Center Stage

Left: Rafiq Jumabhoy, collectors Budi Tek and Guillaume Levy-Llambert, artist Takashi Murakami, and Nao Tazaki. (Photo: Ai Tee Hoon) Right: Art Stage Singapore founder and director Lorenzo Rudolf. (Except where noted, all photos Zehra Jumabhoy)

SOME CLAIM THAT THIRTEEN is a lucky number. Certainly Singapore’s art world would like to believe so. “Everyone struggled in 2012. But with a positive start like Art Stage, we all look forward to a prosperous 2013!” said Lorenzo Rudolf, the onetime Art Basel master and prosperous-looking founding director of Art Stage Singapore. The third edition of the fair was supposed to be the biggest yet. And in the tiny city-state of Singapore, size matters.

Art Stage 2013 was located at the massive Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Center, its glass-encased building facing the Sky Bridge that soars across the sea. What better positioning for a fair that seeks to replace Hong Kong as the window onto Asia? “What is very obvious for the 2013 edition is our Asian identity,” Rudolf proclaimed. Nearby, the lights of the much-feted Flower Dome glistened like the cynosure of a sci-fi fantasy landscape, its fluted armature reaching past natural flora toward the stars. If early Singapore art fairs tended to be somewhat hole-in-the-wall affairs, Art Stage 2013 set its sights high. Rudolf’s intention was that it be “more like a Biennale”; coinciding with a spate of openings in Singapore’s largest art district (the Gillman Barracks) as well as open studios at the Goodman Arts Centre (“the artists’ village”), the fair was part of a larger Art Week.

Left: Audrey Phng from Asian Art Options, collector Maisy Koh, and Eugene Tan of the Gillman Barracks. Right: Khairuddin Hori, senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

The city was a hive of well-organized, government-funded activity. At the colonial-era Cricket Club, directors from the National Art Gallery spoke about how a new $500 million museum—to open in 2015—will be the biggest (that word again) in Southeast Asia. In the meantime, the Singapore Art Museum continues its tradition of provocative displays. Indonesian Wiyoga Muhardanto’s Conversation Piece spoofs socially conscious gallerygoers. Below a partition that resembles a solid white wall, we witness (or, rather, infer) a party in progress: Since all we see of the “guests” are their feet, we judge their status through their shoes. (Do those tacky pumps resemble mine?)

Linked up with all this region gazing and revelry was the three-day WPO-YPO conference—themed “Deconstructing Asian Art”—for select collectors. It included local personalities like Richard Hoon and Guillaume Levy-Lambert, as well as Indonesian Budi Tek, the founder of two private museums (the Yuz Foundation in Jakarta will have a sibling in Shanghai later this year), and Lekha Poddar, co-owner of Delhi’s Devi Art Foundation. And it wasn’t tough to spot Hong Kong dealer-cum-socialite Pearl Lam (mauve-streaked hair competing with Jason Martin’s violently purple “painting-sculpture” at her booth). Japanese artist-dealer-collector Takashi Murakami was also around, hinting that he might be opening a branch of Kaikai Kiki Gallery at the Barracks.

Keeping his own counsel amid all this riotous socializing was Dr. Woffles Wu, plastic surgeon. On the Wednesday of the fair, he welcomed a (courageous) few into the cadaverous space he calls his “Maosoleum,” explaining his domain’s “delights.” The visit took place in the dead of night, where the face of the Chairman—on paintings, sculptures, and snuggled into installations—assumed a ghastly, ghostly glow. Guests padded around in hospital slippers (provided by the MD himself), sipping champagne tremulously. The lights went off, and we witnessed a whirling display of fluorescent lights and clanging machine-art. Fiberglass figurines on motorized platforms marched rapidly in a circular formation, individuality lost in the blur of humanity (what Dr. Wu called his “kinetic art display”).

Left: Artist Eugene Soh and actress Lam Hai Yen. Right: Artist Tisna Sanjaya.

Unfortunately, for a fair about Asia, there were few South Asian artworks to be found. “It would have been nice to engage more Indian galleries,” confessed Rudolf. “But the India Art Fair is in the same week, so there was nothing much we could do.” India’s loss was generally Indonesia’s gain: The latter nation boasted its very own pavilion at the fair. Here, artist Tisna Sanjaya, in filthy overalls, constructed a house, slathering dirty gray cement on a small structure as part of his in situ performance, I Like Kapital—Kapital Like Me. The work was (so explained Sanjaya) a mock-up of the kind of alternative housing projects he is busy establishing in his hometown, a comment on how big business destroys agriculture and the environment. (Does it matter that big business is also what fuels Indonesian art collecting?)

Such solid works mixed with the regular fare of Julian Opie video-paintings, Anish Kapoor satellite dishes (like upended sequins), and a rash of Chinese Cynical Realist paintings (more Warhol-inspired caricatures of Mao). Art Stage has finally morphed into a “globalized” venture: It looked much like any other art fair in the world, except with substantially more Southeast Asian and East Asian offerings. And, despite some surprises (did you see the sculpture of the horse that looked perplexingly distended?), it was as predictable as such “international” ventures tend to be. How many of Yue Minjun’s crazily smiling pink-faced figures can one see before becoming immune to their menacing charms? Amid the “Political Pop” (with its sarcastic themes and serious prices), a welcome respite was provided by FOST. The only local gallery at Gillman Barracks, at the fair it turned visitors on to the dainty-sinister work of Singaporean Sookoon Ang. Her sculptures and installations were inspired by fairy tales: cabinets featuring drawers stuffed with other worlds; bundles of broomsticks with silky platinum-blonde tresses like those of a storybook princess.

Left: Jean-Francoise Milou, architect of Singapore's National Art Gallery. Right: Collectors Dr. Woffles Wu and Richard Hoon.

The opening day was packed, but by Saturday visitors seemed thin on the ground. Strolling around in a perfectly cut pale gray suit, Sundaram Tagore from New York waxed lyrical: “This year there is a continuous flow of people. I even had clients who found tickets waiting for them in their hotel rooms.” Rudolf was cautious with his numbers, noting 40,500 visitors, up from 32,000 the year prior. But he ventured no comment on sales. Conor Macklin of London’s Grosvenor Vadehra was blunt: “There’s lots of dim sum here, but no main course. I sold things outside the fair, but nothing at the fair.” All signs suggested that Singapore-based galleries—who could afford to play the waiting game—had more luck.

At Iggy’s Restaurant on Orchard Road for the closing dinner of “Deconstructing Asian Art,” I ruminated on all this art love and greed. As I dipped my spoon into my “deconstructed” nasi lemak, I reveled in its exquisitely balanced flavors. A hint of fish in the wafer; a taste of coconut lurking in the green bubbles. The earthy hawker-center dish morphed into a decadent delight. But, I wondered, could such fancy fare make a satisfying meal? Was I missing the “real” Singapore in all this—admittedly tasty—finesse? “Hopefully we will get our fill of jalebis at the India Art Fair, where things are looking more exciting!” whispered mischievous Macklin. We drank pale pink Veuve Clicquot to that.

Left: Dealer Sundaram Tagore. Right: Shushma Goh and Low Sze Wee, directors of the National Art Gallery in Singapore.

Left: Dealer Rachel Rillo of Silverlens. Right: Artist Sookoon Ang.

Left: Melissa Chiu of Asia Society. Right: Collector Lekha Poddar, co-owner of the Devi Art Foundation.

Left: Chong Siak Ching, chief executive of Singapore's National Art Gallery, and collector Beh Swan Gin, from the organizing committee of “Deconstructing Asian Art.” Right: Conor Macklin of Grosvenor Vadehra.