By Sam L. Marcelo
The pumpkins, polka dots, and anodyne abstraction displayed at Art Stage Singapore failed to inspire the frenzied consumerism associated with art fairs. In a tweet, Brussels-based collector Alain Servais described Singapore Art Week’s main event, which ran from Jan. 12-15 at Marina Bay Sands, as “uneven and low energy” but said that it was less about the art market than Singapore itself.
Art Stage Singapore is the first stop in a whirlwind season that includes Art Fair Philippines (AFP) in February and Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) in March. Each fair has its own flavor, with Art Stage Singapore claiming regional ascendancy (“We Are Asia” is its tagline); AFP doing an admirable job of repping the Filipino art scene to a larger community (from a parking lot, natch); and ABHK — with its Basel bona fides — anchoring the whole of Asia.
Lackluster fair aside, Art Stage Singapore provided a platform, through its Southeast Asia Forum, to discuss the issues of the day, including the role of Singapore in the larger scheme of things.
“The artists look at Singapore and they see it as the nearest hub to thinking themselves as international. If they get a show or an option to work in Singapore then they think ‘I have become an international-participating artist.’ They come to Art Stage, they walk around, and they feel that if they understand Singapore, they understand the world. I get very concerned about that,” said Zoe Butt, who spoke from the context of Vietnam, where she is the incoming artistic director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, an independent enterprise in Saigon dedicated to contemporary art. Ms. Butt was part of a panel that talked about the expanding responsibilities of privately founded and funded organizations, especially in highly regulated countries such as Vietnam, where, for example, galleries must apply for exhibition permits from The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
She continued: “People see this [referring to Art Stage Singapore] and say ‘this is the model we must copy.’ Again, I get very concerned with that… I think that Singapore is as much a flagship for thinking about how it has developed a regional market — I’d like to say international, but we’re still creeping in that direction. I think we need much more criticality. What we’re lacking in our region is an understanding of an aesthetic and why. How do we determine if something is considered blue-chip or if something is to be relegated only for an artist-initiated platform. Why? Where do we have these conversations? I think Singapore is a role model for sure, but we need more voices problematizing that a little bit.”
MIRRORING THE SCENE
Sandwiched in between the two big fairs (Art Stage Singapore and ABHK), is Art Fair Philippines. When the fair launched in 2013, AFP cofounder Trickie C. Lopa described the event as a “personal endeavor” that she and her partners, Lisa O. Periquet and Geraldine “Dindin” B. Araneta, would continue unless the first one “super flopped.”
Flopped it hasn’t.
The not-so-little-anymore parking-lot fair grew its audience to 22,000 in 2016 from 6,000 in its inaugural edition. From occupying a single floor of The Link Carpark in Ayala Center, the fair, now on its fifth year, is taking over four levels. Satellite activities, collectively dubbed “10 Days of Art,” will spill out into the city from Feb. 9 to 19. The highlight: the projection of James Nares’ Street on the facade of Ayala Tower One & Exchange Plaza, marking the video installation’s Asia premiere and its first non-museum showing. The number of participating galleries has almost doubled from 24 in 2013 to this year’s 46, with 12 coming from other countries.
“I’ve always said that the fair mirrors the art scene,” said Ms. Lopa, who cited the opening of new galleries and the “upscaling” of existing spaces (Silverlens and The Drawing Room, to name a couple, have moved to new locations) as recent developments. “Though AFP will never be sleek and polished like Singapore and Hong Kong, I think we’re a little bit more spruced up compared to five years ago.”
AFP’s growth has not gone unnoticed: the organizers of Art Fair Tokyo have broached the idea of working together, as did Lorenzo Rudolf, president and founder of Art Stage Singapore and Jakarta, when he expressed a desire for “more cooperation.”
“We’re just waiting for their ideas,” said Ms. Lopa, who emphasized that, despite outside interest, AFP will always be a fair for the Philippines, first and foremost. “Even if we wanted to, I don’t think we could ever be the art fair for Asia — that would be impossible. But given that we want to expand the experience of Filipinos, we welcome participation of foreign galleries and having big-name artists show works.”
ROCK ’N’ ROLL
Joyce Toh, a curator at the Singapore Art Museum and a panelist in one of AFP’s talks, is looking forward to Manila’s change of pace. “The wonderful thing about having these two fairs close together is that they’re completely different. You get two very different experiences,” she said. “The art is a big part of it, of course, but what’s beautiful about going back to the Philippines is the joking, laughing, teasing, bullshitting, gossiping, drinking, and hanging out. You’re two hours late and no one gets angry.”
She also confessed that it took her a while to fall in love with Manila’s messy charm, since her first visit to the Philippines rattled her Singaporean sensibilities. “I did not like it at all,” she said, remembering the traffic and the pollution of the city. “You need to change your attitude toward things. Manila is kind of rock ’n’ roll. And you don’t get the rock ’n’ roll without some of the dirt and the grime.”
Even Art Stage’s Mr. Rudolf had similar sentiments: “It’s easy to be here [in Singapore] where you have everything organized as hell. Sure. But, I tell you, frankly, it’s more interesting to be in a chaotic city which has a vibrant art scene. The Philippines is where the party is.”
On a more serious note, the talks held at Art Stage Singapore’s Southeast Asia Forum — particularly the one that included Ms. Butt — were sobering reminders of the many freedoms the Philippine art scene enjoys and should not squander. There can be no rock ’n’ roll, no party, without freedom.
(High Life covered Singapore Art Week as a guest of Art Stage Singapore.)