Eye for an Eye

Kate Sutton at the first Prudential Eye Awards

Left: Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Right: Prudential Eye Award founder Serenella Ciclitira, Art Stage Singapore director Lorenzo Rudolf, Prudential Eye Award founder David Ciclitira, and Art Stage Singapore partner Maria Elena Rudolf. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

PUSSY RIOT was stopping traffic, literally, as they dashed across Singapore’s Raffles Boulevard, a PR handler hot on their flats.

“I’m very sorry, but all the artists need to be on the bus for the red carpet!” the assistant called out, in breathless panic. “We prefer to walk,” Maria Alyokhina assured him, motioning toward the sprawling Suntec City complex. To be fair, it was only two blocks away. Considering his options (and heeding the gleam in Alyokhina’s eye), the handler glumly consented, turning back to the bus while Alyokhina and her comrade, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, traded smiles.

The trip to Singapore was the first time out of the country for either of the women since their release from Russian prison in late December. The release came only three months shy of their two-year sentences, but it was enough time for Putin to try to claim some extra credit before the Sochi Olympics. While the duo will soon embark on a tour of prisons in Paris, Brussels, and New York (where the women will appear at the Amnesty International Concert at Barclays Center on February 5), they were in Singapore for another matter: namely, Pussy Riot was up for a prize at the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards.

Left: Prudential Eye Award winner Ben Quilty. Right: Prudential Eye Award jury members Nigel Hurst and Nick Mitzevich.

Their attendance surprised some, and with good reason. At their first postprison press conference, the women announced that they were putting aside their art practice to found Zone of Rights, an organization dedicated to improving conditions in prisons worldwide. This prompted Moscow Conceptualist guru Anatoly Osmolovsky to issue an open letter, decrying that it was a capitulation to Putin for Pussy Riot to publically renounce their privileged status as makers of art—a force that cannot be anticipated nor controlled—for the more traditional role of advocate (an easily quashable species within Putin’s Russia). “Why would Putin have any impetus to change the prison system?” Osmolovsky thunders. “You’re proving that it works just as he wants it to!” Tolokonnikova responded with a missive of her own, insisting that Pussy Riot wasn’t giving up art, just adapting their approach. “As an artist, one must reinvent oneself,” she maintained. In other words, the Prudential Eye Awards provided a perfect opportunity to assure Pussy Riot’s public that it hasn’t renounced contemporary art altogether. “Well, that, and we wanted to see Singapore,” chirped Alyokhina.

The Eye program was founded in 1982 by Parallel Media Group’s David and Serenella Ciclitira, after the collector couple struggled to navigate Asia’s emerging art scenes. Presuming that they were not the only ones in need of orientation, the Ciclitiras began publishing primers on the art communities in Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Partnering with Prudential and the Saatchi Gallery, the Ciclitiras created the Eye Awards as a way to bring recognition (and potentially $50,000) to some of the standout artists they encountered along the way. They enlisted judges such as Singapore curator Tan Boon Hui, the Gwangju Design Biennale’s Lee Young Hye, and Saatchi Gallery CEO Nigel Hurst to help them showcase “Greater Asia” at its greatest.

I personally found the concept of “Greater Asia”—an Asia so engorged as to encompass Australia and Russia—intriguing, if not a little strange. “Maybe David’s subscribing to Niall Ferguson’s definition of the East? You know, as determined by spirituality and religion?” suggested Darren Flook, director of Independent. Ciclitira cut in correcting us with a mischievous grin: “Didn’t you ever play Risk? Irkutsk was always the key to Asia.”

Left: Prudential Eye Award winner Jompet Kuswindanato. Right: Curator Josie Brown with SIngapore International’s Gwen Lee and Jayvis Lau.

Speaking of risks, Prudential Eye certainly took a sizable one when it nominated Pussy Riot. At the press preview, video screens stayed black, due to “technical difficulties.” While almost all of the twenty shortlisted artists were present and available for interviews, the moment the speeches ended, journalists swooped down on Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who fielded questions with practiced precision. “This is nothing,” confirmed Tolokonnikova’s husband, artist Pyotr Verzilov (from whose “Voina” collective Pussy Riot originally formed). “You should see what happens with the Moscow journalists. It’s a melee.”

But back to Raffles Boulevard. As our posse waited for the bus full of artists to arrive, PR pro Jasmin Pelham motioned for Pussy Riot to stay put behind a column, so as not to incite another media mob. To kill time, Pelham told us that next door to the ceremony, there was a church service, six thousand worshippers strong.

Tolokonnikova’s eyes widened: “What kind of church? Catholic or Protestant?

“Protestant, I believe,” Pelham stammered, slightly taken aback.

“Oh, that’s cool. I’m okay with Protestants,” Tolokonnikova replied softly.

Left: Helutrans’s Dick Chia with Hisham Halim. Right: Singapore Art Museum’s Susie Lingham.

In any case, the church happened to be letting out just as the Prudential Eye Awards began. The streams of worshippers packed the down escalator, as gala-goers balled their gowns in their fists to ride the escalators up. “This reminds me of—oh, what’s that Woody Allen film? Stardust Memories?” Flook mused, as both parties gawked at each other. “You know, that scene where in one train car you’ve got this fabulous soiree, while the other is just full of the most miserable human beings you’ve ever seen.” I wasn’t sure which side was which in Flook’s equation.

Inside, the ballroom was awash in a swirl of plum-colored lights. “You should have seen it before they consulted me,” artist Petroc Sesti boasted. I could barely hear him over the James Bond–esque theme song, which imbued the room with a theatrical intrigue that made even finding your seat felt like a mission. While the invite requested black tie, few heeded the call; I made sure to compliment jury member Andrei Erofeev on his crisp suit. “This is the first time I’ve ever worn a black tie,” the controversial curator shot back. “Let’s hope it’s the last.”

For all the pomp, the prizes were rattled off rapid-fire, with the first going to visibly stoked painter Ben Quilty. “I’ve always believed that artists should be able to win trophies. It’s like I’ve won the Melbourne Cup!” Next, Yogyakarta staple Jompet Kuswidananto won for installation, and Seoul-based Seung Wook Sim took home the prize for sculpture and Australian Trent Parke for photography. These were followed by a pause for a set of special awards, including Outstanding Contributions to Asian Art, which went to Liu Xiaodong, and Most Promising Asian Gallery, which went to Kuala Lumpur’s Galerie Chandan. (“Never heard of them,” shrugged the Malaysian dealer across the table from me.) The Prudential Singapore Young Artist Award was given to student James John Dycoco, who sputtered in shock at the honor: “Wow. Just wow,” he concluded.

Left: Collector Melani Setiawn. Right: Prudential Eye Award jury member Andrei Erofeev with nominee Ira Korina.

As a “cosmopolitan” interlude, native Neapolitan actress Serena Autieri (introduced as “the voice of the Italian version of Frozen”) took to the stage for a song. Following her flawless performance, the hosts struggled to cover the extended silence while the stage was dismantled. “So now we have to make some banter,” the hostess bluntly broadcast. “Has anyone seen Frozen?” her cohost attempted.

It was a relief when the awards resumed, with the Best Asian Art Exhibition going to the Singapore Biennale. (“Big surprise,” a dealer across the table scoffed, rolling her eyes.) Singapore Art Museum director Susie Lingham accepted on behalf of the behemoth, twenty-seven-curator, eighty-two-artist undertaking. “I didn’t prepare any speech for this, because, well, honestly? I didn’t know this award existed until just a moment ago.” (No seriously, has anyone seen Frozen?)

Autieri would grace the stage once more, to give the penultimate prize in the hotly anticipated Digital/Video category, which pitted Daniel Crooks, Baden Pailthorpe, Pussy Riot, and Yang Yongliang. In the milliseconds after Crooks was proclaimed the winner, the only sound in the room was that James Bond theme song, as everyone confirmed that they had heard correctly before applauding for Crooks. “We were looking at the whole body of work,” one of the jury members confided later. Another was more candid: “Frankly, I would never consider Pussy Riot ‘art.’ ”

Left: Prudential Young Artist Award winner James John Dycoco. Right: The nominees line up with David Ciclitira at the press preview.

The final prize of the evening was for “the winner or winners,” who would be featured in a solo show at London’s Saatchi Gallery. It went to Quilty. The artist was visibly more humbled this go-round: “Growing up in Australia, I’ve always felt like I was living in some dark spot. It’s only now that I really see my place within Greater Asia,” he began, before shifting gears. “There are people in this world who believe that art can change the world. And there are people in this room who have paid the price for believing that art can change in the world.” Quilty paused, letting the message sink in. “I just don’t know what else to say: Drinks on me tonight, you guys!”

I looked over to catch Pussy Riot’s reaction to the speech, but they had already disappeared.

Left: Curator Tan Boon Hui. Right: Singapore Art Fair’s Laure d’Hauteville and Marine Bougaran with dealer Jennifer Soen (center).

Left: Artist Petroc Sesti. Right: Actress Serena Autieri with Prudential Eye Awards founder David Ciclitira.

Left: Artists Ben Quilty and Ira Korina. Right: Voina’s Pyotr Verzilov.

Left: Artist Liu Xiaodong. Right: Dealer Richard Koh, with collectors Dr Oei Hong Dijon and Kenneth Choi, and adviser Adeline Ooi (center).