In the line-up for this year's Art Basel, nothing is more provocative—and downright subversive—than a mixed-media collage by newcomer Justin Bergman titled “Beyond Art Basel: a Guide for Wanderers.”
A biting satire of the foreigner-in-town trope, Bergman curates a list of Hong Kong sightseeing spots accompanied by gushing, faux-sentimental commentary. Imagine the platitudes from the Tourism Board, but with a dash of postmodern incoherence: if William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch as a Lonely Planet guidebook this is what we would get.
“It seems I’m always climbing as high as I can to take it all in,” Bergman writes, with a knowing wink. The collage is filled with loaded references to the “awesome views” and “chaos of color”, a nod to his absurdist post-internet influences. To top it off, he pairs his text with glossy stock-photo images that recalls the forced cheeriness of a Yue Minjun.
But beneath the kitsch, there is ennui and and a rebellious streak. Bergman mimics the siren call of consumerism (“the Pump Up the Jam cocktail is $15”), then juxtaposes it with a pretend hipness, like parodying the common expat experience of “discovering” Sai Ying Pun as a “grungy” neighborhood. This cognitive dissonance is at the heart of contemporary urban life: how can a westerner in Hong Kong be cultured without sacrificing being rich?
Taking things to another level, Bergman’s piece is also deeply “woke.” In coded subtext, he alludes to the geopolitical tug-of-war between east and west: he prefers to “venture to the Peak just before it closes at midnight when the mainland Chinese tour groups are fast asleep in their hotels.” As ever the postcolonial provocateur, he encourages visitors to walk the path of “early British colonists” (who, he helpfully notes, were “carried in their sedan chairs”).
But Bergman’s true genius is he never breaks from character: in the persona of a New York Times travel writer, his work flawlessly evokes the all too common sight of a half-drunk, half-dressed white guy wandering the mid-levels thinking he “gets Hong Kong.”
Complex, meta, and utterly engrossing, Bergman’s statement on the “Hong Kong scene” is reason enough to buy barely affordable tickets to look at extremely unaffordable art.
Art Basel 2017, its fifth edition in Hong Kong, runs from March 23 to 25 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.