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SEA Focus debuted with a bang, as artist Yeo Kaa smashed pinatas at Yavuz Gallery’s booth.

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Haffendi Anuar at Richard Koh Fine Art.

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Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters.

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Alvin Ong at Yavuz Gallery.

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Mae Anderson, chairman of Art Outreach Singapore.

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Usha Chandradas and Pauline Gan, founders of Plural Art Mag.

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Cheong Soo Pieng at STPI.

Art Week 2019: Drama At Its Finest

Chaos. Conflicts. Heroes and villains. This year’s Singapore Art Week was the stuff of movies
Feb 1, 2019 5:50 AM

This year’s Singapore Art Week was packed with angst, drama and emotion – too much, if you ask the sleep-deprived gallerists – but also enough to give them and others the adrenaline boost necessary to come together and avert what could have been the biggest commercial disaster in the history of Singapore’s art scene.

The villain du jour was none other than Art Stage president Lorenzo Rudolf who, it must be said, has enjoyed the role of mischief-making too much these past few years. Eight days before the ninth edition of art fair Art Stage was set to open, the Swiss impresario decided to cancel the event, leaving hundreds of gallerists, artists and collectors adrift. Amid gasps of “how could he?” and “Lorenzo’s a &%$*!”,  steelier players sought other platforms to exhibit the art they had already shipped to Singapore, with many local players such as The Culture Story and Plural Art Mag offering help.

The news broke on Jan 16, the day of the opening reception of IMPART Collectors’ Show organized by non-profit Art Outreach Singapore. There, members of the three government bodies supporting Art Week – the National Arts Council, Singapore Tourism Board and Economic Development Board – gulped down their champagne quickly and huddled together for a rescue plan. They finally asked Art Outreach chairman Mae Anderson to organise an interim platform for the affected galleries. That night, a one-time interim fair called ARTery – a word suggesting blood, oxygen, a lifeline – was born to take over the space that Art Stage was meant to occupy.

Art Stage was once regarded as the country’s premier art fair, but it’s clear that no one will ever call it that again. In its early years, Art Stage was responsible for connecting a lot of Southeast Asian galleries and artists to new collectors. Indeed, a chat with longtime gallerists today still elicit expressions of gratitude that Mr Rudolf had provided them a platform to introduce their galleries to a wider network of international collectors. A few, who now have various spaces in the region, credit Art Stage as the fountainhead of their humble beginnings.

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But the goodwill Mr Rudolf had accrued is much diminished now, as those same gallerists say they’re not likely to take part in Art Stage should it return next year. Worse, some say they’re not confident of getting back the booth rental fees they’ve already paid in advance for this year – even as others are preparing to take legal action against Art Stage.  

The mystery remains: Why did Mr Rudolf cancel Art Stage at the last minute? Sources say that the fair was set to run at a loss and that some gallerists who had earlier indicated their interest in participating had changed their minds. Other sources think that Mr Rudolf - who is now largely based in Switzerland, leaving certain aspects of operations to CEO Marcus Teo - had only recently gotten a full grasp of what SEA Focus was going to do. 

SEA Focus is a new STPI-organised and government-backed platform to promote Southeast Asian art. By late last year, it had successfully attracted strong galleries to participate and sell art under its elegant white tentage in Gillman Barracks. On its opening night last week, art lovers packed its spaces almost with a vengeance, as if to prove Mr Rudolf wrong for calling Singapore art scene “stagnating” – just one of his memorable quips over the years.

Sales reports after the opening, however, were decidedly mixed; some gallerists were sanguine while others saw lower-than-expected buying activity. Meanwhile at the ARTery, several gallerists say sales were also slow, attributing it both to a sluggish Singapore market and a general worldwide malaise stemming from broad economic uncertainties. It must be said that the quality of art some galleries had brought wasn’t terribly high.  

Outside of the art fair circuit, however, several exhibitions looked spectacular in themselves: Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion is conceptually ambitious and striking, STPI’s Cheong Soo Pieng showcase is exquisite, and several galleries from Pearl Lam to Sullivan+Strumpf have solid showcases of local and regional artists. All these point to a growing faith in Singapore Art Week as an established and bona fide event to celebrate contemporary art. Now in its seventh year, it’s certainly generated enough buzz to buoy the number of art visitors during its run, judging by the strong international turnout at many shows.

The 9-day event ended on Sunday, Jan 27, with big questions still hanging in the air with regards to Art Stage and the future. But for now, we’d like to give out a few unofficial awards and titles of our own to the key actors of Singapore Art Week 2019:

MACHIAVELLI OF THE MONTH

Lorenzo Rudolf, president of Art Stage, who called off an art fair at the 11th hour, with little regard for the gallerists who had put their faith in the event. His spurious suggestions that the government favours SEA Focus at the expense of Art Stage completely tunes out the fact that the government has been very generous to his art fair for several years.

ACCIDENTAL HERO AWARD I

Mae Anderson, chairman of Art Outreach Singapore, who agreed to organise ARTery to rescue stranded galleries overnight. For days, she barely slept a wink in order to get the pop-up fair together, even if she was strongly aided by three government bodies as well as the venue sponsor Marina Bay Sands.

ACCIDENTAL HERO AWARD II

Usha Chandradas and Pauline Gan, founders of online publication Plural Art Mag, which galvanized the local scene to help stranded galleries through their Facebook page “Art Stage SOS”.  

Breakthrough Prize I

SEA Focus. Despite Mr Rudolf’s attempt at discrediting the new art platform, SEA Focus had a terrific debut. It had a simple and well-designed layout, good galleries, a steady stream of crowds and all-round good vibes.

Breakthrough Prize II 

Relative newcomer Alvin Ong is holding his first solo show at Yavuz Gallery and nearly every one of his playful canvases that delighted in conflating the sensual and the sordid was snapped up in the first few days.

COMEBACK OF THE SEASON

Richard Koh Fine Art. Malaysian gallerist Richard Koh closed his art space at Helutrans in 2015. But he returned to Singapore this year, this time in Gillman Barracks. During Art Week, he showed Haffendi Anuar at his new permanent space in Block 42, Yeoh Choo Kuan at a temporary space at Block 22, Faris Nakamura at SEA Focus and a selection of his personal collection at The Private Museum. Had Art Stage not been cancelled, he would also have had a booth there showing Anne Samat, Nadiah Bamadhaj and other artists. Now here’s a man who knows how to stage a comeback.

TROPHY FOR BEST SHOW

Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters. There are two parts to this ambitious show curated by Kathleen Ditzig: The first part involves a fine history exhibition of Asian horror films dating back to the 1920s, at the National Library Building. For the second part, Asian Film Archive cleaned up an unused building in Kampong Bugis and mounted a strong showcase of contemporary art that interrogates varied notions of the boogeyman in our midst. The top-shelf artists include Heman Chong, Ho Tzu Nyen, Shubigi Rao, Yee I-Lann and Yason Banal.  

THE JURY’S STILL OUT ON...

Singapore’s international reputation. Mr Rudolf’s toxic actions and words seem to have done serious international damage, despite valiant local attempts to counteract them. It remains to be seen if that can be repaired before next January.