Gallerist Emi Eu Is Championing Printmaking and Southeast Asian Art in Singapore
Portrait of Emi Eu. Courtesy of Emi Eu.
For the past two decades, Emi Eu, executive director of STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, has been promoting creative experimentations in print and paper with leading contemporary artists, like Han Sai Por, Haegue Yang, Lee Bul, and Eko Nugroho. Eu began her work for the gallery in 2001 (a year before it officially opened), and has since become a familiar face in Singapore’s arts landscape, so much so that one would mistake her for being Singaporean. However, the Korean arts professional was born in Seoul in 1968 and raised by her father’s family, then relocated to New York at the age of 13 to live with her mother, Young Yang Chung, a textile historian and embroiderer.
Although Eu’s first foray into the visual arts was a summer internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art following high school, it wasn’t until after completing a business administration degree at Boston University that her passion for art truly began. In 1991, she visited a family friend who had just opened a gallery in Venice, Galleria d’Arte Contini, and ended up working there until 1995, when she moved to Paris to study French. Returning to New York two years later to get married, she then graduated with a master’s degree in nonprofit visual arts administration from New York University, before making her way to Singapore in 2000, where her children were born and which she calls home today.
When STPI’s founder, American print pioneer Kenneth Tyler, left the gallery four months after it opened, Eu was the gallery director. Working with two colleagues, she found herself shaping STPI’s future. “We had to literally come up with a business model that could work,” she recalled. “I have had great personal satisfaction from overcoming the challenges of making this company work, because from the very onset of STPI, there was a lot of speculation that it wasn’t going to last. People were very unfamiliar with this kind of art business.”
With a robust artist residency program, STPI has since become a go-to space for cutting-edge artistic collaboration and has nurtured a new generation of local printmakers and artists working with paper. The gallery has hosted a wide range of esteemed artists—from Donald Sultan, Chua Ek Kay, and Pacita Abad, the first artists Eu invited to the program; to Charles Lim Yi Yong, whose current solo show, “Staggered Observations of a Coast,” features collagraphs, monotypes, screenprints, and aquatints, and runs until January 30th.
Do Ho Suh working on a print at STPI. Courtesy of STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery.
Freely experimenting over five weeks, artists are encouraged to embrace risk and push the limits of their practice while working in an unfamiliar medium, as they encounter a wide variety of technical processes for the first time. Printmaking on handmade paper at STPI has paved the way for exciting possibilities for artists to go beyond the boundaries of this medium in both two and three dimensions. “Some artists are fluent in the language of print, but most of them do not have experience in working on such a scale and complexity the way we do,” Eu noted. “They have never really done it the way they have done at STPI.” For example, Do Ho Suh, known for his life-size fabric sculptures, created technically groundbreaking thread drawings at STPI, where his voluminous forms were “flattened” onto paper.
Having contributed to elevating print to a fine art form in Southeast Asia, Eu refers to STPI’s output not as reproductions, but as limited-edition prints or one-off works. Artists are able to experiment with techniques and materials not typically associated with printmaking, such as pulp paintings, wall sculptures, or 3D hangings, innovatively mixing a diverse range of mediums. STPI’s uniqueness also lies in having its paper mill and print workshop under one roof, alongside its exhibition space, with the only venue comparable in size and expertise being Pace Prints in New York.
While Eu initially welcomed young artists, she quickly realized they lacked the experience necessary for STPI’s artist residencies. “We needed to work with artists who had found their path, so that’s how we started to invite more established and mid-career artists,” she said. “I felt that the caliber of the artists had to be high because they have to understand how to run a project and manage the pressure of 15 people waiting to receive their instructions.”
Under Eu’s leadership, STPI has attained global reach, collaborating with international artists such as Richard Deacon, Takashi Murakami, Ryan Gander, Carsten Höller, and Tobias Rehberger. After trying for eight years, it became the first Singaporean gallery to participate in Art Basel in 2013, and the only one to exhibit in all three of the fair’s locations. Eu is also a member of Art Basel in Hong Kong’s selection committee. “My goal has always been for STPI to be part of the Art Basel fair circuit because that was the ultimate confirmation from our industry peers that we had made it to the top tier,” she said. “When a gallery first opens, it needs time to mature and find its way. The fair business wants to have consistency. It doesn’t want galleries to come in and out of the fair. It took us a long time to convince the selection committee, to show them that we were still around and we’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do very consistently at a high level.”
Han Sai Por working on a sculpture at STPI. Courtesy of STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery.
At the same time, Eu worked as program director of Aloft at Hermès in Singapore—one of five art spaces by the Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès—from 2007 to 2019. There, she curated site-specific works by emerging artists, such as Ranjani Shettar’s wooden sculptures, Flavia Da Rin’s enchanted forest creatures, Rei Sato’s replica of her parents’ café, Agathe de Bailliencourt’s hand-painted pebbles, and Jeremy Sharma’s first sound-only installation weaving together songs by various Southeast Asian communities.
Now Eu has her hands full as project director of S.E.A. Focus, the world’s first boutique fair dedicated exclusively to Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, which launched in 2019. She explained the need for a platform where audiences come specifically to discover the Southeast Asian scene: “I don’t think Southeast Asian art has ever had any footprint on the global art scene. Singapore, as a place of commerce and for the facility of administration and business transactions, is a good place to have something like this, but our challenge here is we don’t have such a solid foundation in the art landscape. Southeast Asia comprises many countries that are very independent of each other, so it’s quite interesting that S.E.A. Focus brings them together.”
Labeling this fourth edition—taking place from January 15th through 23rd—as “S.E.A. Focus 2.0,” Eu feels as if she’s back to square one due to the devastating impact of the pandemic. She welcomes Art Basel’s involvement for the first time, which she described as a “booster.” She continued, “Art Basel is coming in with its expertise in marketing, its global network, and its know-how on how to position us in the right way so that we are understood properly. Hopefully it will bring us a bit of the stability needed post-COVID-19.”
Noting a drop in participants in S.E.A. Focus 2022, she has observed that galleries are choosing to focus their programs locally or regionally after two years of COVID-19. “It’s going back to the guilds of the Renaissance,” she remarked. “I think galleries have had to recalibrate themselves and figure out what works best for them, so I understand if some don’t come back. But the fact that we still have 24 galleries out of 27 coming back tells me that they feel that S.E.A. Focus is something that they’re committed to.”
This year, STPI will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Although Eu hasn’t been able to invite international artists to the workshop due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, she looks forward to the return of Rirkrit Tiravanija to complete work he started pre-pandemic.
“The plan for STPI is constantly to be ready and adaptable to the situation, and to develop ways to work well even if there’s a lockdown,” Eu concluded. “It’s about strengthening our team in the new world, while we celebrate our achievements of the past, because we had a really great run pre-COVID-19. When the artist is in the studio, we all feel that energy and vibe; it’s such a positive thing. That’s testimony to the fact that art cannot be replaced online or artificially because we’re living, breathing, and feeling creatures.”