Raising the stakes in Asia’s art world

loading Malaysian artist-curator Shoosie Sulaiman’s mixed media Negara at the Tomio Koyama Gallery (based in Gillman Barracks, Singapore) in Art Stage 2014.

Finally, the pieces seem to be coming together. With the fourth Edition of Art Stage in January, Singapore has served notice to its closest rival, Hong Kong, of its ambition to become Asia’s epicentre of the arts.

Art Stage Singapore 2014 saw a record-breaking 45,700 visitors walk past the Joko Avianto-constructed archways at its Marina Bay Sands venue. It was the centrepiece of a giddying Singapore Art Week which witnessed some 70 events all over the island republic accompanying the Chinese New Year revelry.

Haslin Ismail and his Bookland mixed-media installation (G13 Gallery, KL) at the South-East Asia Platform in Art Stage 2014.

India’s Jitish Kallat’s Circadian Rhyme -4 (ARNDT, Singapore) at the India Platform in Art Stage 2014. Paint, resin, aluminium, steel and 24 figurines on plinth.

The highlights included the Prudential Art Prize, three back-to-back art auctions, the spill-over 2013 Singapore Biennale, the obligatory “Hotel Art” Art Apart, the S. Sujojono (1913-1986) Memorial Show, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and A Night Out at Gillman Barracks. Other events were the near sold-out Poised for Degradation exhibition by Nadiah Bamadhaj at the Richard Koh Fine Art outlet, Jean- Michel Othoniel at Paragon, Bernar Venet and FLUX at Art Plural Gallery, Ong Kim Seng at Art Commune and the Aliwal Urban Art Festival with Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (Apad) in the Bugis precincts.

For the first time, Art Stage held a country-regional platform with speciallycurated exhibitions from Australia, Central Asia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and South-East Asia on a “We Are Asia” thematic focus. This marked a change in Art Stage’s direction, setting it apart from art fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong. Impresario Lorenzo Rudolf adopted a game-changing Asian identity gambit in showcasing the best of Asia, with a focus on South-East Asia and a blend of art impulses from the West.

China’s Zhu Yiyong at Galerie Du Monde of Hong Kong in Art Stage 2014.

“It is to create something unique and new while functioning within the art-fair parameters. It is to make South-East Asia a happening place although the markets need to be developed as most parts don’t have strong galleries like in Japan and China,” Rudolf said. When asked about the competition with Hong Kong, what with Art Basel Hong Kong last year and the West Kowloon Cultural District scheduled to fully open in 2017, Rudolf, who formerly helmed Art Basel Miami, believed in an indirect synergy rather than unhealthy competition, provided the events were “not too close, don’t copy each other, and each has its own identity.”

It’s worth noting that out of the 158 exhibitors spread over a 2,000sqm exhibition space at the Art Stage convention hall, 80% were from the Asia-Pacific region. Twenty-nine galleries were based in Singapore, including Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam Galleries, Sundaram Tagore, Tomio Koyama, Matthias Arndt’s ARNDT and Ota Fine Arts, all sited within the 6.4ha Gillman Barracks art colony which also houses the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). The ICA will host the Guggenheim New Yorkdriven “No Country: The Aesthetics of Resilience in the Art of South and South-East Asia” from March 22-June 22, curated by Singapore’s June Yap.

Singapore artists such as Sarah Choo Jing, Jolene Lai, Jane Lee and Kumari Nahappan all did well in terms of sales at the Art Stage Singapore, allaying fears that Singapore was hot pickings only for foreign artists. In the same week, the three auctions – 33Auction, Larasati and Borobudur – rallied a total of S$15,077,400 (RM39,594,141). Australian Ben Quilty won a total of US$50,000 (RM166,925) in the Prudential Eye Awards, with Daniel Crooks, Trent Parke (both from Australia), Jompet

Kuswidananto (Indonesia) and Seoung Wook Sim (Korea) winning in the subsidiary categories worth US$20,000 (RM66,769) each. But the media frenzy was on the two previously-jailed members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot, Marta Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who were among the finalists in the digital/video category with their 2012 work, Punk Prayer Mother of God, Put Putin Away.

Indonesia’s FX Harsono and his work, The Raining Bed (ARNDT, Singapore) at the South-East Asia Platform in Art Stage 2014. Wooden bed, stainless steel, pump machine, water, ceramics, fabric and LED running text.

Impresario Lorenzo Rudolf.

Since the middle of last year, Singapore has undergone a major shake-up in the top arts hierarchy, with a new breed of 40-somethings taking over. Dr Susie Lingham replaced Tan Boon Hui at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in August when Tan was made group director of museums in the National Heritage Board, and Angelita Teo now heads the National Museum while her predecessor Lee Chor Lin was assigned to a new independent company that runs the Singapore Arts Festival, held since 1991 by the National Arts Council.

Next year will see the opening of the Singapore National Art Gallery (Snag), refurbished from the former City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings. The 60,000sqm of space will make it the largest in the region. Dr Eugene Tan, the curator of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006, is the director. He will be working closely with the gallery’s CEO Chong Siak Ching in spearheading the programmes. Significantly, stalwart Koh Seow Chuan, Snag chairman since 2009, was replaced by Hsieh Fu Hua for a two-year term beginning July 1, 2013, while Koh now heads the newly-formed Visual Arts Cluster Advisory Board overseeing Snag, SAM, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and the Visual Arts Cluster itself.

J. Anu’s mixed-media installation Mana-Va- Reh – Love and Lost in the Time of the Big Debate (Wei-Ling Gallery, KL) at the South- East Asia Platform in Art Stage 2014.

2015 will also see Singapore resuming its participation in the prestigious Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of art fairs established in 1895, after bizarrely skipping the 2013 edition despite having a country pavilion since 1991. Its last representative was filmmaker-artist Ho Tzu Nyen at the 2011 edition.

Dolk’s Puppy Love at Galleri S.E (Norway) in Art Stage 2014.

Nam June Paik’s 1995 work at the Space Cottonseed Gallery (Singapore) in Art Stage 2014.

Singapore’s transformation into an arts and cultural hub did not happen overnight. It has followed a systematic roadmap that started in the 1980s with the livery of Global City of the Arts (rebadged as Renaissance City Plan in 2000). The 1980s already saw Singapore building up its arts ecosystem with top-class expertise and exponents, infrastructure and events such as the Tresors fine art and antique fair from 1993 to 1997, which attracted top marques like Pace Wildenstein, Graff, Wartski and Galerie Enrico Navarre. In 1984, Brother Joseph McNally established LASALLE College of the Arts (formerly LASALLESIA College of the Arts), the first major art institution after Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, established by Lim Hak Tai in 1938. The Singapore School of the Arts (Sota) was also set up in 1984 for youths aged 13 to 18.

Peripheral spaces sprouted up, such as Tang Da Wu’s Art Village (1988, the first artists colony), the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, the Substation helmed by Kuo Pao Kun (1990) and the now-defunct 5th Passage (1991, Susie Lingham, Han Ling, Suzann Victor). The SAM building, refurbished from the former St Joseph’s Institution, opened in January 1996. Its extension, SAM at 8Q, started operations in August 2008 at Queen Street. Other major art events such as the Singapore Art Fair, ART Singapore (2000-2008), Affordable Art Fair, APB Signature Art Prize (2008) and Singapore Biennale pumped up the adrenaline.

Eko Prawoto’s Wormhole conical bamboo structures outside the National Museum, which is part of the Singapore Biennale 2013.

The openings of the Esplanade performing arts centre (2002) and the US$5.5bil behemoth Marina Bay Sands complex ( June 2010 and February 2011) established Singapore as a premier arts and cultural hub. Sprawled over a 15.5ha site, the Marina Bay Sands houses, among others, two world-class theatres, a casino and the Asian Science Museum. Together with Suntec City and Singapore Expo, Singapore is now a top Meetings, Incentives Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) centre. While the National Theatre was demolished in 1986, the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (1862 and 1905) has reopened recently after extensive renovations. There is also the Universal Studios theme park in Resorts World Sentosa.

But Singapore, and China for that matter, still can’t match Hong Kong when it comes to censorship and tax laws. Despite this, Singapore boasts 174,000 millionaires in US currency denominations (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data 2013) and is placed fifth in the world for the largest number of billionaires, at 27! The Lion City roars as a playground for the rich and famous, and for the art connoisseurs.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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