The Art Basel fair sweeps into Hong Kong once a year, bringing with it flocks of gallerists ready to peddle paintings by Pablo Picasso, sculptures by Richard Serra and countless other works of modern and contemporary art. Collectors jet into town to snap up these treasures, and the public queue up in their hundreds to admire the art before it disappears into private collections. The city’s hotels fill up, the best bars are packed and creative chefs devise art-inspired meals that sell out months in advance. But not everyone is a fan of this week-long event.
“Art fairs are a difficult place for artists,” the British sculptor Conrad Shawcross muses over breakfast at The Peninsula Hong Kong. “I go to art fairs when I’m showing work and I need to work or meet someone, but I tend not to really want to go to art fairs. They’re not a good place for artists to go. They reduce things down to quite a basic level and bring out the worst in one – it makes one competitive, and can make one feel a bit worthless. They’re not curated spaces; there are commercial elements. It’s not the most interesting aspect of being an artist at all but they’re a necessary part of one’s life. As an artist, the less you have to go to art fairs the better.”
But luckily for Shawcross, he didn’t have to spend too much time at this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. The British sculptor was instead stationed in The Peninsula’s neo-classical lobby, where he’s installed his work The Ada Project, a one-armed robot that dances to music. This is the highlight of this year’s “Love Art at The Peninsula” initiative, for which the hotel has partnered for the second year running with London’s The Royal Academy of Arts.
“It felt like like it was an exciting thing to put here because it’s quite an arresting and unexpected object,” Shawcross explains. “It’s very industrial and this is a very classical room. I didn’t want to, and nor did the hotel, want to do something conservative – we wanted to do something that was quite striking and would catch people unawares. People come here for tea and jazz and are greeted with this cold robot.”
The Ada Project is an ongoing series of musical collaborations, for which Shawcross commissions composers to write a piece based on the robot’s pre-programmed movements. Then, when the music plays, the robot appears to dance to the music. During its time at The Peninsula, visitors can choose – jukebox style – from four different songs that will determine the robot’s movements.
These four songs were written, separately, by Mira Calix, Beatrice Dillon, Holly Herndon and Tamara Barnett-Herrin. Calix's mounrful lament seems particularly popular with Hong Kong audiences, to which the robot performs a series of slow, graceful movements. “Did you get all the information about the music?” Shawcross checks as I’m leaving. “Because it’s really as much about them as about me.”
The Ada Project is on show in the lobby of The Peninsula Hong Kong until April 5.