Art Fairs Faring Fairly Well

loading The G13 booth with Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Shafiq Nordin.

Questions continue to linger about the seventh edition of Art Stage Singapore 2017, with the seventh edition – held from January 12-15 (vernissage January 11) at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre – being a rather subdued showcase.

The gradual economic deceleration over the last three years saw the number of exhibitors being scaled back to 131 from 27 countries (from 272 last year), a lower footfall at 33,200, the physical absence of items above US$1mil, and with sales greatly dampened by transactions denominated in the strengthened Singapore and US dollars.

Anne Samat's Tribal Chief.

Anne Samat's Tribal Chief.

Awang Damit Ahmad unveils the latest in his Garismega series at Art Stage.

Awang Damit Ahmad unveils the latest in his Garismega series at Art Stage.

Marc Sijan's Security Guard

Marc Sijan's Security Guard

Touting the “We Are Asia” tagline, it was not surprising that about a third of the galleries were from South-East Asia, and 75% from Asia as a whole. Newcomers made up a quarter of attendees, but blue chip galleries like White Cube, Galerie Perrotin and Arndt (which still has its Gillman Barracks showcase) demurred. Pearl Lam Galleries and Sundaram Tagore, however, soldiered on.

Vasan Sitthiket.

Vasan Sitthiket.

With the ringgit buffeted over the past year, imagine this scenario: a Malaysian buying an artwork by a Filipino artist represented by a Japanese gallery in a Singaporean venue, but with the sale not in Singaporean dollars or Philippine pesos, but in US dollars!

The art fair game is an unpredictable animal, but like most high value commodities, it is most vulnerable to economic downturns. For instance, Art Fair Singapore (which was later revived briefly) and the Tresors art and antique fair in Singapore and Hong Kong folded during the 1998 currency crisis, despite impresario William Burris securing A-list exhibitors. On the bright side, Art Apart Fair, which showcases hotel-based boutique art, has survived since its 2013 debut.

Richard Streitmatter-Tran's The Decoy of Indra.

Richard Streitmatter-Tran's The Decoy of Indra.

Katsu Ishida, who is based both in Japan and Nepal.

Katsu Ishida, who is based both in Japan and Nepal.

But for all the economic naysayers, Art Basel parent company MCH Group injected a dose of confidence back into the market with its 60.3% stake in the India Art Fair, and a tentative stake in Art Dusseldorf, its gateway to Europe. It already has a stake in Asia, with Art Basel Hong Kong, run since 2015 by Malaysian Adeline Ooi, who took over from Magnus Renfrew. Incidentally, Art Stage supremo Lorenzo Rudolf, was also an Art Basel alum; as a director, he started Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, and Shanghai’s SH Contemporary in 2007 after leaving the organisation.

The market in Singapore is proving more resilient than previously thought. The rival Singapore Contemporary felt confident enough to stage its event a week after Art Stage, instead of catching the same international crowd – despite Singapore once again being ranked by The Economist as the world’s most expensive city. Even Affordable Art Fair Singapore was doing such brisk business that it decided to hold two events per year.

Even the “parking lot” Art Fair Philippines has seen attendances quadruple from 6,000 visitors and participants doubled from 24 galleries since its 2013 debut, despite its low international profile.

There were undoubtedly sales this year at Art Stage, just not for works above US$1mil. Debutant Emmanuel Fremin Gallery (New York) recorded sales of US$270,000, while another first-timer Galerie Ovo (Taipei) sold some in the US$3,600-25,000 range.

Other works that found new homes included those by Rudi Mantofani (US$197,700), Cheong Soo Pieng (US$105,900), Rirkrit Tiravanija (US$56,500), Chua Ek Kay (US$14,100-53,000), Jane Lee (US$45,900), Han Sai Por (US$37,000), Arifien Neif (US31,700), Richard Winkler (US$67,000), Donna Ong (US$19,800), Yayoi Kusama prints (US$12,000-27,000), Takeshi Haguri (US$19,500 each) and Suporn Kaewda (US$12,000).

Eddy Susanto's Kalatidha Towards Capitalism.

Eddy Susanto's Kalatidha Towards Capitalism.

Zheng Lu's Buddha.

Zheng Lu's Buddha.

It was also a good outing for Australian galleries Sullivan+Strumpf (Karen Black, Irfan Hendrian) and Art Collective WA, which sold two works by Eveline Kotai for more than US$14,000 each.

Of the four Malaysian galleries that participated in Art Stage, Richard Koh Fine Art with a stable boasting Anne Samat, Yeoh Choo Kuan and Haffendi Anuar reportedly did well. The others included G13, Wei-Ling (Rajinder Singh) and Taksu (also Singapore and Bali). Spain’s ATR, meanwhile, which had taken part in all 10 editions of Art Expo Malaysia touting sculptor Jesús Curiá, also registers a KL base.

Some Malaysian artists were featured in Art Agenda and Gajah Gallery, while Yim Yen Sum and Ng Swee Keat were among 14 regional winners of the UOB Painting of the Year award paraded in the UOB Art Space. Other winners included Carey Ngui, Yeo Tze Yang, Stefanie Hauger, Pannaphan Yodmanee, Antonius Subiyanto and Kit Tan Juat Lee.

Not all works were suffixed with those intimidating zeros. For a relatively paltry sum, there were Perspex credit card-sized “art” souvenirs – 38 pieces by different Malaysian artists – from Ivan Lam’s art vending machine, Coma 38/500 (2012-2013), a spin-off from his 2013 Art Basel Hong Kong work.

The novelty of superstar artists had obviously waned in this edition of Art Stage, with enthusiasts looking more at lower-tier and emerging artists, and with sales mostly dependent on quality, taste, price and only sometimes, name.

Tayeba Lipi's Comfy Bikinis, made from gold brass safety pins.

Koeboe Sarawan

As in the spillover Singapore Biennale 2016 (themed “An Atlas of Mirrors,” and which only ended on February 26, 2017), heavy duty works with information overload were more prominent at Art Stage this time, mostly in the specially curated forum of 24 works by 23 artists, such as Carlos Celdran’s performance Livin’ La Vida Imelda.

Six public artworks dotted the Art Stage fairground, notably Phunk’s New Hope of the Old World; Iqi Qoror’s suspension of tilted chairs, Animum No. 2; Indieguerillas’ Taman Budaya: No Bed Rest for the Wicked; and Bagus Pandega’s Random Black Series automated instrumentation.

Yim Yen Sum.

Yim Yen Sum.

Takashi Haguri.

Takashi Haguri.

Probably to offset the relative lack of big names at the event, the Collectors’ Stage was introduced to provide glimpses of outstanding works in the collections of six Singapore-based collectors – Jenny Holzer, Steve McQueen, Ronald Ventura, Wong Hoy Cheong (Buckingham Street/Downing Street series), Vasan Sitthiket and Eddy Susanto.

The pig is a much-maligned animal and, presumably taking a cue from Wim Delvoye, the teakwood pigs of Susanto’s Kalathida were studded with corporate crests symbolising capitalist hedonism. The pigs were shown grazing on Javanese letters, with faces of leaders on large banknotes in the backdrop.

The Japanese again made a strong presence at Art Stage, with the likes of Kunihiko Nohara, Takayuki Niwa, Takeshi Haguri, Sohey Iwata, Kanjiro Moriyama, Katsu Ishida and Hiroshi Senju.

While works with a “wow” factor were not really discernible at Art Stage, there was an interesting vignette of works catering to varied tastes, like Koeboe Sarawan’s Harmoni Kehidupan, somewhat reminiscent of Nadia Bamadhaj’s paternalistic Javanese figure and Antonio Santin’s oil painting of creased oriental rugs.

Art Stage also featured Dwi Antono’s whimsical surrealistic wonderlands; Jose Tence Ruiz’s CSI: Chimoy Si Imbisibol; Marc Sijan’s life-sized obese security guard; Yudi Sulistyo and Norberto Roldan’s indictment against war; and, if nothing else, Thanathorn Suppakijjumnong’s obsolete typewriter art in Punched Perceptions. Visitors also got to watch and talk to Richard Streitmatter-Tran and Prasert Yodkaew as they chiselled on their work-in-progress unfired stoneware clay installation, The Decoy of Indra.

Myanmar performance artist Aye Ko won the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art, but a question mark hangs over the fate of the award, as its prime mover, former US Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar was removed by the Trump administration.

Pichai Pongsasaovapak.

Pichai Pongsasaovapak.

Art Stage’s success formula of stringent participant vetting, public and private sponsorships, VIP privileges, and educational fringe events may be due for a change. It expanded to Jakarta last year, with the next event slated for August. With core marque collectors from Indonesia, as well as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum Macan) opening in November, the centre may well shift there.

There were seven lectures altogether in the 2017 Southeast Asian Forum, entitled “Net Present Value: Art, Capital, Futures,” which were skewed towards investment potential or risks. Rudolf himself noted that these are “dramatically changing times”; with crises in the “world economy, politics and society,” Rudolf said, art can no longer be seen as “merchandise/commodity” but more as a “piece of culture.”

But the proof of the pudding, as it were, will be in the eating.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.



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