Singapore's art sector is making a dramatic return in 2023, but collectors are sceptical that any substantial change is taking place. The city-state is struggling to reinforce its art-world influence due to many factors, including the persisting censorship. Robert Bociaga investigates.
Singapore was supposed to be making a roaring resurgence as a regional cultural powerhouse, luring post-pandemic crowds from across the world to a diverse selection of engaging art shows.
Yet, the commentators argue that Art SG, the largest art fair in Southeast Asia and the biggest art fair in Asia serving as the centrepiece event of Singapore Art Week (January 6-15), does not have enough local buyers to put Hong Kong's status as Asia's largest art market in jeopardy.
For Alain Servais, an art collector, and investment banker, who attended the Art SG, a fair's success be it in Singapore, Seoul, or Hong Kong is dependent on its inclusion in a vibrant ecosystem of art schools, artist-run spaces, galleries, museums, and collectors.
“Art SG cannot by itself generate this dynamic ecosystem,” he says, “as seen by the relative blandness of the work on display and its lower price range in comparison to Seoul or Hong Kong.”
In defiance of the high hopes, this year's fair did not record high sales, as local collectors are missing and foreign collectors could not offset that on their own. “Very few of the principals of those galleries were present in person and it is always a sign,” Servais adds.
Singapore's collecting community is tiny, and additional non-profit outlets to promote the work of Singapore artists are needed. Nevertheless, several Singaporeans remain skeptical that things have altered fundamentally on the ground. Others argue that the government's new art strategy, which views art as a tool of fostering identity and community, just perpetuates the state's "instrumentalization" of art, implying that art is still not viewed as a value in and of itself.
Art dealers and collectors from all over Asia, including several Hong Kong institutions and galleries, gathered in Singapore for the first edition of Art SG, Southeast Asia's largest contemporary art market, which featured roughly 160 galleries from 35 countries and territories.
The fair was held on two levels of the Marina Bay Sands convention centre marking a new beginning for the city state's ambition to become Southeast Asia's primary art market, following the abrupt closure of Art Stage Singapore, its previous large-scale international fair, in 2019.
Art SG participants varied from global dealers offering high-end artworks to local enterprises selling items for as little as US$10,000 [NZD$15,385] or less. Most are in Singapore to assess if the Southeast Asian market has recovered from the pandemic.
Kevin Abosch, an Irish conceptual artist and pioneer in cryptoart, considers the event a success. “My work sold so I’m happy for the galleries,” he says. “I showed work with Nagel Draxler and Kate Vass Galerie, both in the reframe section. Attendees were eager to learn more about AI and discuss the implications of blockchain technology.”
Some gallery officials said the fair was "extremely quiet" in terms of sales, although there were lots of enquiries. The fact that Singapore's goods and services tax has just increased to 8 percent and will go up again to 9 percent in 2024 might be an additional obstacle to generating sales.
Others were content with the fact that the fair had introduced them to new people in the area, even if no sales came right away.
While “Singapore is advertising itself like the Switzerland of Asia, even Switzerland allows more chaos than Singapore,” Servais notes.
Strikingly, the fair had requested to remove five of the 13 minutes of a video by international star LuYang, called Electromagnetic Brainology for showing some nudity. This sheds shadow on Singapore’s ability attract the talent, and stir up artistic discussions, as Singaporean Cultural Bureau curbs on the power of art.
Although LuYang is tough to categorize, this was the first time she has ever been censored. The work by the Shanghai-born creator includes 3D-animated films, video game-like installations, holograms, neon, virtual reality, and even software manipulation, with many connections to Japanese manga and anime. Music, which is electronic and constantly frantic, also plays an important role.
Also, although the city-state appears to have abandoned some of its conservatism and tendency for punitive measures following the decriminalization of homosexuality in November 2022, old sensitivities continue to loom over the artistic freedom.
Servais says that beautiful and quite restrained paintings by Nguyễn Quốc Dũng, a Vietnamese artist, representing naked transgender people were partially covered on the outside window in order to not disturb the passersby.
Because conformity is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the city-state and its people, Singapore might not be the finest breeding ground for fascinating contemporary art and risk-taking local collectors. “Contemporary art needs just the right balance of questioning the status quo to thrive,” Servais says.
- Asia Media Centre