Media Exploration, Cross-Cultural Reflection, and Scientific Inquiry at Art Stage Singapore 2015

Since its beginnings in 2011, Art Stage Singapore has been an ambassador for Southeast Asian artists and galleries, converting Singapore into a stronghold for the regional art market. Today the fair offers tremendous visual diversity, easily mixing Western influences with local cultures. 

Just like films by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (praised by cinephiles and one of the top artists at last year’s fair), Art Stage creates an atmosphere of mystery, immersing the viewer into a surreal world that suggests the omnipresence of nature. Fittingly, for a lot of artists, the relationship between humans and nature is a departure point for experimentation with media—in the works at the fair, nature is depicted in all possible forms, from traditional painting to robotized objects. Although the main commercial part of the fair still focuses on painting, and some gallerists mention local buyers’ passion for visually elaborate and decorative work, the curated and special exhibitions spread throughout the fair restore the balance between traditional and edgier art, with the Southeast Asia Platform and video section showcasing diverse media practices. All in all, Art Stage is a particular and ever-changing fair that has become an ideal place to fetch unusual artworks. 

I found Sundaram Tagore Gallery, whose empire spans Singapore, Hong Kong, and New York, a good entry point to the true spirit of the fair. “We’ve always been interested in globalization, cultural entanglements, and connections,” said the eponymous director and curator of the gallery. His statement is perfectly in line with the selection of artists at the booth, which is not only international but also intercultural. The local star Jane Lee’s untitled mixed-media installation is shown alongside Annie Leibovitz’s portraits, and Kim Joon’s prints from the series “Bird Land” (which features an American eagle) are side-by-side with a sculpture by Fernando Botero and photographs by Sebastião Salgado. Even though globalization proves to be a troublesome process for Mr. Tagore, he admits it has influenced the gallery’s commercial success: “We’re doing well and have come back to Art Stage for the fifth time in a row.”

Looking at artworks at different booths, I quickly realized that globalization issues inform the work of many younger Asian artists. One of them is Singaporean Kenny Low, who has a solo show at Art Seasons Gallery. Lee admits to being enamored by Japanese art, and bases his meticulously composed and visually intense collages on a tragic moment in the country’s history. “The atomic bombs that hit Japan in the end of World War II caused real and metaphorical mutation that has transformed Japanese art,” Low commented. The six-part, digitally printed collage titled Under the influence of the Little Boy and Fat Man (2014) (selling for 8,000 SGD) is a visualization of what might have happened if Singaporean culture had been hit with the same metaphorical bomb of international influences. 

Walking through the fair I came across a lot of painting, though on closer inspection it often served as a link to another medium, most commonly photography. A subtle boundary between the two creates space for play on the verge of real and unreal. This play is a prevalent thread running through a show at Arataniurano gallery from Tokyo. Toshiyuki Konishi and Mana Konishi—“It’s just a very common surname in Japan, no family relation,” said the gallery owner and director, Mutsumi Urano—both base their paintings on photographs.

The conversation around photography is taken up by South Korea’s Gallery Hyundai, which is presenting exquisite images by Myoung Ho Lee. With a clear and simple visual action, Lee undercuts the idea that photography stands apart from fine art. He places huge canvases behind living trees and photographs the installations in their natural environments. Another photography-based booth is that of TKG+, presented in company with Tina Keng Gallery. The young artists represented here use the photographic image to probe the tenuous nature of reality. Quite typically, all three—Yahui Wang, Charwei Tsai, and Yuan Goang-Ming—turn to nature to try to augment an incomplete vision of the world.

After I inquired about the tastes and interests of the local buyers, Shelly Wu, director of TKG+, explained that it was important to connect with the local viewer through cultural codes. For example, Tsai’s photographs feature a poetic image of the symbolic Singaporean rain tree; its trunk and branches are covered with hieroglyphs that represent lyrics by China’s most popular contemporary singer. This link proved to be important market-wise. “We have a lot of visitors and friends who are collectors coming, the sales are going strong,” she added during the VIP Preview (the price range at TKG+ booth is 3,000-10,000 USD). Meanwhile, Wonjoon Lee, curator of Gallery Hyundai, was more reserved about sales, at least in regard to the first moments of the fair. “We only work with Korean artists and it’s not always easy to sell them here,” he stated. The commercial aspirations of his gallery are linked to a computerized installation by U-Ram Choe, since another of Choe’s works was shortlisted for the prestigious regional Signature Art Prize 2014 (and is currently on view at the Singapore Art Museum). 

Additional artistic explorations into technologies and intriguing scientific topics can be found at the CUC Gallery booth. Cosmology, biology, futurology, and the age-old Buddhist idea of the wheel of life, are beautifully interconnected through the works of three Vietnamese artists from three different generations (from post-war to contemporary). Two of the three artists work with painting and only the younger one—Nguyen Hong Ngoc (Nau)—opted for a more elaborate technique. Her lightbox photographs in the shape of cells were inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope mission and seek to present objects as living organisms. Commerce is also driving experiments with new technologies. “Last year my show was more abstraction-based, but this time I want to target a new, younger audience,” said Pham Phuong Cuc, the gallery’s founder. She may well succeed, with prices ranging from 2,500 to 15,000 USD.

In the end, I found myself in familiar territory, underscored by a conversation I had with Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum director Olga Sviblova, who commented, “It is an international Baconomania.” Indeed, the star of the evening was Michel Platnic at Gordon Gallery from Tel Aviv, who re-stages the paintings of the British triumvirate—Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney. He recreates the physical spaces depicted in their canvases, places himself or other models within them, and documents the process in photos or with a video camera. “I like the idea of taking Bacon’s imagined world and transforming it into something physically real. Moreover I want to test the borders between media, to see when painting becomes video, when installation turns into photograph,” explained the artist, visibly content with the gallery’s success. Several editions of his video and photography pieces have been sold during the preview hours, offering a glimpse of what new work may be heading for the international art scene.

Anna Arutiunova

Explore Art Stage Singapore 2015 on Artsy.

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