One afternoon last week, at the Art Stage Singapore fair, which closed on Sunday at the futuristic-looking Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Center, French collector Steve Rosenblum and his wife Chiara talked for an hour with Cambodian artist Svay Sareth. Rosenblum, who moved to Singapore in summer 2013 after selling his telecommunications business, doesn’t know much about Southeast Asian art, he told an audience during a talk at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute a few days later—his collection is known for its concentration of young and mid-career artists from the West, like Nate Lowman, Matthew Day Jackson, Christof Büchel, Aaron Curry, and Sterling Ruby—but he bought two pieces by Sareth on the spot, camouflage fabric sculptures that are mounted on the wall and resemble backpacks. “He was an incredible artist we didn’t know,” Rosenblum said. Sareth’s pieces are the first works of Southeast Asian art in the Rosenblums’ collection.
The encounter, and resulting sale, speaks to one of the roles played by this five-year-old fair: exposing the art of Southeast Asia to a wider audience. Through the Rosenblums, who since 2010 have displayed part of their collection in a private exhibition space in Paris, Sareth’s work, which appeared in Art Stage’s curated Southeast Asia Platform section, could gain even broader exposure. Among the fair’s 152 gallery booths, local artists were present and being introduced to major collectors. At the booth of Singapore gallery Art Seasons, Miami-based real estate developer Jorge Pérez, benefactor to Miami’s Perez Art Museum and also relatively new to Southeast Asian art, picked up the sprawling, 20-foot-long, six-panel digital collage Under the Influence of Little Boy and Fat Man, by 28-year-old Singaporean artist Kenny Low. Low was on hand to explain how the work arose from his obsession with Japanese visual culture.
This fair’s other role, of course, is to serve the regional collecting community, which appeared to be out in force at the VIP opening on January 21. The opening reportedly drew some 8,000 people, and the requisite air of spectacle. There was a book signing for Gilbert & George, during which the seasoned British artist duo, in trademark tweedy attire, sat beneath an artwork of theirs emblazoned the auspicious headline “Life After Death Proved.”
At the nearby Southeast Asian platform, Singaporean artist Zaki Razak was considerably more freewheeling, wearing a black afro wig and dark sunglasses and conducting a pseudo talk show, complete with audience seating and guitar player. Elsewhere in the Southeast Asian platform, the Myanmar-born artist Nyein Chan Su did a performance in which he crawled on the floor. Local newspaper The Straits Times reported multiple sales on VIP night, ranging from S$12,000 to $75,000 (approximately U.S. $8,900–$56,000), and spotted regional collectors, as well as at least one local celebrity (what would an art fair be these days without a celebrity sighting?): T.O.P. from the Korean band Big Bang.
If the fair’s environment was especially buzzy this year, it was most likely due to the growth of events around it, namely Singapore Art Week, a whole roster of activities at multiple art venues around town. Singapore is a small place—it’s about the size of Dallas—but it’s having a big year. This year marks the city/state’s golden jubilee—its 50th anniversary—and its art scene has been growing. Three years ago a modest gallery district was born in the Gilman Barracks, a former army base. It now houses the Center for Contemporary Art as well as outposts of major galleries like Arndt, of Berlin, and Shanghart, of Shanghai and Beijing. Later this year the National Gallery will open its doors. In May, Singapore’s national pavilion returns to the Venice Biennale, after an absence in 2013.
Art Stage Singapore attracted a smattering of blue-chip international mega galleries, like White Cube and Perrotin. (It also drew the Asia representatives of other multinational mega galleries, like Nic Simunovic (Gagosian) and Charlie Spalding (Zwirner), both of whom were spotted roaming the aisles.)
However, the discoveries here were, for the most part, not to be made in their booths, but rather in the Southeast Asia Platform. Singaporean curator Khim Ong, the Platform’s organizer this year, said she was interested in works with “a strong conceptual underpinning” that “challenge the medium” in which they are made. Although the pieces in the section had to be available for sale—this is, after all, a commercial event—the Platform, she said, was an opportunity to bring in artists whose galleries can’t afford full participation in an international art fair, where booths can run to well over $20,000. Some of the work here, such as two 2004 videos by Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail, was on public display for the first time. Other pieces, like Malaysian Chris Chong’s compelling six-screen video Heavenhell, a recreation of a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low that had been shown at the Lyon Biennial, was receiving its first showing in Southeast Asia. Other artists, like the young Filipino Yason Banal, were exhibiting brand new series. Banal’s work skewered art fairs and mega galleries: he had digitally altered photographs of gallery booth signs from the Art Basel Hong Kong fair to create signs representing fictional super-galleries, like White Gallery, a fictional merger of White Cube and Gagosian.
But there were also some scrappy surprises among the gallery booths, like the Singaporean curatorial group Latent Spaces. Founded by twins Chun Kai Qun and Chun Kai Feng, the group’s M.O. is to take over disused spaces, like an old theme park, and turn them into makeshift galleries. For their display at the fair—the S$12,000 (around US$8,900) booth cost was partly subsidized by government funding—each of the 54 artists in the collective created a refrigerator magnet. The magnets were on offer as one large piece, mounted on a metal armature made to look like a refrigerator and priced at S$37,000 (around US$27,500). The group was also selling ice cream pops out of their booth, where they hosted unusual events like artist-curator “speed dating.” All proceeds were channeled back into Latent Spaces activities.
Despite Art Stage’s ambitious motto—“We Are Asia,” emblazoned on its catalogue and tote bags—director Lorenzo Rudolph, in a press conference, did not pit Art Stage against the more established Art Basel Hong Kong, a fair to which it is frequently compared, or any other Asian fair, for that matter. Instead, he seemed to stress its importance to the region of Southeast Asia.
Which would seem like the right approach. Art fair attendance is down overall in the past year, The New York Times recently reported, citing figures from Skate’s Art Market Research. Fairs, Scott Reyburn wrote, “are polarizing into the ‘best’—which attract demand from that wealthy 1 percent—and the ‘rest,’ which struggle to pull in discretionary spending from the financially squeezed professional classes.” Art Stage Singapore, with its price tags mainly falling in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars—no $30 million Picassos here (the fair’s priciest sale, as reported by The Straits Times, was a U.S. $1.6 million (S$2.15 million) Damien Hirst at White Cube)—would seem to fall into the latter camp, but with a major difference: it has clearly become an important and valuable regional event.
If Art Stage is to hold its place in a crowded art fair calendar, it may need to do some trimming. This fair has grown by almost 25 percent since it started in 2011—going from 122 galleries in its first edition to 152 this year—and with art fairs, bigger is not always better. The quality at Art Stage is uneven and one art-market insider, who insisted on anonymity, suggested that the fair might be better off narrowing its offerings to 60 top-quality galleries. But as long as there are discoveries to be made in sections like the one devoted to Southeast Asia, the fair would seem to be doing its job.