How are Art Fairs Faring?

As the global economy becomes multipolar, changes are to be expected in all sectors where big money flows. That includes the buying and selling of art.

Latiff Mohidin's Provoke (oil on board, 1964).

Pagoda II (oil on canvas, 1964).

Malam Merah (Red Night) (oil on canvas, 1968).

Deux Bateaux (Two Boats,1964).

It is strange that even as the well-heeled art lovers and collectors were shuffling around the 84 booths at this year’s Art Stage Singapore (on January 26-28, its eighth edition), a lugubrious pall hung over it like a dirge.

The usual pre-event ballyhoo was noticeably not palpable. It was a strip-down of 40% from last year’s participation of 131 galleries; 170 in 2016. Even attendance was down, with a daily average of the public days dipping to 5,600 from 6,500 footfalls last year. (The vernissage recorded 2,300 visitors.) Overall attendance was 26,500 visitors, from 33,200 last year, although it had a day longer.

In the welter of all this cynicism, Art Stage Singapore impresario Lorenzo Rudolf ’s cagey, vague and even ominous comments were hardly the panache. While denying that Art Stage Singapore was on the verge of folding up, Lorenzo remarked: “No one has said anything that there would not be a continuation and, by now, we are used to these rumours. But we surely have to analyse the situation and the marketplace, which is why we thought about the fair concept and included design.” (emphasis is mine)

Read this whichever way you like, but with the opening of Art Stage Jakarta last year, Lorenzo, like the roving fund managers who go where the smell of big money is, may be prospecting the next gold mine instead of expanding his empire. Strong talk is that he is planning Art Stage Bangkok next year, what with the odd conjunction of not one, not two, but three full-fledged Biennales slated in Thailand this year! They are the Thailand Biennale (Thailand’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, in Krabi, in November; Chief curator: Jiang Jiehong); Bangkok Biennale (“underground” biennale, July 30-September 3); and the three-series Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB, November 2018-February 2019, led by former Thai art tsar Apinan Poshyananda).

The Thai centrepiece at Art Stage Singapore was a 40m-long installation by Kamin Lertschaprasert (Numthong Gallery), first created for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. There were 15 Thai artists, some of whom were represented by galleries outside Thailand. Printmaker Rirkrit Tiravanija was at Singapore’s Tyler Print; Natee Utarit showed at Richard Koh (Singapore/ Malaysia); and Komkrit Thepthien at Art Season (Singapore).

The other “attractions” included Yayoi Kusama, Botero, Alexander Calder (Works on paper, Omar Tiroche Gallery, London), Dali, Manolo Valdez, and Anselm Kiefer’s Dein und Mein Alter und das Alter der Welt (Your Age and Mine and the Age of the World, 1992, 280cm x 381cm x 29cm) under Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Sculpture by Thailand's Kamin Lertchaiprasert.

Malaysia's G13 booth doing good sales.

Myanmar artist.

Art Stage Singapore 2018: Malaysia's Yim Yen Sum, a winner of the UOB Painting of the Year.

Brisk sale was reported in Indonesian art at Gajah Gallery (six paintings and two bronze sculptures) and Srisasanti Syndicate (five Heri Dono’s).

The art fair, the anchor event of Singapore Art Week (SAW) with nearly 100 events island-wide, also opened new flanks to designers like Hubert Le Gall and Baelf Design. SAW was organised by the National Arts Council, Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore Economic Development Board. Confident of their own pulling power, galleries at the Gillman Barracks enclave decided to stage their own festival instead of joining Art Stage Singapore this time.

Yoshitomo Nara's Fuck Politician.

A figurine parody of US President Donald Trump.

High rentals and censorship were cited as reasons for staying away. Lorenzo, who launched Art Stage in 2011, minting it in the mould of the Art Basel model he left behind, said: “We have a market that’s very, very weak and in eight years, it has not grown. If it doesn’t grow, then I will have to reflect on what I do. I sure won’t be sitting here until the end,” Lorenzo lamented.

So, what went not right at the last Art Stage Singapore, according to Lorenzo’s expectations?

The unequal sophistication and developments of different individual South- East Asian countries; censorship; the branding, with Art Stage Singapore being too much of an Art Basel wannabe rather than a satellite or bastion of South-East Asian art, if not Asian art; the branding plugging big-name Western artists instead of more big-name Asian artists; the low production of Singapore artists although the prices of their contemporary artists such as Ruben Pang and Sarah Choo are outstripping those of the Old Masters such as the Equator duo of Chua Mia Tee and Lim Yew Kuan, and the Grand Old Man Choo Keng Kwang; and the dilution of sales from peripheral events like the Singapore Contemporary and the Gillman Barracks centre. Or has the market reached an ennui with the same artists doing the same kind of “safe” works every year?

Whatever the reason(s), this year, there was no Singapore Contemporary after a lacklustre two years, while the Affordable Art Fair which had even its “spring” and “autumn” editions because of its unfathomable popularity, reverted to just one.

The grapevine has it that Hong Kong’s Art Central was eyeing a foothold in Singapore, and though it did not materialise, it just might later if Art Stage Singapore keeps downgrading, or worse, steps out.

Perhaps, a sign of the more sobering economic times could be gleaned from the less boisterous mood in Chinatown, as the Chinese ushered in the Year of the Dog.

Over in the Philippines (a 10-day affair, from February 23-March 10) and India, art fairs with a much global flavour have grown and grown. The enthusiasm at this year’s Art Philippines was simply phenomenal, as one Malaysian gallery participant reported, never mind if the sales were not as expected.

Art Stage Singapore also suffered when some of its key staff left and are said to be eyeing KL and Indonesia – and if Thailand too, then the mercury level will shoot up.

KL’s Art Expo Malaysia Plus, now in a record 12th uninterrupted year, will see a rash of challenges this year. And people are saying that the art market is getting more sluggish.

First, there was ArtEDecor, which combined visual art (purportedly for emerging artists), furniture design, tribal and ethnographic art (Matrade, March 8-11). Then, there’s Art Asia Kuala Lumpur (MINES, September 6-9) organised by Younie Gallery-Auction, while Cendana (Cultural Economy Development Agency) is planning an Affordable Art (under RM5,000). There will be a Malaysian Biennale (Dai-Ichi Art Space, August 3-7).

Agus Suwage's The Kiss.

Anselm Kiefer – Dien Und Mein Alter und das Alter Des Welt (Your Age and Mine and the Age of the World, 1992).

Soft market, still? The Klang Valley now boasts of six active art auction houses, namely Henry Butcher Art Auction, Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle Art Space (KLAS, which has six editions a year), Masterpiece, The EDGE, Wells and Younie.

The collectors base has also grown, significantly, with many new players entering the market. Malaysian collectors are known to have Boteros and Impressionist works and million-ringgit Chinese paintings, while one even has Gilbert & George, Ai Wei Wei, Hirst, Koons, Kiefers, among other of the world’s A++ marque artists. Ai Wei Wei, whose uber collectors include Francois Pinault and Roman Abramovich and major museums, was reportedly incredulous when told that a collector from Malaysia was interested in buying his “not-(meant)- for-sale work series”, and promptly gave him preference.

The first Kuala Lumpur Biennale with the theme, BeLoved, had just finished its run (March 31) from November 1, 2017.

The biggest Malaysian art buzz this year is poet-painter-sculptor Latiff Mohidin’s solo exhibition of his hugely seminal Pago- Pago works (1960-1969) at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, organised by the National Gallery Singapore, from February 28-May 28. He is the first South-East Asian artist to be featured at the Centre Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery. Latiff (born 1938) was trained in art at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunst in West Berlin, Germany (1961-1964), Atelier La Courrière-Frelaut, Paris (etching, 1969) and the Pratt Institute in New York, the US (1969), under the John D. Rockefeller III grant.

He was the only artist honoured with a double Retrospective by the National Art Gallery, in 1973 and then again in 2013. But Latiff’s auction record for a painting was for a Rimba Series work, Puntung The Stump, in the KLAS April 24, 2016 auction, for a premium of RM920,400.

The art highlights in Hong Kong in March were the 12th Asian Contemporary Art Show (March 23-26) and Art Basel Hong Kong (March 29-31), with 248 galleries taking part. Many top galleries have also set up outposts in Hong Kong, the latest being David Zwirner, Seoul Auction, and Hauser & Wirth, besides White Cube.

A report by Art Basel stated that the global art market grew about 12% in 2017, with about US$63.7bil in sales, with Asia accounting for 23% of the market share.

Given the art commodity’s tenacity against the volatility of economies, perhaps, Celine Dion’s blockbuster Titanic song could be rephrased as “The (He)Art Will Go On”.

We Art living in interesting times, No?

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

Related Articles

Nov 2015

Worshipping women: Confident, conscious and complex

A tribute to the late Yuen Chee Ling, who celebrated women through her art.

Mar 2013

Artists with pioneering status

Getting to know eight pioneers of Malaysian art.

Jul 2010

Nirmala’s last wish

A dying Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam struggles to finish her final paintings in praise of her God.

Feb 2013

In Awed Appreciation of PAGO-PAGO

Artist Latiff Mohidin is honoured through an extensive exhibition that mirrors his life.