Art Stage Singapore: South Asia's flagship art fair bursts out of its basement venue

Singapore's answer to Frieze is getting bigger and bigger attracting 40,000 visitors this year. Arifa Akbar joined the art-seeking throng
  • @arifa_akbar

There were two grand hopes for Singapore’s flagship art fair when it first launched - that it would become a central meeting point for the nouveau riche in South Asia’s mushrooming art market, and that it would provide the nation’s own emerging art scene with an exhibiting platform.

Three years on, Art Stage Singapore is performing well on both counts. Its visitor numbers remain at a steady incline (more than 40,000 over four days in January), and 130 galleries attended from 23 countries (Australia, Russia, Hong Kong, New York, China, India and Britain’s Scream Gallery among them).

There was significant representation of Singaporean artists, much of it exploring themes of post-colonial identity and the environment, but the fair’s international elements were far more appealing and eye-catching. The Chinese-born Liu Xiao Hui playfully explored the idea of ‘image making’ in his idealised graphic images of Lenin, while the Iranian-Australian artist, Nasim Nasr’s interrogated Muslim identity in his videos and photographs of hijabi women, and Yayoi Kusama’s paintings were set alongside several of her ‘Pumpkin’ sculptures.

A dedicated Indonesia pavilion included the Javanese artist, Nasirun’s monumental panels, ‘Taking Care of Mother Earth’ which burst with mythic imagery, and Dadang Christanto’s installation of a giant heap of terracotta incense burners.

The works of well-established artists included those of Damien Hirst and China’s Yue Min Jun while a series of rare photographs captured the facial expressions of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau at a bullfight in Vallauris, taken by the New Zealand photographer, Brian Brake, in 1955, from the vantage point of a tree-top. A special platform was given to young Singaporean artists at the fair - Ang Song Ming showcased a shrine to celebrity which featured a mirrored crucifix and a framed Justin Bieber poster – and at the Singapore’s contemporary art museum, SAM, which staged by four young artists.

For all its variety, the real impact of Art Stage was felt outside the designated basement space of the fair itself. The fair galvanised private galleries and public spaces to organise their own special programmes over four-days and it was these that provided the real highlights.

Hermes commissioned Japanese artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto, to create a series of scarves, for which he used polaroids of refracted sunlight as inspiration, which were exhibited at Singapore Tyler Print Institute. The lower floor of Louis Vuitton at Marina Bay Sands shopping mall, was devoted to a solo show by Taiwanese artist, Charwei Tsai, called ‘A Dedication to the Sea’. A soundscape of the sea accompanied driftwood sculptures inscribed with the Buddist ‘Har Sutra’ prayer and a video of an ancient ‘hair dance’ ceremony undertaken by the women living on a remote island on the east coast of Taiwan.

The 25 and 26 floors of the Conrad Hotel were taken over by an innovative hotel art fair called ‘Worlds Apart’, in which gallerists displaying works across beds, bidets and bathrooms sinks. Another private initiative, ‘Underpass Art’, showcased six murals in an underpass at the Singapore river.

Among the lots at Singapore’s first auction, held by Est-Ouest auction house at Artspace@Helutrans (at a warehouse at the harbour district) was a life-size Japanese tea ceremony room made out of solid gold, with an estimated price tag of up to $2.9m.

As the Asian art market has boomed over the past decade, so too has its art fairs. Art Taipei was the first fair to spring up in 1992, and subsequently, there have been annual showcases in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Art Stage, launched by its Swiss founder, Lorenzo Rudolf (founder of Art Basel at Miami Beach and former director of Shanghai art fair), felt the South Asian market was big enough for the competition. “You have to realise what’s going on. The art world is becoming more and more globalised. It’s no longer just the Western world. The market is economically shifting towards Asia.”

The local arts scene in Singapore has seen massive backing from the government over the past decade, including the building of new museums, galleries and a 30,000-sq-metre facility for storing artworks near Changi International Airport. Also among these initiatives is Gillman Barracks, a new complex of 16 international galleries and Goodman Arts Centre, comprised of multi-storey art studios and exhibition rooms.