BEHIND THE ART STAGE CONTROVERSY

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. http://www.asianartcollectors.wordpress.com

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.

MAKING SENSE OF THE GUGGENHEIM’S SOUTH AND SOUTHEAST ASIA INITIATIVE

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. http://www.globalartmuseum.de/site/guest_author/36 [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.

THE COLLECTORS SHOW : CHIMERA

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.

THE DOUBLE-AXLE ASIAN ARTS HUB AND WHY SINGAPORE MIGHT BE THE DARK HORSE

May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

School of the Arts students’ unrehearsed response to BIBI’s Bibigloo (2011) at i Light Marina Bay, Singapore. Courtesy Loh Hsiao Shan.

The development of Hong Kong and Singapore in recent years has set the Asian art world debating as to which might be the city to place their bets. The new galleries that have opened in the last few months have moved Hong Kong up a few notches. Now White Cube, Galerie Perrotin, Pearl Lam, Ben Brown and Gagosian have Hong Kong branches. In recent years, auction turnover has elevated Hong Kong to the capital of the Asian art auction market, and Art Basel’s acquisition of Art Hong Kong confirmed this standing.

Singapore, on the other hand, has been developing in a separate trajectory, leaving a trail of investments in arts infrastructure and education: educational partnerships between Goldsmiths College, Royal Academy of Music, Tish School of the Arts, Peabody Institute and local arts institutions; the new School of the Arts, the $115 million interdisciplinary learning-through-the-arts institution for 13-18 year olds that offers an International Baccalaureate diploma in visual art, dance, theater, music and film at advanced levels; and the Gillman Barracks, Singapore’s new $8 million showcase and precinct for contemporary art slated for this September with a planned artist-in-residence program. Recently the government announced the allocation of $200 million to promote arts appreciation to locals. For a long time, these initiatives appeared rhetorical, with their real impact as yet unfelt.

A chance encounter at I Light Marina Bay, an outdoor light festival, gave me fresh insight. In one particular instance, three students from the audience gingerly stepped out, placed themselves before the brilliantly lit works and broke into a sequence of precise, well-sculpted bodily movements that dialogued with their animated silhouettes. I was momentarily caught off guard — not by the act, but by the location and spontaneity of the students’ unrehearsed engagement. I wasn’t in New York or Berlin; I was in Singapore.

If this new wind of change is a result of investments in arts education, many cultural observers have found it welcoming. Championed by no less than five government agencies working in concert — museology, arts scene development, education, economic planning and even tourist promotion — Singapore seems to be undergoing a cultural reconstruction. But to what extent would these efforts translate into the birth of a bubbling arts community that is home to international artists, curators, collectors and the art trade?

Interestingly, Singapore’s challenge lies not in its resolve or resources, but in its mentality — the ability to take risks and advance critical new content. The censorship saga of Simon Fujiwara’s work at the Singapore Art Museum last year and accounts of young graffiti artists’ brushes with law showed that the city can be infrastructure-rich, but its understanding of the moral code of engagement in the arts may still lag behind. Singapore needs to recognize that the arts need to dance to a different rhythm than what it has been used to, and that its penchant for censorship and aversion for risks and outliers may nullify returns.

Paradigm shifts are also needed even in arts education for sustainable results. Leading arts practitioners question the “punishing” 50-to-60-hour school week of its sought-after integrated arts curriculum, when their European counterparts take an additional year to finish similar programs. Experts argue that an overloaded curriculum without allowing time for critical reflection will only create a generation of hurried, burned-out technicians, not artists. At this rate, Singapore may kill its geese even before the golden eggs are laid.

By merit of its proximity to the Chinese market and high-net-worth population, Hong Kong will continue to be an entrepôt, even without additional effort. Challenges notwithstanding, if Singapore is able to cull some of its sacred cows and play its cards strategically, Asia will soon welcome another strong cultural nexus, a magnet for content-rich multicultural discourse and cutting-edge new content. Recently, cultural observers are already beginning to sense this; as one collector put it, “Hong Kong is good for buying art, Singapore is good for experiencing art. We need both.”

In her column Asian Insider, Patricia Chen comments on the Asian art market and provides insight into the scene at large.  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.

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