A Massive Show that is Managing

loading Tan Wei Kheng at Richard Koh Fine Arts.

The Sixth Art Stage Singapore was an event suited to its time, but these are bleak times.

The Sixth Art Stage Singapore (AS6) ended on January 24, 2016 (vernissage January 20) with mixed signals: the hoopla of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations muted by ill winds from China’s economic deceleration; declining footfalls (40,500 compared to last year’s 51,000 visitors); and the absence of several marque galleries which was compensated for by a mini-invasion of at least two dozen Japanese galleries!

Zhang Yi Fa's Super Monkey.

AS6 was still indisputably the flagship showcase among the over-100-packed Singapore Art Week and it was only second in Asia to Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) in terms of sales and attendance (ABHK,60,000). Even without an art week bolstered by the newly opened National Gallery of Singapore last November, AS6 by itself, with its battery of events/attractions, could wear down even the more seasoned aficionados.

Apart from the Video Stage (theme: Velocity) and the AS Platform (Malaysian Chong Kim Chiew’s badminton courtship with low netting-fence and Navin Rawanchaikul’s Gujranwala “Roots” odyssey), AS6 introduced the new jaw-jaw SEA Forum called “Seismograph: Sensing The City – Art In The Urban Age”, apparently to extend and bridge understanding about contemporary practices and trends in the region.

Anon Pairot's Chiangrai Ferrari.

Yinka Shonibare.

As a further plug, the organisers opted for a desultory documentation/update of the various art markets, or what passed off as one, of South-East Asia with an eye on commodification. It sufficed with only a fair-guide booklet, dispensing with the fair catalogue that would have highlighted the 173 participating galleries, including 67 returning galleries, 32 of which were from Singapore.

As a side attraction, the “un-Dada” Dadaists’s centurion celebrations held inside a tent were just ho-hum.

With art fairs, it is often the outlandish (remember Ichwan Noor’s Cesar-inspired compressed-ball Beetle in ABHK 2013?), whatever its intrinsic art-iness, that somehow captures the imagination. AS6 did not have to go for the visceral for eyeball conspicuity though Yudi Sulistyo’s “World Without Ship” container ship and a few other contraptions were present.

Choy Chun Wei (Wei Ling Contemporary).

Gimmicks aside, the noteworthy works/ artists this year were:

1) Thailand’s Anon Pairot double-header, Chiangrai Ferrari (in white rattan, woven by the Chiangrai villagers, under Numthong Gallery) and mock-Ermin cockroach (plastic) pastiche with the appellations “Love”, “Happy”, “Life” and “Faith”;
2) Takeshi Higuri’s giant yakuza-tattooed symbolic sumos, referencing tradition and folk tales (Toki-No-Wasuremono, the debut gallery representing him, also exhibited drawings of famed architects like Ando and Wright); and
3) the whimsical flying objecto-saurus of London-born British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare (Pearl Lam). As superstars go, there were Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst. Hirst, despite his fading persona, was still a curiosity, and was true to form with an obsequious black-scalpel topography of Singapore.

Yayoi Kusama (pushing 87 on March 22) was the only one reported to have passed the million US$ mark (US$1.2mil), though her commissioning of polka dots and more polka dots, no matter how ostentatious, could get indulgent and repetitive rather than hypnotic and mesmerising.

A small section on the cult Gutai, the avantgarde Japanese collective that had been getting a lot of traction since the Guggenheim New York show in 2013, could be a good teaser for a bigger assault, if there were good sales.

One of the most delightful galleries was the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) with its virtual cavalcade of India’s finest modernists, including the late M.F. Husain and the stillliving S.H. Raza and Laxman Pai.

More than an intersection and bridge in facilitating ideas, commerce and networking, Art Stage Singapore serves more as a catalyst in creating and developing markets, visibility and viability among Asean artists and stakeholders, but with a broader mantra of “We Are Asia.”

To this end, the impetus was in the discovery of local heroes or at least emerging artists with sustainability and a contemporary-art edge.

M.F. Husain at DAG Modern.

Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder art.

Entang Wiharso's Feast Table, Undeclared Perceptions (ARNDT).

The Singapore modern masters, however, were prominent despite the obvious “contemporary” bias. Apart from perennial favourites Chen Wen-hsi and Cheong Soopieng, there were Lim Tze Peng, Chua Ek Kay, Terence Teo, Wong Keen, Tan Choh Tee, Ong Kim Seng and Yeo Hoe Koon, 81.

Among the lesser known artists making sell-out entries were Kittisak Thapkoa (RM174,6530, No. 1 Gallery) and Syaginin Ratna Wulan (ROH projects). Sundaram Tagore (yes, he is a descendant of the Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath) sold a piece by Korean Chun Kwang Young (RM748,694) and, from its station at the Gillman Barracks art enclave, two Steve McCurrys (of the blueeyed Afghan Girl fame) at RM174,168 apiece. Chua Ek Kay, fresh from his heightened profile in being showcased vis-à-vis the pantheon, Wu Guanzhong, also made a clean sweep at AS6.

Yeo Hoe Koon.

Among the known top-selling contemporary Singapore artists were Jane Lee (RM136,717, STPI), Ruben Pang (RM190,576 for four works, Chan Hampe Galleries) and Wyn- Lyn Tan (RM70,430, Fost Gallery). It’s moot if these local heroes would have made a dent outside their “habitats”, and it’s curious that a critic made a similar point about Australian art icon Brett Whiteley (1939-1992).

Malaysian galleries were out in force at AS6, hedging the risks with numbers, like Wei Ling Contemporary (Ivan Lam, Chin Kon Yee, Yau Bee Ling, Chong Kim Chiew and Choy Chun Wei), Richard Koh Fine Arts (Haffendi Anuar, Tan Wei Kheng, Wong Perng Fei, Yeoh Choo Kuan, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Justin Lim, Hasanul Isyral Idris, Gan Chin Lee and Chang Yoong Chia), Kenny Teng’s G13 (Khairudin Zainudin, Marvin Chan, Gan Tee Sheng, Haslin Ismail and Nik Mohd Hazri); Core Design (Ali Nurazmal Yusoff); and Taksu (Najib Ahmad Bamadhaj and Hisyamuddin Abdullah, among some foreigners).

Ma Han's Pink Collar (Art Futures Group).

Artemis (Jasmine Kok and Indonesian Dedy Sufriadi) was the only Malaysian standardbearer at the lacklustre debut of the Singapore Contemporary Art Show at Suntec, which registered 16,000 visitors. Another simultaneous art fair, Art Apart, packed thrice its previous number on the 14th floor of the Parkroyal on Pickering. The buying trend seems to be moving towards lower price tiers.

Part of Navin Rawanchaikul's installation.

With the Chinese Lunar Year of the Fire Monkey approaching, there was the concession to the odd monkey image or two, like Zhang Yifa’s Super Monkey and others by Li Tian Bing and Taiichiro Yoshida.

Sullivan + Strumpf spearheaded the band of five Australian galleries. In March, it will finally set up base at the Gillman Barracks even as five, including Toyio Koyama and Space Cottonseed, left last year. Even then, the Visual Arts Centre, a new art park sprawled over 11,000sqm in Dhoby Ghaut Green, opened end-February.

Art Stage prides itself on an astutely charted course by its founder-president Lorenzo Rudolf, an impresario who had helmed the Art Basel for 10 years. But even with postmortem tweakings and as a game-changer, it will be vulnerable to the changed game of economic vagaries. It is pertinent to note that the world-class Tresors Fine Arts & Antique Fair for Asia in Singapore, held from 1993 to 1997, folded in 1998 with the currency contagion (also, the conditions were not so favourable then, unlike now).

Work by a Chinese artist.

Despite the ascendancy of the Singapore dollar, the auction market in 2015, according to the authoritative Paris-based artprice, had lapsed dramatically from US$35.9mil (RM148.73mil) to US$17.9mil (RM74.16mil). But a landmark Singaporeonly art sale at Christie’s Hong Kong on November 29, 2015 netted a whopping HK$36.79mil (RM19.59mil), including a record HK$7.72mil (RM4.11mil) for a Cheong Soo Pieng.

In a side event, Singapore performance artist Lee Wen, dubbed “The Yellow Man,” won the Joseph Balestier “Freedom” Award, worth US$15,000.

The other 2016 art biggie in Singapore is the Fifth Singapore Biennale with the theme, “An Atlas of Mirrors”, and will be held from October 28, 2016 to February 28, 2017.
Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a twotime National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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