‘Contemporary art is not a decoration, it is a statement. It is a wonderful seismograph of our societies and realities.”
These words were part of the opening speech given last week by founder Lorenzo Rudolf at the seventh edition of Art Stage Singapore in the South-east Asian island city.
Rudolf, from Switzerland, has made it his mission to champion those sentiments since 1991, when he took over as director of Art Basel and, over the course of a decade, turned it into the world’s leading art fair, with a waiting list of more than 700 galleries when he left in 2000. He then turned his attention to Florida, Frankfurt and Shanghai. In 2011, he founded Art Stage Singapore.
The event is considered crucial for helping galleries across South-east Asia to find a consolidated platform. This year, 131 galleries from 27 countries exhibited, just over a third of them from SE Asia.
“We want to position this region, with Singapore as the hub, within the international art market,” says Rudolf. “Every country is strong in creativity but weak in infrastructure so not able to compete internationally and that is why we want to build bridges with the rest of the world.”
Leading galleries from Japan showed work by masters such as Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese 87-year-old whose obsession with the polka dot has been seen at shows all over the world, including a major retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation, which closed last week.
Also present were works by Hiroshi Senju and Yoshitomo Nara, two other leading Japanese artists.
The late Filipino artist, Pacita Abad, was featured in a solo show at Art 2 Gallery. She is considered a national treasure in the Philippines and her work reflects the sociopolitical landscape of her country.
From Singapore, leading artist Jason Lim, who combines ceramics with performance, had works on show, as did Ahmad Zakii Anwar – one of the most well-known artists in Malaysia.
There were also several young and emerging artists, including Hasanul Isyraf Idris, a Malaysian artist who likes to keep a low profile, shunning openings and attempting to work anonymously in the art scene.
Idris is represented by Richard Koh, who owns an eponymous gallery in Kuala Lumpur and plans to open a second space in Singapore this year.
Koh says he had an “amazing response” to Idris’s work, as well as the other seven emerging Malaysian artists he was showing at Art Stage Singapore. He was keen to point out that this response was mostly from collectors within the region.
“Singapore is the centre of SE Asia, much like the UAE is for the Middle East,” he says. “We get many buyers from the region but not so many non-SE Asian collectors. Westerners are not so familiar with this part of the world, not like they are with the Middle East – even though I actually think Middle Eastern dialogue and South-east Asia dialogue is very similar.
“For art to become internationally collected, it needs to be global first and then local, not local and going global. Here, we haven’t reached that stage yet, the market is not as mature.”
One of the key roles of the fair is to try to develop such maturity. Rudolf admits a single art fair cannot achieve such a feat, but that with a combined effort, things will improve.
“There is evidence of it happening already, with several regional collectors opening museums in places such as Thailand and Indonesia,” he says. “There is also an increased curiosity in the region from the west, but we must stay connected for it to work.”
Many exhibitors praised the broad range both of galleries and visitors. Jongsuwat Angsuvarnsiri, director of Subhashok Art Centre in Bangkok, says the distinct multicultural quality of Singapore was reflected at the fair.
“Singapore has a lot of collectors that are open minded about the type of work they collect and they are open to new cultures,” he says. “You need a lot of background information and context to properly appreciate Thai art and Singaporean collectors have that. There is a lot of diversity here.”
Vera Ong, owner of Art 2, also said many buyers came from China and Japan, which was something she appreciated.
Some galleries said they would like to see more galleries from Indonesia, often considered to be one of the most creative countries in the region, but in general the response was very good.
Harry Hutchison, of Aicon Gallery in New York, was one of the few gallerists from the West but was focusing his attention on buyers within the region.
“We have always had a really positive experience with South-east Asian buyers and we come all this way for them,” he says.
One of the best parts of Art Stage Singapore was an exhibition of works from the private collections of Singapore’s most prominent collectors, offering a rare insight into their tastes and inclinations.
Pieces included three neon-light sculptures by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, who won the Turner Prize in 1999, as well as the Oscar for Best Motion Picture in 2014 for his film 12 Years a Slave.
Also included was a projection work by American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, as well as several other high-profile Asian artists.
The main role of this exhibition was educating audiences, part of Rudolf’s commitment to building up the market.
“We are here in emerging lands and that means we have a lot to explain, including the importance of collecting art,” he says. “It is not only the question of what they bought but also what it means to like contemporary art and how important collectors are in the ecosystem of the art world.”
There are many similarities between the way Singapore has developed its art fair and the way Art Dubai started out. Both cities are regional hubs, with strong economies to support the infrastructure of an art fair and therefore act as a cultural glue for the creativity that surrounds them.
Part of Art Dubai’s success came from putting contemporary art from the Middle East in a global context and educating audiences through carefully curated exhibitions and gallery selection. Art Stage Singapore must do the same.
The wider scene
The event is at the heart of Singapore Art Week, a term covering several fringe events as well as an affordable art fair called Singapore Contemporary.
There is also the Singapore Biennale, which fills the national art museum with an impressive array of works on the themes of atlases and mirrors.
A highlight of the art week is Lock Route, a public art trail in Gillman Barracks – Singapore’s answer to Alserkal Avenue – a former army barracks converted into gallery spaces.
It is curated by Khairuddin Hori, who is something of a superstar on the Singapore art front. Formerly a senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum, and most recently the deputy director of artistic programmes for Paris’ prestigious Palais de Tokyo, he has a well-trained eye and has put together a robust collection of public art.
At Sundaram Tagore Gallery, one of 11 art galleries with permanent spaces in Gillman Barracks, is an exhibition by Iranian artist Golnaz Fathi. Her show, Line/Khat, is currently on show in Dubai's The Third Line, and the Singapore exhibition is an extension of the same series, in which she works with rollerball pens across large canvases to produce labour-intensive and abstract pieces.
While Singapore is a fairly new nation with relatively few artists and curators contributing to the global conversation, it is, like the UAE, a very strong regional hub that attracts galleries, artists and collectors.
It has seamless organisation and connectivity as well as a deep-seated commitment to promoting art and culture wherever possible. Although it has places where it needs to grow before it can become a global player, it is certainly on the right track and offers a refined window into the world of vibrant SE Asian art.
• Singapore Art Week runs until January 22. For more information visit: www.artweek.sg