Located a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe on a quintessentially Haussmannian avenue, the ASIA NOW art fair has selected classically Parisian surroundings for its worldly venture. But ever since its launch five years ago, the art fair has endeavored to transport its visitors elsewhere by showcasing some of the world’s most dynamic artists from China and beyond.
The inspiration for Europe’s first Asia-focused art fair stemmed from co-founder Alexandra Fain’s trips to China in the late 2000s and the realization that Chinese art was severely underrepresented in Western markets. Her intuition has proved correct, and the fair became a runaway success. It’s come a long way from an impressive but limited avant-garde exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015, and now boasts more than 250 Asian artists over a five-day run.
Few art fairs are aimed so pointedly at the Chinese market, but at a time of booming art-engagement in China, surging cultural tourism from its outbound tourists, and an ever-expanding cohort of affluent Chinese collectors, ASIA NOW is astutely pushing the boundaries of what a contemporary art fair can be in the 21st century.
Unlike most art fairs, ASIA NOW presents itself as an event that chooses to focus on discovery and dialogue rather than sales. In a recent interview, Fain articulated her philosophy of placing serious Asian art within a causal context and her goal of bringing artists, curators, collectors, and art-lovers together around this under-acknowledged category. Within the fair, the artistic offerings were spread across four sections: Unboxing (showing emerging Asian artists), Peer-to-peer (collector displays), Hyperlink (special performance events), and Chat Room (artists, collectors, and curators placed in an informal setting).
Under the careful guidance of Xiaorui Zhu-Nowell, a member of the Guggenheim’s curatorial team in New York City, this year’s event centered around the theme of critical thinking in the digital age — a focus made clear through the event’s title, IRL, internet slang for ‘in real life.’
The fair not only brought a host of galleries such as Shanghai’s M97 and Gallery 55, Galleria Continua (San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana), and Beijing’s Star Gallery to Paris for the first time, but also gave some of the most influential voices in the Asian art scene a much-needed platform. Highlights included a show curated by Michael Xufu Huang, a top young Chinese art collector who will open the much-anticipated X Museum in Beijing, and a talk by Lu Xun, another one of China’s biggest art collectors and the co-founder of Nanjing’s instrumental Sifang Art Museum. Other high points included installations from Chinese video artist Pixy Liao and a panel on technology’s influence on art. The result was a diverse and peripatetic survey of Asia’s contemporary art scene.
The Paris art scene has been derided in some quarters lately as lagging behind those in New York and London, and many of its institutions have been accused of holding too traditional an outlook while giving preference to already established (and deceased) Western artists. In the current political climate, with US tariffs increasingly threatening art sales and Brexit casting a fog over the UK, ASIA NOW’s comprehensive engagement with contemporary Chinese art holds great promise for the city. It’s still early, but momentum could be shifting south of channel.