, place, and moment, did so by physically engaging with the architecture of the abandoned space, incorporating found materials from across the city. For her installation Hard Pieces (2020), Ko Sin Tung filled PVC hose pipes with dirt and inserted them into the building’s pillars and walls. Ocean Leung’s Basterd (2020) used discarded shop signs from a closed-down rice roll restaurant; he rearranged pieces of broken red signage to form the Cantonese characters for bastard, brilliantly referencing Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) in a work that comments on the ephemerality of so many business ventures in the city. Raw, visceral, intimate, and fleeting, A’fair is a refreshingly unfiltered endeavor, compared to the commercially driven initiatives which dominate the local art scene. It highlights the challenges local artists face as they acclimatize to a shortage of studio and exhibition spaces, in the process creating new, adaptive, and quietly defiant ways to produce and showcase their art.