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South-east Asian galleries set their sights on HK fair

The Uncertain by Thai artist Jedsada Tangtrakulwong is a conceptual exhibition by art gallery Nova Contemporary. New galleries from South-east Asia will participate in this year's Art Basel Hong Kong, demonstrating the event's status as a market hub.


NEXT to a row of luxury hotels in a bustling business district in Bangkok, the art gallery Nova Contemporary occupies a former storage area at the base of a high-rise apartment building.

"There's no gallery area per se in Bangkok, so this is fairly normal," said Nova's cheery owner, Sutima Sucharitakul, of the location of her sleek space. "Everything is fairly spread out." On view at Nova through Sunday is a conceptual exhibition called The Uncertain, featuring works by Thai artist Jedsada Tangtrakulwong.

By design, the show changes depending on the weather: On sunny days, some of the works are not available to be seen, remaining hidden in various ways, and the response to that offbeat approach has been mixed. Some visitors have been angered and have shared their feelings emphatically with Ms Sucharitakul and her staff.

"This is pretty advanced for Bangkok," she said with a shrug.

Her hunt for an appreciative new audience for her artists is precisely why she will show her wares for the first time at Art Basel Hong Kong, alongside about 240 other dealers, from Friday through Sunday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Nova reflects the stronger South-east Asian presence at the fair, now in its seventh edition, demonstrating the event's status as a market hub in a vast and diverse region.

There is no shortage of collectors with money or artists with ideas; they simply need a place to find one another. "The presence of the South-east Asian dealers is quite remarkable this year, and quite varied," said Adeline Ooi, the Asia director for Art Basel.

"It's wonderful - but I'm biased since I'm from Malaysia," she said, laughing.

In addition to galleries from mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan - already known as market forces - the fair this year includes Richard Koh Fine Art, with spaces in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore; Artinformal and Silverlens, both from Manila; and Nadi Gallery and ROH Projects from Jakarta, Indonesia.

"People think the Asian market equals the Chinese market, and that's not true," Ms Ooi said. "Asia is a puzzle. But every year at the fair, we peel back a new layer and it gets deeper." Part of the issue is vast geography. The fair features six galleries that have exhibition spaces in India, which is more than 2,000 miles from Hong Kong. "Asia is so massive," Ms Ooi said. "People think we know each other, and we don't. We're all still learning about each other." She added, "It's one of the things that makes me hopeful - the show can be a platform for movements that don't always catch the attention of the art world." Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, said he was in awe of the "unparalleled diversity" on hand.

"It's been a voyage of discovery to do a fair in Asia and dig into the real complexity," Mr Spiegler said. "You have countries that are Buddhist or Christian or secular, colonisers and the colonised, and dozens of languages." By contrast, Europe - where Art Basel started and where it stages a fair in Basel, Switzerland, in June - "is so small that cultures bleed together," he added. (There's also a Miami Beach fair in December.) Like Ms Ooi, Mr Spiegler said he thought the contingents from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and other neighbouring countries were significant.

"The South-east Asian element is often underestimated by the market in terms of the collectors, galleries and the artists," he said.

That was certainly the opinion of Jun Tirtadji when he founded ROH Projects in Jakarta six years ago. "We felt there was a need in Indonesia," Mr Tirtadji said. "There's so much talent here." ROH has been participating in Art Basel HK for five years, and the fair has helped shape the business beyond just the few days of the event. ROH specialises in emerging Asian contemporary talents, and this year it features eight artists including Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, an abstract painter based in Bandung, Indonesia, who works with pigmented resin and ash, forming paintings with his hands instead of a brush.

Mr Tirtadji said that the scene in Jakarta, in all its contradictions, had to be viewed through a different lens from that of New York or Hong Kong.

"The art world in Indonesia is quite cosmopolitan," he said. "But many of our collectors are buying their first piece of art with us." Isa Lorenzo, the founder of Silverlens, has been showing at the fair since it was called Art HK, before it was bought by Art Basel's parent company. "There's definitely a north-south division," he said of the Asian market. "The north is much bigger economically, but fewer items are bought and sold. In the south, it's more chaotic, but a lot more is bought and sold, at lower price points." NYTIMES

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