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VIDEO : LORENZO ON THE SINGAPORE ART SCENE “Why is Switzerland not world champion in soccer?”

August 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sharing this filmed conversation with Lorenzo Rudolf.

In short, content before cash.

This filmed clip was first presented at Singapore Art Museum in March 2013.

Copyright © 2013 Patricia Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this film footage may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including printing, recording or information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission in writing from the copyright owner.

VIDEO : T K SABAPATHY ON SINGAPORE : The circumstances in which [art] production takes place have not been sufficiently cultivated.

May 19, 2013 § 11 Comments

Sharing a short excerpt of a 3-hour filmed interview with respected Art Doyen, T K Sabapathy on his views on Singapore’s developments in the arts arena, specifically in arts education, cultural leadership and arts production. The chat was set up for a story I was writing on cultural leadership in Singapore in light of a series of key appointments in the arts sector filled by non-art professionals. This filmed interview was first shown, with a number of others, at the public lecture held at the Singapore Art Museum on March 22, 2013.

About T K Sabapathy (b. 1938)*

T.K.Sabapathy is an art historian who has published extensively on art and artists in Southeast Asia. His writing has inaugurated important art historical trajectories for appreciating the modern in the region and especially in Malaysia and Singapore. His monographic studies of artists such as Latiff Mohidin, Ng Eng Teng, Piyadasa and Nyoman Masriadi have established benchmarks in developing critical literature on Southeast Asian artists. He is currently an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Architecture in the National University of Singapore and a part-time lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Media in the Nanyang Technological University where he teaches the history of art.

* Source : T K Sabapathy (2010). Road To Nowhere: The Quick Rise And The Long Fall Of Art History In Singapore. Singapore : National Institute of Education.

Copyright © 2013 Patricia Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this film may be reprinted, reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including printing, recording or information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission in writing from the author.


November 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

Art Stage Singapore

For its 2013 edition, Art Stage Singapore will launch a 1,000-square-meter Indonesian Pavilion in direct collaboration with 30 Indonesian artists[1], mostly sans gallerists. Financed by a controversial commission structure, with Art Stage receiving a dealer’s cut from the sale of works[2], the Pavilion has set off intense debates in various Asian art circles. This is especially so because of its conception by Lorenzo Rudolf, an experienced art fair director who has said he wants to see “top Asian artists presented by Asian galleries and not only by Western ones. Otherwise, we will not develop Asia as a market.”[3]

As much as I find the Pavilion and its commission scheme indefensible based on existing art-world conventions, I feel the hullabaloo over the controversy has omitted a deeper current, perhaps one of greater consequence: the Pavilion came about because Indonesian artists requested it. Why ? Christine Ay Tjoe[4], a contemporary artist based in Yogjakarta, says “Why not? I think we have to see it positively. It is good for showcasing Indonesian art. Most Indonesian gallerists have so far been interested in short-term benefits. Many times they bring international curators to Indonesia to show how well connected they are and ask artists for exclusive arrangements just to have works, but it stops there. Beyond that, very few have solid long-term plans to build artists’ career. I wish they had a more long-term vision.” This view is widely shared by many of the participating artists in the Pavilion.

Ay Tjoe’s candid response echoes what Rudolf has been reiterating about the art market since edition one [3]: “Artists here have been in constant contact with big foundations and collectors who have traveled through Southeast Asia, mainly to Indonesia. They want to go international. But galleries are still doing their national thing. Soon, the artists will begin to think, sorry, how can my gallery here support me?” Well, the “soon” is here and now: Indonesian artists have chosen to do something collectively. The Pavilion is their strident call for galleries to “shape up or ship out.”

In private conversations with Indonesian gallerists, a number readily admit to their lackluster commitments — but not without good reasons. Partly due to the uncertain economic climate and partly due to cost-benefit calculations, the principal factor seems to revolve around trust: the perceived “lack of loyalty from artists” makes long-term representations untenable. “It is difficult to invest long term when young artists themselves are only looking for a shop front for their exhibitions. Then when they become known, they gallery hop. Look, I’m on a four-year waiting list for a work of an artist I spotted and developed. After a while, I ask myself, Why bother? As for the top twenty artists, they think they can do it on their own, they do not need a dealer,” said a veteran gallerist who requested anonymity. “I admit, this is an internal conflict between Indonesian artists and gallerists. If we had gotten our act together, this would not happen. We only have ourselves to blame.” Some of these gallerists stated their intention to withdraw from the fair, as “it almost feels wrong to participate.” Being a part of it would send a message that they condone such an act.

Therein lies the muddy deadlock that Art Stage has allowed itself to step into. However understandable the contributing circumstances, I wonder if the reasons fully justify the means. I told Lorenzo I found it inconceivable that a veteran like him would not foresee such repercussions. To that, he offered his strong conviction about the readiness of Indonesian art for the international art market. He argued that having the vibrant Indonesian scene unrepresented at the fair would be a greater damage, adding, “My experience tells me that there is resistance with everything that is new.” Wherever this triangular quandary heads, one thing is clear: Artists are the ones in the driver’s seat. It is imperative that they navigate with some kind of an overarching map.

I remember a conversation I had with Uli Sigg, a leading collector who has witnessed the development of the Chinese contemporary art scene.[5] “[In the past], Chinese artists have sold their works to whoever appeared. They didn’t care if that work would go somewhere where it would produce a multiplying effect, or be seen by the right people; they were just desperate for material reasons. Later, they decided to trade their own art, because galleries couldn’t add much value. They couldn’t produce a book for them; they might not be able to do an exhibition for them; so, why give them a commission because they sell something? Very understandable. The fact that artists dealt directly and chose not to go through the gallery system also meant that they might not be supported in exhibitions because they have no lobbyists to do the work. Artists must produce the art, they must lobby for it, they must sell it. Yes, the selling became easy, but many of them gave up a more successful career because of not wanting to be part of this art operating system, which emerged slowly, but is here now. In fact, every Chinese artist, at some point, confronts this decision: Do I want to be a very financially successful artist in China? Or do I have the ambition to launch a worldwide career? This is a much harder path, because artistic and financial success will be much further away. Sometimes artists do not make this decision consciously.”

Indonesian artists are perhaps at this same crossroads. The Southeast Asian art market is certainly at the cusp of unprecedented change. The Indonesian Pavilion reveals that as the art market powers up and technology collapses borders and facilitates access, artists benefit from such empowerment and are in a position to exercise it. While opportunistic in constitution, the Pavilion may be an experiment that holds some important answers for its stakeholders.

[1] While the “crème de la crème” artists represented in the Pavilion included many some established and up-and-coming artists, it reportedly excludes many hot favourites like Eko Nugroho, Christine Ay Tjoe, Nyoman Masriadi, Handiwirman Sahputra and Agus Suwage. One unverified source claims that a number of participating artists are having second thoughts.

[2] Art Stage’s did not offer the same terms to artists and dealers whose artists are represented in the Pavilion. Artists are being offered 50%/50% split on sale of works; whereas dealers have to foot up to SGD 19,000 in upfront payment for the “rental of a space” for a single work. This makes dealer participation nonviable. Dealers see this as a policy of deliberate exclusion. To that, Rudolf says, “I am open to discussion.”

[3] Chen, P., (2011), The Next Stage, FT Weekend, Life & Arts, Collecting, Financial Times, May 20-22.

[4] Christine Ay Tjoe is approached despite her non-participation, due to prior commit- ments to other shows, as she has a strong following and a mature market, as opposed to younger artists who have chosen to keep silent though attempts to establish contact were made, probably weary about speaking publicly for fear of offending galleries and being excluded from projects.

[5] Chen, P. (2012), Leading Collectors of Asian Art – Uli Sigg (working title), interview transcript of research project on collecting and the Asian art scene, June 18, Unpublished.

First published in the Print and Digital editions of Flash Art, November 2012 issue.

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this writing may be reprinted, reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including printing, recording or information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission in writing from the author.


July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

In this issue of Asian Insider, Patricia speaks to Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim and catches up with the Asian art academic community on their reactions to the Guggenheim-UBS Map Global Initiative.

While museums the world over are deliberating the pecking order of emerging art scenes to engage in, typically the Middle East, Latin America or North Africa, the Guggenheim announces its stakes in a relatively unexplored territory: South and Southeast Asia, through the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Initiative.

Promising as it may sound, I admit, I am rather bewildered by it. First of all, South Asia and Southeast Asia are two regional constructions, not one homogeneous, monolithic cultural block. Home to at least 2.3 billion inhabitants, with between 7 to 700 languages and dialects spoken in each country; they take up an area that is more than twice the size of the European Union. Every country is a fresh new terrain for the Guggenheim except for the subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it had some brief explorations. The Guggenheim could not have chosen a more disparate mix.

Interestingly, the museum’s answer to the vastness is surprisingly simple: they have tasked a single English-speaking curator, June Yap, with selecting “new and recent artworks that represent key artists, movements, collaboratives and creative networks” for the Guggenheim’s permanent collection and touring exhibitions. Even as Richard Armstrong, the Director of the Guggenheim, qualifies it as “the initial step” to “get beyond the point of ignorance,” before becoming “nuanced and recognize that this is an enormously varied and physically vast part of the world with a huge and creative population,” the endeavor is not without contention.

“Lumping South and Southeast Asia is preposterous; it signals a regression into a colonial picture in which Southeast Asia is an appendage of the other. It is a regression, as there is no other precedent,” says T.K. Sabapathy, a noted art historian who teaches Southeast Asian Art History at National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

Why only one, and not a team of experts who can provide unfiltered and multiple perspectives, with a command of not only English but other languages that provide direct access to the discourse of artists, artistic communities, cultural practices and scholarship? How convincing can scholarship via the English language be, when “new and recent artworks that reflect a range of each region’s most salient cultural practices and intellectual discourses” are first written and discussed in the vernacular?

“In principle, for a curator to be appointed to be in charge of Southeast Asian art at a museum or gallery of contemporary art without at least reading competence in Thai, Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Indonesia is ludicrous,” says John Clark,1 a noted scholar and Professor of Asian Art History at the University of Sydney. It is not just languages that need interpretation, but also local codes for the appreciation of contexts. Unlike the West, “each of these countries in Asia has its own cultural sensibilities, historical trajectories of art — when ‘‘modernism’’ happened, when ‘‘contemporary’’ started, what is driving the contemporary and how it references its own history — unless you have these cultural references, you can’t pick and choose art,” explains Savita Apte, an independent scholar on South Asian modern art.

“[But] the museum is not going to become a substitute for a dedicated set of eyes looking about Southeast Asia only,” clarifies Armstrong. “This is part of a much bigger agenda, an agenda about the whole world. The expertise is truly the obligation of the museums of contemporary art in each of these cities and countries. I hope that the curator is able to draw upon that kind of information, but this is not a substitute for the increasing and impressive scholarship in each of those sites. This is a person who basically would be amalgamating that information, digesting it, and we hope connecting it to things that we are already involved with. We can only have an acquaintance with that, we can have high respect, we can have an American connection to it, but we can never be a substitute for that.”

Is the infrastructure for contemporary art that developed? I doubt it. Apart from a modest museum set up in Singapore and a sprinkling of university museums, critical art community and institutional infrastructure for contemporary art in most of South Asia and Southeast Asia is practically non-existent. Access to intelligence simply does not come in neatly bundled packages ready for the picking. Wherever discourses reside, “they are largely developed within specific national boundaries; no concerted attempts have been made to cross the borders and articulate or examine these issues in relation to regional perspectives or perceptions,” writes Sabapathy.2

“Is it better to stay away from the region because it is overly large?” Armstrong asks. I put the same question to the Asian academic community and got a resounding “Yes.” Everything that is put on the world stage by a revered Western cultural institution is quickly accepted as a base point; a feeble attempt would take us backwards. Why not take a smaller but deeper bite? Besides, if this is really only a first step, are preliminary findings culled from freshly minted acquaintances significant enough to be paraded and sanctioned as cultural legacies?

If global footprints are what the Guggenheim is after, it will have them and have them most gloriously — there will be no shortage of individuals to gratify lofty ambitions behind the Guggenheim brand. But if serious scholarship of the regions is also intended, there is simply no shortcut. At the end of the day, it is not just about what is discovered, but also what might possibly be overlooked, reduced, misinterpreted and distributed as new biblical truths, in the absence of historical contexts and a sound curatorial approach and structure. Chances are, when the first phase opens in winter 2013, most will be so enthralled with the spectacle of the new that few will stop and contemplate how the works got there in the first place. I hope I’m wrong.

1 See essay by Clark, J. (2008). “The Contemporary as a Site in the Absence of History,” GAM – Global Art and the Museum, undated. [Accessed May 29, 2012]

2 See essay by Sabapathy, T.K. (2011). “Developing Regionalist Perspectives in Southeast Asian Art Historiography.” In Chiu, M. & Genocchio, B. (eds.), Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader. MIT Press, 2011, pp. 47-61.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..* See also Kee, J. (2011). “Introduction. Contemporary Southeast Asian Art. The Right Kind of Trouble”. ‘Contemporaniety and Art in Southeast Asia’, Third Text. Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Art & Culture, Special Issue. Guest Editors, Patrick Flores and Joan Kee, Vol 25 , Issue 4, July, pp. 371-381. There are also many citations on the issue of discussing contemporary art from Southeast Asia in the essay.

First published in the Print and Digital editions of Flash Art, July/August/ September 2012 issue.

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this writing may be reprinted, reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including printing, recording or information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission in writing from the author.


May 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

V by Li Hui, 2011, Installation, Variable dimensions, Burger Collection. Courtesy of artist.

“The Collectors Show: Chimera” at the Singapore Art Museum, comprising 28 contemporary works by 18 Asian artists from private collections, is a breath of fresh air. For one, the show’s liberation from the slew of art-world brand names marks a bold departure from the usual crowd-pulling tactics cultural institutions employ. Where the stars do appear, like Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama, they are not cast as soloists as in a concerto, but are merely two of many voices humming to a well-orchestrated Asian ensemble. Conceived to “present alternative streams of contemporary art in Asia,” curator Sui Li Tan masterfully engineers aesthetics to be the first point of entry through which “specters of our age“ can be confronted. The result: a sumptuous walk-through of Asian mythologies and illusions in all their myriad and hybrid forms, reinterpreted and appropriated by artists of the soil. Children are seen prancing around Li Hui’s V, (2011) a phantasmagorical spectacle of red thread-like refracted light beams; adults kept a reverential distance, open-mouthed, as if encountering an apparition. Yet beneath its beauty, the work speaks of the collision and birth of energies in the Zen cosmos. Equally arresting and perhaps more intimate is Tabaimo’s Midnight Sea (2006/2008), a digital projection of churning waves somewhat reminiscent of Hokusai’s 19th-century rendering, metaphorically bemoaning the ebb and flow of life and its superficiality. Aesthetics is a clever guise in Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet (2007), a tapestry with a deceptively conventional appearance made up of tiny bloodied images of butchered goats — a commentary on man’s equally capability for beauty and brutality. Even Sheba Chhachhi’s powerful installation of life-size pilgrims in Buddhist robes in Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle From Asia (2006) has a striking but disconcerting presence. Surrounded by layered images of birds in slow motion juxtaposed against imagined landscapes on screens, the work laments how modernization and global exchange have contributed to man’s debased relationship with nature. Not all the works engage through visual pomp and splendour. Some solicit it via more introspective means.

Flanking the entrance are Entang Wiharso’s larger-than-life aluminum figures that recall reliefs found in temple monuments of Southeast Asia. Finished in a modern-day material, they embrace the complex web of humanity with its spectrum of trials and tribulations. Hamra Abbas’s Please Do Not Step I (2004), Kaaba-like construct with a walled-in giant prayer rug, assembled with paper laces bearing the text “Please Do Not Step,” hinted at commonalities found in different belief systems and the narrow negotiations that exist between them.

Culled from Southeast Asia, East and South Asia and as far ashore as the Middle East, Europe and America, the show reveals a level of maturity in these collectors’ tastes and an appetite for new media — in contrast to the common impression of Asian collectors in auction rooms. It speaks movingly of their love of Asian culture and their deep engagement with the art of the time. It is, most of all, an encouraging account of how a young cultural institution has adapted its role in the age of technology. By thoughtfully presenting cultural legacies and cutting-edge contemporary content through physicality, materiality and immersive experiences via accessible means, every viewer is made to feel empowered and enriched.

First published in the Print and Digital editions of Flash Art International, May/June 2012 issue.

Copyright © 2012 Patricia Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this writing may be reprinted, reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including printing, recording or information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission in writing from the author.


September 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

Jompet Kuswidananto, War of Java, Do you Remember ? #1, 2008, will be at the Saatchi Gallery

This month, London’s Saatchi Gallery will be hosting an exhibition of contemporary art from the world’s largest archipelago and fourth most populous country. “Indonesian Eye: Fantasies and Realities” (1 September – 9 October) is the UK’s first major exhibition of Indonesian contemporary art.

The presence of Indonesian artists in international events is not new. The difference this time is the volume of shows coming to Europe. As well as the Saatchi exhibition, another opened at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris in June (“Trans-Figurations: Indonesian Mythologies” until 23 October). And over the next few months, several commercial and non-commercial exhibitions are in the pipeline, including “Asia:Looking South” at Arndt Gallery, Berlin (10 September – 27 October); “Beyond the East” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (14 November -15 December); and a solo show of the Bali born Gede Mahendra Yasa opens in October at Primo Marella gallery in Milan.

“What is happening in contemporary Indonesian art is a reflection of the pace of development in Indonesia. There is a lot of energy in the works, the quality of the art is good and prices are still reasonable,” said Marella, who has been representing Indonesian artists for four years.

Indonesian contemporary artists may be the new kids on the block in occidental countries, but in Southeast Asia (which covers countries including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam), they are the big boys. Indonesian works in Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art auctions account for about 68% of Christie’s and Sotheby’s turnover. Half the lots sold at these auctions are from the country, and contemporary art transactions alone contribute up to 20% of takings. But in international terms, the market is young and sprawling.

The wide pool of contemporary Indonesian artists to choose from has led to diverse selections in recent exhibitions. For example, Nyoman Masriadi, one of Indonesia’s most sought after artists, has been left out of Saatchi gallery exhibition, which has raised some eyebrows. Masriadi’s The Man from Bantul (The Final Round), 2000, became the most expensive contemporary Indonesian work of art ever sold at auction when it went for HK$ 7.8m ($1m) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2008. Masriadi’s work has a distinctive character, but he comes with a controversial CV that is rich on auction appearances but relatively short on non-commercial credentials, even by Southeast Asian standards. Yet, just across the Atlantic, he was the artist that Paul Kasmin Gallery picked for a sell-out solo exhibition in April, with works priced between $200,000 and $350,000.

“Indonesian Eye” promises to showcase the young and emerging scene,”offering a wide view of what contemporary art is in Indonesia right now”, said Serella Ciclitira, its co-founder and co-curator. Straightforward as it may seem, this could be a rather ambitious undertaking. EVen as the show opens in London, Ciclitira revealed that work has already started on next year’s edition. And why not ? Someone once said that if the map of Indonesia were to be superimposed onto Europe, it would stretch from Ireland to Iran. If this were true, it may well take several shows to present a proper view of the contemporary Indonesian art scene. This year’s a great start nonetheless.

First published in print and digital editions of The Art Newspaper, September 2011 issue.

Copyright © 2011 Patricia Chen

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