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If Pigs Could Fly: A Report From Art Stage Singapore

By Sherman Sam  |  Singapore, 28 January 2014

No art fair is complete without an inflatable, in this case a bright pink, flying pig (well actually this one doesn’t fly, but not every one can do a Pink Floyd). This larger-than-life work, Love Me (2013) by Jeong-Hwa Choi at the Vannessa Qwang Gallery, inflates then deflates slightly at a gentle pace, bringing one gallerist to remark that he would love to take a knife to it. 

Personally it is the lifesize R2-D2 being humped by a wolf that gets my goat, Puppy Love by Dolk (at Galleri s.e.). Why??! Then again what kind of a fair would it be if some art did not raise hackles. Singapore as anyone here will tell you is an ethnic, and thus cultural, melting pot, and with both the 4th edition of the Singapore Biennial on simultaneously with Art Stage, we get to see how much of sizzling mix it really is. After all Rudolf Lorenzo, the fair’s director, has already remarked that it is always good to keep things spicy… though not too spicy.

Just a skip and hop away from the Sands where Art Stage is located, the Singapore Biennial, situated primarily in the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), this time round offers something quite different to the usual biennial formula of melding the international with the local. The curators of this biennial have decided to restrict the selection to predominantly South East Asian artists, with the exception of a handful of Japanese, Korean and Australians. Another surprise is the idea of having 27 curators without an artistic director, which must be one of the largest selection panels ever. Given that the final number of 87 artists spread over eight sites is not that large. In one sense we are spared having to view the usual biennial suspects, but also offered a view of contemporary art in South East Asia now. One realisation is that that this biennial is pleasantly short on spectacle, which is not necessarily bad for a change. This makes the Australia-based Singaporean Susann Victor’s impressive Rainbow Circle: Capturing a Natural Phenomena 2013, in the foyer of the National Museum of Singapore, a greater delight for the senses. It's an artificial rainbow created with water and light (well, how else would you create a rainbow?) and the technological feat of creating a wall of water intersected with reflected light (from mirrors situated outside the building) resulting in this natural phenomena, dissipates in comparison of the simplicity of the result: colour and light. 

The emphasis on Asia is not restricted to just the Biennial. As with any art fair these days, there are artistic events and curated exhibitions. Art Stage is no different, like the Biennial the focus is on Asia, and this year they have organised curated platforms for each region: Central Asia, Japan, India, Korea, China, Taiwan Australia and South East Asia. However these platforms work with a slight difference: the individual wall spaces for each artist were paid for by their commercial galleries rather than the region. One rumoured reason for this is to make up for the shortfall in participating galleries, and if this were the case it is fortunate as the platforms offers the international visitor opportunities to see and think in a more measured environment rather than the hubble bubble of the fair. It is almost like a biennial. How else would you stumble into a primarily dark space with a whimsical fantasy film by Hiraki Sawa or time being electronically counted off by a frieze of Tatsuo Miyajima’s existential time works in the Japan platform curated by Mami Kataoka. Or view the sensitive spread of Central Asian video work selected by Charles Merewether. Drop into South East Asia and you find a broad diverse platform of post-conceptual objects. Ideas range from Robert Zhao RenHui‘s anthropological study of wild boars in Singapore to the Pop-like representations of Singaporean Chun KaiFeng, or subtle depiction of local politics via the romance of a wedding ceremony by Anurendra Jegadeva’s installation. His Ma-Na-Va-Reh Love, Loss and Pre-Nuptuals, 2013, as the title hints, takes a Hindu wedding dais as a structure for collage and assemblage with images of Malaysian politicians speak of the political strata that underpin everyday life. Given that Art Stage takes place in Singapore, should there have been a Singaporean platform? Or are there not more than enough such artists and galleries represented through the fair?

Out among the galleries, the Japanese doyenne Yayoi Kusama’s intense patterns were deservedly everywhere, with a row of quirky under exhibited small-scale sculptures on the Whitestone Gallery stand. While the self-taught Indonesian painter Awiki offered to paint slab-thick impasto portraits on commission at Equator Art Projects. It was an opportunity for punters to gawk but also interact with the artist, and to realise that activity of painting is performative albeit mostly in private. The highly underrated, but recently rediscovered, Rose Wiley was presented at Michael Janssen with a wall of gorgeous group of works on paper. All whispy lines and silly fun imagery, these drawing collaged upon drawing are nearly relief sculptures. And if Wiley’s art required a sensitive sensiblity, then Zhou YingHua aka Mr. Chow’s large, thick, cake-decoration-like impasto reminds us that contemporary abstract expressionism is alive and kicking. Though in spirit his work is really closer to the later painting of post-painterly abstractionist Larry Poons.

What does all this say about Asia? “We are not a fair that wants to copy a Western fair,” says Rudolf, “people need to see the strengths of Asia." Contemporary art culture is certainly growing, and at a pace! However as one blue chip gallerist related to me, he sold more last time round, and would think hard about returning again. So hopefully Asia’s audience will mature as rapidly as its artists. 

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