Covid-19 Exclusives: The Virus Blights the Art World

loading Dr. Choong Kam Kow’s Photo-Realist work, Determined to Fight Epidemic.

VISUAL ART activities have been badly impacted by the Covid-19 Virus global pandemic. Museums, festivals, art fairs, biennials are closed, often with immediate effect, while workshops/screenings/ demonstrations are cancelled.

In Malaysia existing and onstream exhibitions, beset by abrupt partial-lockdown directives, go virtual or migrate to social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. But with the distinct possibility of the government’s Movement Control Order (MCO) extending beyond March 31, Anthony Chan Sai Weng’s solo (Paintings 2012-2019), for example, might be only of academic interest as the works were installed at the National Art Gallery’s Creative Centre before the public opening and the lockdown advisory. Pressed about having a virtual show, Chan, 70, said he did not have a visual record.


Lee Sin Bee’s cartoon, The World’s Hands Together to Defeat the Corona Virus.

In auctions, Sotheby’s Hong Kong decided to repatriate its auction scheduled for late February to New York (April 16), but with New York registering almost 1,900 cases across the five boroughs on March 19, doubled from the previous day, the consigned works look stranded. The Big Six of New York auctions, namely Bonham’s, Christie’s, Doyle, iGavel, Heritage and Sotheby’s have pushed the March-slated New York Asia Week to June. Even Indonesian performing artist Melati Suryodarmo had to cancel her scheduled event in New York when her work/prop, about to be shipped from Asia, was barred.

Over in Malaysia, the Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers, anticipating a ban on assembly, conducted its Malaysian and southeast Asian art auction “live” at Galeri Prima, KL, on March 15 without floor bids and entirely from bids via telephone, online and absentees (ceiling price pegs) – arguably the first auction house to do so in the world.

Despite the constraints, the auctioneers performed comparatively and remarkably well. Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s 1995 acrylic on canvas, Little Things, rallied to a premium of RM403,200 for a turnover of RM2.2mil in sales from 102 out of 173 paintings (two withdrawn).

Said its director Sim Po-Lenn: “March (has been) a tough month. Started off with political instability that weakened market confidence (billions evaporated from the market), oil pricing wars, share market crash, escalating confirmed Coronavirus cases, stagnant property market… We are lucky and blessed to have achieved this encouraging sale… HBAA survived the Round 1 Battle. It will be more challenging in the coming months.”

Then, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MOTAC) announced that all the MOTAC museums, like the National Art Gallery and the Lembah Lenggang Gallery, will be closed. The Penang State Art Gallery announced its indefinite closure from March 16, and the performing arts venues such as The Actors Studio (TAS), PenangPac, KLPac (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) followed in quick succession. Sutra Foundation and the Damansara Performing Arts Centre even extended their closure until the end of April, while six shows pencilled in at Istana Budaya from March to April were shuttered.

A cartoon (source unknown) about the virus on social media.

Early whiff of trouble was when ArtEDecor moved its event schedule in March to July 23-26 with a change of venue to the World Trade Centre (formerly PWTC) KL.

On March 12, Penang Tourism, Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee chairman Yeoh Soon Hin announced that the George Town Festival ( July 11-26), the jewel of Penang’s arts-cultural showpieces, and the George Town Heritage Celebrations, will be cancelled. It would have been the 12th anniversary of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Earlier, Asia’s gold standard of art fairs, Hong Kong Art Basel, eventually threw in the white towel, but hosted online viewing rooms of its 231 participants with some US$250mil of artworks from March 18-25 (VIP March 18-20). The stakeholders saved on logistics and transit, but the same procedures applied in the event of sales, which was reported to be “steady.” Among the items offered was Robert Rauschenberg’s US$1mil Tuak Hudok-Iban (Rice Wine Dog), which was part of his ROCI tour in Malaysia in 1990. One of the virtual rooms was the A Day and Forever exhibition by Yeoh Choo Kuan (Richard Koh Fine Art, Malaysia).

Covid-19 has scalped Tefaf Maastricht (five days before the scheduled event), Art Dubai, Art Fair Tokyo and the World Art Tokyo; and the latest casualty is Art Moments Jakarta which announced its cancellation in an email dated March 17.


A parody of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican with God squirting sanitiser.

Local exhibitions affected include the WRWT (What Real Reasonable Rational Women Think): Women’s Art at Segaris Art Centre; Malaysian Watercolour Society’s Silk Road Love exhibition in Melaka on March 22 with Xiamen artists (only works); Southeast Asian Watercolours at the NAG (March 23) and Choo Beng Teong’s bird-painting workshop.

The second session of batik and dye of Nurhanim Khairuddin’s PORTSKOOL will be postponed. The Art of Translation theatre workshop organised by “Okui Lala” (Chew Wing Chen) for schools will now go online with video-conferencing for the Q&A session. Classes have been suspended and they include the Pratt and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

To cater for students who have completed their MFA and BFA programmes, the @SocialDistanceGallery website put up by Ohio professor Benjamin Cook serves to hosts virtual exhibitions.

Dr. Choong Kam Kow and Lee Sin Bee, two Malaysians featured in the 8th Beijing Biennale in September 2019, were asked to submit a work each for an online exhibition with the theme, “Love Can Fight The Epidemic Through Their Art Work.”

Despite South Korea being one of the countries badly affected by the virus, three Malaysians namely Philip Wong, Yap Poh Sim and Aminah Abdul Rahman, were invited to take part in the Asia Invitation Art Exhibition in Seoul.

Malaysian Anniketyni Madian is shortlisted among 31 entries for the Sovereign Art Prize scheduled in Hong Kong in May. The competition for midcareer contemporary artists in the Asia-Pacific has a Grand Prize of US$30,000 and a Public Vote Prize of US$1,000 (a new award, Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize offers US$5,000).

Yeoh Choo Kuan’s virtual Viewing Room of A Day And Forever (Art Basel Hong Kong).

On a positive note, Marina Abramovic’s “homecoming” (after a 45-year hiatus) retrospective called The Cleaner, which started in Stockholm in 2017, closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in January.

Most prestigious museums all over the world are closed, but the Hermitage in St. Petersburg remains open although China visitors are banned. Latiff Mohidin’s Pago Pago exhibition which premiered at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, two years ago, will show in full resplendence its 80 iconic works at the National Gallery Singapore, from March 27 to September 27.

Among notable museums closed are: Albertina Vienna; Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo in Brazil; National Art Museum of China Beijing (Shanghai Museum reopened March 13); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek in Denmark; Centre Pompidou and Louvre in Paris; the two Pinakothek in Munich; Uffizi Florence and Vatican Museums in Rome; Tokyo National Museum; Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands; the Prado and Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid; Tate London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art Washington, and the Big Four of New York – Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, Whitney and Guggenheim.

China’s leading watercolourist Prof Liu Shouxiang, a Wuhan resident, is among the first artists to have died from the virus, in February, at the age of 62.

It is difficult to plan for the future as nobody can tell how long the crisis will last. In tourism Ringgit alone, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin estimated the loss from January to February at RM3.37bil! With liquidity at a vicious crunch, artists will be among the hardest hit.

As of March 19 (Press-time), there is a total of 8,988 deaths from 220,836 confirmed cases of the zoonotic disease in 176 countries, territories and one international conveyance. Malaysia has 900 cases, with two deaths.

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.

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