Singapore: Art Stage & Beyond

January 28, 2016
Lee Wen recipient of the Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art.
Lee Wen recipient of the Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art.

Down a long road in Singapore rows of banners announce: “The joy of success is in sharing it. Share success. Give hope.” These words might have been written by the organisers of Art Stage, now in its sixth year. At a time when the Chinese stockmarket has torpedoed the global economy one needs a serious injection of hope to imagine investors sharing their success at the art fair.

Since its inception in 2011 Art Stage has struggled to keep pace with its Hong Kong counterpart. When that fair became Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013, the gap turned into a chasm. At least Singapore can still boast that it has Asia’s second most important fair.

Art Stage is the brainchild of Swiss entrepreneur, Lorenzo Rudolf, who was involved in the early days of Art Basel. Some look at the world through rose-coloured glasses, but Rudolf’s are tinted blue. In speech and manner he comes across as more curator than marketeer. He describes the art market as if it were a deeply mystical phenomenon.

A peculiar symptom of Rudolf’s attempt to concentrate on art rather than money is the Joseph Balestrier Award for Freedom in Art, co-sponsored by Art Stage and the U.S. Embassy. It’s only SGD $15,000, but is presented with the razzle dazzle of the Oscars. The fearless Singaporean performance artist, Lee Wen was a worthy winner, but the thought of Singapore and the USA combining to celebrate artistic freedom made me feel slightly queasy.

One can almost hear the ghost of Robert Hughes harumphing in disdain. Hughes felt the escalating influence of market forces in the 1980s was undermining everything that made art worthwhile, but today there is virtually no dividing line between market and museum. The artists promoted by the top galleries are those bought by the big collectors and exhibited by leading public institutions. Few critics or curators pause to ask if Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst are any good – their goodness is taken for granted as a function of their market success.

Art Stage presents itself as a special forum for the art of Southeast Asia. This year’s fair featured 173 galleries from 34 countries, with 133 of those galleries based in Asia, including 37 from Singapore.

It would have been hard to find 37 galleries in Singapore a decade ago, so one can only admire the nation’s fierce determination to make itself into a cultural ‘hub’. One mark of maturity is that no-one seems to say the word “hub” any more. It used to be repeated on every occasion like a magic incantation.

It’s notoriously difficult to get sales figures from art fairs, particularly those held in the shadow of a stock market slump. In the absence of hard data I can only describe my impressions of this event. The journey started well at the booth devoted to the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), one of the world’s leading print-making studios. Although the STPI offers residencies for artists from all over the world, the most engaging works were by Singaporeans – the textured abstractions of Hong Zhu An, and the brightly-coloured prints of Jane Lee, which arranged images of birds in a dense horizontal stack that rippled across the wall.

From this point Art Stage became a mixed bag, with some good displays, but much that would never make the cut at one of the bigger fairs. Although there were a few über galleries, such as White Cube, most of the big players were missing. The bulk of the show was made up of mid-range galleries selling work for accessible prices. This reflects Rudolf’s oft-repeated disclaimer that the South-East Asian region remains a second-tier market which still needs a lot of work.

Anon Pairot, 'Sweet word #LIFE' at Art Stage Singapore 2016.

Anon Pairot, ‘Sweet word #LIFE’ at Art Stage Singapore 2016.

Part of that work consists of ‘educating’ local collectors by means of forums, publications, a video lounge, and the large-scale installations that are blurring the line between art fairs and biennales. The piece that attracted most attention was a series of four Sweet word works by Thai artist, Anon Pairot, featuring canvases on which words such as Love, Happy, Life and Faith, were spelled out against a backdrop of realistic-looking plastic cockroaches.

Five Australian galleries took part this year. James Makin from Melbourne hosted a solo show of Godwin Bradbeer’s large-scale drawings, while Mitchell Fine Art of Brisbane, showed paintings by indigenous artist, Margaret Loy Pula. These were solid displays, but perhaps not so instantly attractive as the salon hangs put together by Hugo Michell of Adelaide, and the two Sydney galleries – Martin Browne Contemporary and Sullivan + Strumpf.

BADEN PAILTHORPE, 'Cadence IV', 2013

BADEN PAILTHORPE, ‘Cadence IV’, 2013

Browne, a consistent performer at art fairs, always puts something eye-catching in a prominent place. At Art Stage this function was fulfilled by Baden Pailthorpe’s video works, which multiplied and condensed images in mesmeric fashion.

Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf have shown at every edition of Art Stage, building up relationships with local collectors. Sullivan + Strumpf is convinced that variety is the key to succeeding in Singapore, but they always try to introduce another artist to their clients. Last year it was Aida Tomescu, this time they turned the spotlight on eX de Medici.

In March Sullivan + Strumpf will open a branch at the Gillman Barracks art cluster, joining well-established international galleries such as Arndt, Pearl Lam, Shanghart and Mizuma. It’s a calculated gamble aimed at giving the business an overseas presence.

Since its opening in 2012 Gillman Barracks has hardly been a model of success, with many believing it is too far from the CBD to attract customers. Of the inaugural group of international dealers a third have already departed. The site has proved more congenial for local gallery, Yavuz, who moved to Gillman last year, bringing an existing client base.

Until 5 March Yavuz is hosting an exhibition called Antipodean Enquiry, featuring Australian and New Zealand artists selected by Owen Craven, former editor of Artist Profile magazine. Like Sullivan + Strumpf, Craven has opted for variety, with diverse works by thirteen artists, ranging from three golden AK-47s, by ceramic sculptor, Penny Byrne, to photos by Brook Andrew, Tamara Dean and Daniel Shipp; paintings by artists as different as Euan Macleod and Lucas Grogan; portrait drawings by Steve Lopes, and even a satirical video animation by Joan Ross.

Joan Ross, Colonial Grab, 2015, edition of 10, digital video, 7'38

Joan Ross, Colonial Grab, 2015, edition of 10, digital video, 7’38

As a show it’s impossible to discern any unifying theme but it gives a sense of the vitality of the art being made today in Australia and New Zealand. It’s also good to find a commercial gallery willing to sponsor an exhibition that introduces artists to a new audience.

Yavuz typifies the optimism that pervades the rapidly expanding Singaporean art scene. The most tangible sign of progress is the new National Gallery, which opened on 24 November in buildings formerly occupied by the Supreme Court and City Hall. These historical landmarks have been given a multi-million dollar makeover, in which architects attempted the impossible feat of respecting heritage features while creating a state-of-the-art exhibition venue.

The outcome is a colossus with a confusing layout of rooms, floors and staircases. One walks from rooms hung with paintings into chambers with nothing but Supreme Court furniture. Some contain awkward combinations of furniture and art.

Half the building is devoted to the art of Singapore, the other half to South-East Asian art. Along with important historical works there are a lot of amateurish pieces, testifying to the shallow roots of modern art in the region. Those pioneering artists who ventured into new territory would be amazed if they could see the reverence with which their efforts are now being treated.

Tan Teng-Kee, Fire Sculpture, 1979. 'The Picnic', Normanton Estate, Singapore. Photograph by and courtesy of Tan Teng-Kee

Tan Teng-Kee, Fire Sculpture, 1979. ‘The Picnic’, Normanton Estate, Singapore. Photograph by and courtesy of Tan Teng-Kee

One of the gallery’s first exhibitions features earthworks by Tang Da Wu, who enjoys legendary status as an early avant-gardist and founder of an experimental artists’ village. Yet Tan’s muddy sculptures and ochre-painted abstracts seem almost chic alongside the pieces in the other opening show: A Fact Has No Appearance: Art Beyond the Object, which includes largely conceptual work by Redza Piyadasa (Malaysia), Johnny Manahan (Philippines) and Tan Teng-Kee (Singapore). While the latter is known primarily as a sculptor, the emphasis is firmly on the idea rather than the object.

The press release anticipates that 90,000 people will see these shows, which proves that when it comes to art, Singapore’s powers of positive thinking are unbounded.

Art Stage Singapore 21-24 January

John McDonald travelled to Singapore courtesy of Art Stage

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 30th January, 2016