GALLERISTS described the unexpected throngs of Asian art collectors at this year's Art Basel art fair in words that parallel a military invasion.
"They came in large numbers on the first day... and it meant really good business for us," said Theresa Liang, director of Long March Space.
"We have Chinese collectors who follow us to every art fair. We'd see them at Art Basel Hong Kong, and then a month later at Art Basel in Basel, and some of them at Art Basel Miami," noted Rene Meile, co-director of Galerie Urs Meile, a Swiss-based gallery with a branch in Beijing.
Art Basel, the world's biggest art fair brand, has three editions: Art Basel Hong Kong in May (though it's moving to March from next year), Art Basel in June, and Art Basel Miami Beach in December.
Most prized artworks
But Art Basel, the original 45-year-old Swiss fair, remains the biggest and most prestigious, with VIP collectors literally elbowing each other on opening day to get their hands on the world's most prized artworks. This year, some 284 galleries from 34 countries were selling US$4 billion worth of art, according to an estimate by insurer AXA Art. Audemars Piguet and UBS, among others, are the fair's partners.
By the first day, a Jeff Koons sculpture of an inflatable dolphin had sold for US$5 million and a Damien Hirst installation of pharmaceutical drugs titled Nothing Is A Problem For Me went for nearly US$6 million. An Andy Warhol self-portrait was snapped up for US$32 million within the first 15 minutes - possibly the most expensive sale at the fair.
The Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), the only Singapore and South-east Asian gallery selected to show in Art Basel, sold a large painting by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija for US$80,000, as well as four mid-sized works by him for US$14,000 each - all on the first day.
STPI's director Emi Eu said: "We met collectors from Central and South America who are huge fans of his art. It's amazing to imagine his work finding a home in that part of the world. I wish we had brought more of his works here, because we ended up selling everything of his." STPI also brought the works of Singapore artist Heman Chong which garnered strong interest among collectors.
Tokyo gallery Take Ninagawa sold its entire booth of works by Shinro Ohtake. And Gallery Side 2, another Tokyo gallery, also sold its entire lot of Fumito Urabe's works.
Indeed, the tills for Asian works were ringing more frequently than it had ever done before in Basel. Even though there were only 21 Asian galleries this year compared to last year's 31, the shortfall was made up for by Western galleries showing Asian artworks - some for the first time. Germany's Galerie Lohrl, for instance, dedicated its entire booth to the sculptures of Japan's Katsura Funakoshi. And Switzerland's Galerie Tschudi showed the photographs of Su-Mei Tse in the hope of attracting more Asian collectors - even though Tse is a half-Chinese and half-English artist born and raised in Luxembourg and is really European.
Major London gallery Victoria Miro placed Yayoi Kusama sculptures and paintings at its entrance, with Sarah Sze's works on the inside. New York's Sean Kelly Gallery and London's Marian Goodman Gallery put a Mariko Mori sculpture and a Yang Fudong photograph respectively at choice locations in their booths to attract the Asian crowd.
"Let's just say everyone's realised for some time the important role Asian collectors play in the market. Putting Asian artworks outside our stands makes perfect sense ... so we can reel them in," said a gallerist, who chose to remain anonymous.
But Long March Space's Ms Liang said it's not just the Asian collectors who are interested in buying Asian artworks. "We're seeing the transition among international collectors too. At first, they were drawn to Asian art because of the wonderful things that were happening the Asian art market ... But we are slowly riding out of that period. More collectors are now looking at Asian art because they actually think the art is good.
"For Asian galleries like us, who have been taking part in art fairs and promoting their artists on the international circuit for years, this is what we've been hoping for all along."
Just last month, Asian art collectors hit the headlines for making up a sizeable portion of buyers at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions in New York. Collectors from Hong Kong, China and South Korea, among others, were seen bidding up the Monets, Picassos and Renoirs. At Sotheby's evening sale, Asian money accounted for US$63.9 million worth of sales, which is almost a third of the US$218 million total sales.
As David Mugrabi, son of the famous art collector Jose Mugrabi who is said to own 800 Warhols, joked: "Most collectors start off buying art from their own country, and then they start to look at art from other countries too ... When it comes to buying art, the hardest part is buying the first one. Once you get started, it's downhill from there."
To counter the strongly commercial tone of the fair - which some, especially artists, regard with consternation - Art Basel has always worked hard at creating non-commercial, cultural activities surrounding the fair.
Leading the charge this year was 14 Rooms, a special exhibition featuring the world's most famous performance artists, including Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic and Tino Sehgal. In 14 rooms, each measuring 15m by 5m, human performers became the artworks, meticulously carrying out the instructions given by the artists.
The choice of performance art is critical: performance art is often regarded as the least commercial among art forms, because a collector cannot "own" a performer, so to speak. Typically, the only things for an art collector to buy are the official photographs, instruction manuals for the performers, or other documents.
But in 14 Rooms, all visitors (with few exceptions) were barred from taking pictures, making the experience purely ephemeral and phenomenal - and, hence, hard to commodify.
In Sehgal's room, a male and female performer spoke aloud one word at a time to create complete sentences. But the game took on an unexpectedly competitive and hilarious edge as either party could support or subvert the meaning and direction of the sentence with the addition of one word - such as a "not" or "maybe". The title of this simple but acerbic work? This Is Competition.
Meanwhile, Ono's room opened to a sign that said: "Touch." Upon entering, one plunged into complete darkness with other visitors. One felt one's way along the walls, bumping into strangers, giggling, apologising, and relying on every other sense other than sight, to find the way out.
In Chinese artist Xu Zhen's room, a living and breathing performer stayed motionless in mid-fall, inviting onlookers to contemplate the laws of gravity. Meanwhile, in English artist Ed Atkins' room, a man had a constant argument with a talking 3D computer image over who is more "human" and useful to society - the man or the intelligent computer generated image (CGI). Now, if the man and his competing CGI were to look at Art Basel's strategy, with its delicate balance of commerce and art, they might realise it's possible to find a win-win solution.