Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Art Stage Singapore, 2012,’  in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news magazine,  3 -  9 Feb.2012,  Yr.59, Vol. 20.
I didn’t want to believe it.  I had come to see my old friends, contemporary artists from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore at the Art Stage, Singapore, 2012 (12 – 15 Jan. 2012).Instead of meeting them at some international art celebration like a biennial or triennial, which are very exclusive shows.

 Today we are older and greyer, no longer the ‘young blood,’ the ‘young artists’ of the artworld.  We are people who have passed through art exhibitions and art festivals in many countries.  This time, we met in a place we never expected - an ‘art market,’ an ‘art fair’.

Bringing goods, especially art, to sell in the market is no crime.  It’s not robbery or murder.  It’s an honest way to earn a living.  So artists shouldn’t in the least feel wrong or feel like sinners.  Instead of making a lot of denials, we should get to know these markets and make use of them.  That is much better.

What is intriguing is that the art market has been able to develop, adjust, and change itself by embracing works of contemporary art which people once saw as ‘not art,’ or as impossible to sell.  But today, it finds space on walls or a corner in which to show, not different from artworks or works of modern art from years past.

In Singapore there is an old market, the Singapore Art Fair, which has been operating for a long time – about 10 years.  The old way of handling an art fair was simply to invite various galleries from around the region and the world to open a booth and bring finished works of art to sell.  Looking out-dated and inadequate, the Singapore Art Fair is coming to an end. It may close down by next year to make way for the new Art Stage event, something fresh which is getting full support from the Singaporean government.

 Lorenzo Rudolf, the famous Swiss organizer of the world class Art Basel art fair, has signed a 5-year contract for a large lump sum.  The Singaporean government is investing seriously in hopes of becoming the market for buying and selling art in the Southeast Asian region.

Politicians and bureaucrats who oversee art and culture and may well realize that no matter how much they invest in local artists in Singapore, these artists will eventually hit the censorship ceiling, a ceiling on freedom of expression. The ceiling in Singapore, we know well, is lower than almost every other country in this region.  There is hope that Singaporean artists can move forward onto the international world stage, but it’s not easy.

So they can change to something else: making money is something Singapore is good at. Trading art isn’t difficult, and artists won’t get hurt (by being scolded by their fellow artists).  Selling art which critiques political and social problems in neighboring countries goes on rather freely; it is not seen as a Singaporean problem. Contemporary works of art with these characteristics are indeed seen on sale.

Lorenzo Rudolf, director and CEO of this event, is smart to play ball with the government of Singapore.  He knows how far he can go and how to do it.  Lorenzo knows that an art fair is an occasion to work with local, regional and international collectors who are interested in Asian art.  In this event, collectors are the heroes, not artists.  Collectors are introduced in interviews and become the stars of the show.  This is a situation which the super-rich thoroughly enjoy.

The internationally known Thai artist, Navin Lawalchaiyakul, made a large picture, 3m x 12m high.  The painting’s giant canvas includes the faces of collectors, gallery owners and curators and important leading artists under the title, ‘We are Asia.”


About this gigantic painting, the media in Singapore wrote in sarcastic terms that it was created in hopes of selling it to the Singapore Art Museum.  Or some, insultingly, saw it as flattery aimed at haughty collectors.  Artists shouldn’t accept this, nor should they do it.  In this matter, anyone who has long followed the work of Navin knows how he always likes to play with and make fun of society this way.  So this kind of picture can be viewed as Navin’s critique of the ‘world of the famous.’

This is the second year for Art Stage.  There were 50 events, 130 galleries from 18 countries, and a number of special art programs set up especially.

After the event passed last year, Lorenzo saw the difference between the values of works of artists from this region compared with works from Europe.  This year, in order to bring galleries in the region to higher standards in presenting works, those which planned to join the event were asked to present the ideas, works and names of the artists first. This is an attractive new event which gives Lorenzo greater bargaining power with gallery owners than other art fairs elsewhere. But some galleries rejected his approach and refrained from taking part in the event.

In any case, it is clear that the old way of arranging an art fair in is no longer adequate.  The organizers must think of new ways to bring collectors to the event and they must find interesting works of art to sell.  There must also be promotional activities to make it a lively event, such as talks by scholars, art critics, collectors and artists to create an atmosphere of knowledge.

This year there was only one Thai gallery, the Tang, presenting the work of Preeyachanok Kettsuwan (Kaotu) , Tawan Watuya, Chusak Srikwan and Kamin Lertchaiprasert.  For Maitri Siriboon’s special booth, he ordered a bamboo roof from Thailand.  He plays country music from Northeastern Thailand, letting visitors dance and experience Isarn-disco entertainment.  His White Space Gallery did not have the intention to sell the work, but rather to show Maitree’s ideas about Isarn.  There were questions from reporters and listeners to panel discussions during the event, expressing concerns. They asked, ‘Do artists think that art fairs [like this] will impact the creativity of their works?’

I responded that, “It depends on each artist.  Some may be shaken by market demands. They give in and create works repetitively.  Others don’t feel the impact at all, because the market and the artists’ creative processes are separate.  They make the choice.  In any case, in the end, works of art as a rule end up on the market.  It only depends on whether it’s sooner or later.  Artists would do better to create their works according to their inspiration.”

As I was experiencing the Singapore Art Fair, I couldn’t help thinking of our situation at home.  Though there have been some attempts to organize events like this, both privately and by the public sector (the Ministry of Culture), we are yet to really succeed in making it happen.  We are still just crawling along.   

The state still doesn’t see the economics of it, the money in buying and selling art.  They don’t actually know how to organize an ‘art market’.  So it just isn’t happening in Thailand.

Thailand is simply a place where works of art are produced for the Singaporeans to sell in their market.

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