A fair exchange

Contemporary Asian art fair ARTSingapore has doubled in size and continues to grow. If the Singapore Biennale is a fashion show, the fair might be the department store to buy art from


ART FOR SALE: Richard Winkler’s Pregnant Woman With Fruit brought in by Indonesia’s Zola Zolu Gallery.

ART fairs, in the international arena of contemporary art, have become a big deal.

In London, there is the four-year-old Frieze Art Fair, which has swiftly become an essential date in art calendars. Stars of British art like Turner Prize-winning, cross-dressing potter Grayson Perry can be spotted lingering around, while bad-girl artist Tracey Emin launched her autobiography to coincide with the fair last year. Buyers fan out across the booths, hungry for bargains.

Then there is Art Basel Miami Beach – the younger sibling of Switzerland’s Art Basel – which has been dubbed the world’s most glamorous art fair. Some 195 participating galleries presented 2,000 artists to 36,000 visitors last year. It is attended by the likes of fashion designer Donna Karan and casino-owner Steve Wynn.

There are also contemporary art fairs stretching from Istanbul to Guangzhou. Their popularity has been descrembed a tad dismissively as the ‘one-stop shopping mall experience’. Whereas Biennale art shows have also pervaded the art world, fairs are less discreet creatures, where money talks louder than the artists or curators.

In comparison to the party-fuelled, conspicuous consumption of its foreign counterparts, the ARTSingapore contemporary Asian Art Fair – to be held here from Sept 28 to Oct 2 – has a less wild child image.

But it has been growing.

Organised by ARTReach, the annual event was started six years ago by the Art Galleries Association (Singapore) to promote ethical trade among professional art galleries.

In its sixth year and fifth instalment (it sat out 2003 because of Sars), the fair has doubled in size – from 2,000sq m last year to 4,000sq m at Suntec Singapore. This year, it will house 71 art galleries from 14 countries like India, Korea, Myanmar and Singapore. Last year, 50 exhibitors had taken up booths, while the year before saw 41 exhibitors.

The artwork up for sale at the fair will be worth more than $20 million – an increase on last year’s total of $12 million.

The pieces on offer range from traditional Chinese ink paintings and glass art to photography with a strong Asian-pop aesthetic. Prices range from $300 to $1 million.

There is Taiwanese artist Hong Tung-lu’s playful lightboxes which depict Chun Li, a female character from the Japanese Streetfighter computer game, against an iconic Western classical art backdrop. Japan’s 100 Tonson Gallery will bring in famed artist Yayoi Kusama’s silkscreen work, titled Town.

Last year, the fair installed a polka-dot-filled work by Kusuma within its hall. This year, Beijing artist Miao Xiaochun will install a large-format, digital photography work titled The Last Judgement In Cyberspace. A modern take on Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, it consists of 400 images of Miao’s own body, which he scanned and then digitally manipulated on a computer into grey, bald guys.

Says ARTReach’s Ms Chen Shen Po: ‘We’re still in the infancy stage, so our objective is to improve the quality of the fair and then grow its size. We want to attract young artists with good artworks, and not necessarily big names.’

She adds: ‘We try to have a good mix of prices. Some works may be cheap, but they have to be of good quality, so that consumers can come with the confidence to buy.’

The fair aims to maintain its previous year’s attendance figure of 15,000. But despite its steady growth and support from galleries, the fair is not without its detractors and critics.

Art collector Pwee Keng Hock, a managing partner at Utterly Art Gallery, says he was disappointed at the content of last year’s fair.

‘I found that a lot of the Singaporean booths were trying to peddle their old stock. For me, a Singaporean who goes to the galleries very often, it was not so interesting.’

He adds that Utterly Art had participated in 2004, where it had sold enough to cover the booth rental cost. But it decided not to return because of the low profit margin.

Dr Pwee ventures that the fair could move to a cheaper location to help lower rental costs. That would ease the pressure on art galleries to sell mega-expensive works to break even.

Dr Eugene Tan, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts exhibition and research centre at the LaSalle-SIA College Of The Arts, feels the fair is slightly out of sync with the latest developments in Singapore’s visual arts scene.

Dr Tan, a curator of the ongoing Singapore Biennale art extravaganza, points out that none of the 12 Singapore artists in the Biennale are represented by galleries at the fair, which is not heavy on experimental fare like sound installations or new media work.

He adds: ‘To attract important galleries to show here, the fair will have to have some prestige. But it is a very young fair. They can’t be too choosy about their galleries. So it’s about striking the right balance.’

In response, Ms Chen argues that the sense of deja vu Dr Pwee talks about can be put down to galleries bringing in art which has proved popular with fair visitors.

She says: ‘You have to think of it as a trade fair. So, naturally, the more experimental works are not in it. Unlike the Biennale, which is a platform to show new works, a fair is where you go to buy the works that sell.’

Despite the criticism, one might well call ARTSingapore the little art fair that could.

Not even the large-scale Singapore Biennale, with its 200 works by 95 artists scattered over 18 venues, could daunt it. Ms Chen sees her event as the Biennale’s commercial arm.

Inspired by the art they see at the inaugural showcase, buyers may be tempted to act on their shopping impulse at the fair, she hopes. To that end, ARTSingapore is listed as a satellite event under the Biennale.

Artists and gallery owners also say the fair remains relevant.

One of them is first-time participant Kumari Nahappan, a Singaporean artist. She is showing her signature chilli sculptures, featuring pairs of chillies that dance the tango, salsa or other dances. She rented a booth because she feels that the fair has improved and is attracting more people than it first did.

Gallery-owner Terence Teo, whose Cape Of Good Hope Art Gallery has participated in the fair for the past three years, sees his presence there as a way to help Singapore artists expand their reach to regional collectors.

Actual sales at his booth vary, he says. One year, he sold a $20,000 Chua Ek Kay painting. Another year, he sold two works priced around $8,000 each. But what is helpful is that he makes contact with about three collectors at each fair, who then become potential clients.

Honolulu gallery-owner Robyn Buntin is possibly the participant travelling furthest to attend the fair. In his first outing, he will show works by Honolulu-based painters like H.H. Wong and George Woollard.

Says Mr Buntin, via e-mail: ‘I have not been to Singapore before and thought it could be an adventure as well. Singapore, from what I understand, is part of a globally-conscious new Asia. That sensitivity, I hope, is reflected in a fresh taste in art.’

Not surprisingly, ARTSingapore counts the fact that it is the only art fair in an English-speaking country in Asia as a draw for many exhibitors from the West. And so it continues to work on growing; diligently and steadily.

Says Ms Chen: ‘My ambition is to grow the fair to take up 10,000sq m, an entire floor at Suntec Singapore in six years. We’ll just have to take it step by step.’

• ARTSingapore is on at Suntec Singapore, Hall 602, from Sept 28 to Oct 2. Sept 28: gala opening at 6pm (by invitation). Opening hours: 11am to 8pm (Sept 29 to Oct 1), 11am to 5pm (Oct 2). Tickets at $10 per entry and $20 for a four-day pass. Free entry for students and those under 18. For more information and event schedule, visit