Still Promoting Art After All These Years
Despite a lack of funds, the 10th International Art Expo Malaysia put on an impressive show.
It isn’t easy to start something and keep it going for 10 years, maintaining more than a modicum of success throughout. But the International Art Expo Malaysia – now rebranded with a “Plus” – has done it for the past ten, celebrating its anniversary with a tighter exhibit, despite being relatively lowkey.
This year’s edition of Art Expo Malaysia Plus, held at the Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre in KL from October 20 to 23, had to make do without any corporate or governmental sponsorship, likely due to the bleak economic outlook. Almost like going back to square one, but it seems like an opportune moment for AEM to reflect on and review its vision for the next ten years, and perhaps even restrategise and reinvent.
Like most art biennales and triennials, AEM is simultaneously an arts and culture platform, showcase and laboratory. In this globalised world, art has become an economic driver in terms of commerce, infrastructure, and futures, and related services like conservation, storage, logistics, insurance, freight, packaging, and tourism.
Nevertheless, what sets AEM apart is its non-elitist and family-friendly atmosphere, with even small children seen at exhibitions, and being possibly the only expo in the world without an admission fee.
Over the past decade, AEM has achieved its aim of promoting greater appreciation and awareness of art, and with the advent of auction houses like Henry Butcher, Masterpiece, The Edge, KLAS, and 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism (1MCAT), fostered the growing pool of art collectors, both big and small.
Although it is the longest uninterrupted art fair in South-East Asia, AEM still isn’t of the global standard of A-listers like Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Stage Singapore and Art Stage Jakarta. Still, it isn’t short of big names, dead or alive, from the East or West. And since 2010, it has also built up a diverse spread under its Embassy Zone – with this year’s “country” booths coming from Mexico, France, Colombia, Mongolia, Brazil, Cuba, Romania, Belgium, Argentina, Iran, Italy, Russia and the Philippines.
Earlier editions saw sidelights like the Grandmaster Pavilion, the Living Artist Legend Tribute Pavilion (featuring batik art founder Dato Chuah Thean Teng, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Chung Chen Sun and Cheah Yew Saik), the Advisers Arcade, and most notably, the China Pavilion – the grandest iteration of which saw ten significant booths taking up a whole Matrade wing in 2014, to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China.
At great expense, it also brought a sampling of great Chinese contemporary art from the famous Today Art Museum in 2011, and an art-nimation extravaganza featuring the digital wizard Miao Xiao-chun, with his blockbusters Microcosm (2009), Restart (2010), Two Blockbusters (2011), Neo-Cubism Projection (2012) and Limitless (2013). Taiwan’s Li Chi Mao, who has museums in Taiwan, China and Malaysia, has become regular fare, as has China’s grandmaster Wang Xijing, who has since become a major sponsor as well.
There have also been specially internally driven curated projects over the years, like Malaysia Sculpture Now and Visualising Rukun Negara in 2008, Malaysian Art Idols: New Directions/Different Voices and Suitcase of Stuff in 2009, and Breaking Down the Wall in 2014.
Though leaner and “meaner” in exhibits and numbers this year, with just over 60 artists from 30 countries, early estimates revealed sales of some 700 pieces from 90% of these artists, a leap from the RM2.3mil in sales recorded at the inaugural 2007 event.
For example, two international newcomers were able to sell major works. Indonesia’s Redbase Contemporary Art sold Ichwan Noor’s spherical compacted Beetle made up of original Volkswagen parts, while the UK’s Christine Park Gallery ensured that the aluminium latex Robinson robot head with shifting eyes by Goldsmiths-trained Chang Ting-Tong found a Malaysian owner.
While high-profile Singaporean galleries were still supportive, a heavier Japanese presence featuring some big names could spell a new love affair. There were Art Stage Singapore participant Shinseido; Hiroshi Senju of Nihonga waterfall fame and recipient of an Honourable Mention at the 1995 Venice Biennale; LSD (Little Stone Dealers) with Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Gutai stalwart Sadamasa Motonaga, alongside Yoshitomo Nara, Kuninori Usami, and the Kato Art Duo; and debutant Gallery UG with Misako Maegaki and Kunihiko Nohara.
The Number 1 Gallery of Thailand, which showcased in 2009 and 2011 artists like Vasan Sitthiket, was back with Chaiporn Panichrutiwong and Kittisak Thapkoa. Another AEM stalwart, Cape of Good Hope under Terence Teo, exhibited under its alternative banner, Artredot, while Art Xchange under Benny Oentoro concentrated on hyperrealist figurative artist Antoe Budiono and comics-hero narrator R. Sumantri.
Institutions like Bank Negara and Galeri Prima, the art-exhibition arm of the newspaper conglomerate New Straits Times Press, also took up booths to showcase their collections. Galeri Prima’s centrepiece was a commissioned Datuk Ibrahim Hussein work, which incorporated part of his prototype printing press painting that won him the Merit Award in the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in 1959. Special booths were also given to Wang Xijing and Li Chi-mao, while Masterpiece and Henry Butcher took up booths to promote their art auctions, on October 30 and November 6 respectively.
Among the debutants were Gallery K.A.G. from the US, with glass-blowing artist Tim McFadden, and Myanmar’s Color Cube with Tin Maung Oo, Soe Naing and Aye Min, as well as Viet Art Space.
While some local galleries demurred when AEM first started, they were now out in full force. These include City Art Gallery, spearheaded by Cheah Yew Saik; Pelita Hati, showcasing Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, Haron Mokhtar and Zainuddi Abindinhazir; HOM Art Trans, the major outfit run by Matahati’s Bayu Utomo Radjikin; Segaris, the vehicle for the Universiti Teknologi Mara art graduates and lecturers; Nadine Fine Art, formerly Pace, Yusof Majid, Al-Khuzairi; as well as Jeth Art Gallery with Eston Tan and UOB Promising Artist winner Ng Kok Leong.
G13, Taksu and Art WeWe (Sanzi and Chansirinual Saenkom) paraded foreign artists, while the single-artist spheres of Tj Fine Art (Dato Tajuddin Ismail), Pulse (veteran landscape artist Peter Lee), Yahong Art Gallery (batik-art scion Chuah Seow Keng and his son, Seong Leng) were also present.
A staggering footfall of 25,000 was registered for AEM – including patrons the Raja Muda and Raja Puan Muda of Perlis for the VIP Night – beating the previous year’s attendance of 24,200, and a marked increase from the modest 3,500 in 2007. It has certainly come a long way in the past decade, since Datuk Vincent Sim sold his own early collections in China and mortgaged properties to get it off the ground. But his efforts, with the help of his sons Po Jinn and Po Lenn, haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2016 he was awarded the McMillan Woods Global Lifetime Achievement Award and the BrandLaureate Grand Master ICON Leadership Award.
Having reached its decennial milestone, the AEM is at a crossroads. Despite pulling off a grand show this year, without major support, especially from the government, AEM will be a tough act to sustain.