S.E.A. Focus 2020: Far From the Big Boys, Playing Its Own Rules

Overview of S.E.A. Focus 2020. Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.
FOST Gallery (Singapore) booth at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.
Can Yavuz and artist Luke Heng at the booth of Yavuz Gallery (Singapore/Sydney). Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.
Artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen interacting with CoBo Social managing editor Denise turning orange at the touch of her socks. Image courtesy of CoBo Social.
Rita Targui and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at the booth of neugerriemschneider (Berlin). Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.
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ART AND SUSTAINABILITY

A prime event of Singapore Art Week, the second edition of S.E.A. Focus opened at state-run Gillman Barracks with a crowded VIP night last Wednesday. As a platform with a “mission to showcase contemporary art from Southeast Asia” it certainly achieved this well with its tight selection of 20 galleries. But fear not, rumours that Singapore—or even Taiwan for that matter—is on the verge of overtaking the Hong Kong market simply wouldn’t be true, and suggesting so would be too presumptuous. What S.E.A. Focus offers isn’t a global stage, but something distinctively different; a meeting point that highlights the artistic diversity and creativity of the countries that make up the region of Southeast Asia. And that’s what it should be applauded for.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery unless otherwise stated

 

Overview of S.E.A. Focus 2020. Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.

 

Helmed by Emi Eu, director of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, the second edition of S.E.A. Focus concluded just three days ago, wrapping up Singapore Art Week 2020, an annual programme heavily supported and funded by the city-state’s government. Downscaling from its first edition, S.E.A. Focus presented 20 galleries showcasing 39 artists hailing from across Southeast Asia. A young boutique fair that is better called a platform, the strength of S.E.A. Focus lay in its handpicked selection of art, which many VIPS and industry insiders commented was a positive improvement from last year. So, it seems the S.E.A. Focus team—which is largely the STPI team—received feedback well and implemented changes. Other noted comments across visitors were the improved air conditioning—which if anything, veered on the ice-cold this time—and food and beverages being permitted inside the tent this year. These points, while seemingly so minor, can effectively make or break an event in the arts.

While indeed Hong Kong—seen as Asia’s foothold in the global art circuit—has been suffering from its first recession in a decade with a predicted 1.3% contraction, and shaken by eight months of political unrest that remains ongoing, it’s also important to note that the city is also forecast to make a recovery in the latter half of 2020. Speculations that Singapore will rise above Hong Kong as the crown jewel of the art market in Asia is rather unlikely. Despite what some commentators have suggested, it should also well be remembered that S.E.A. Focus is not a platform seeking to conveniently take the reins after the fall of Art Stage in 2019, instead, it’s serving as a meeting point spotlighting artistic creativity from Southeast Asia. Rather than compare it for its size to other large-scale fairs—including internationally-focused Taipei Dangdai, which was concurrently held and also in its second year—time is better served in examining the exciting new works and young artists S.E.A. Focus was able to draw together.

Among the artists showcased, over half were born after 1985, indicating a collective drive towards building an audience for the next generation of artists emerging from the region. With heavily subsidised booths, presumably through funding from the National Arts Council, participating galleries incurred lower costs, making it more affordable to present younger artists from their roster—who often have a younger price point too.

 

FOST Gallery (Singapore) booth at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.
Can Yavuz and artist Luke Heng at the booth of Yavuz Gallery (Singapore/Sydney). Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.

 

Even though 50 percent of participating galleries were either homegrown or have a physical space in Singapore, most even in Gillman Barracks, I was pleasantly surprised to discover many talented artists whose practices were new to me. This opportunity, as an overseas visitor coming from a city which prides itself more on deep-pocketed art dealings, is immensely valuable. Memorable were Grace Tan’s sculptural installations at FOST Gallery (Singapore) including Exotic Trophies and Diversity and Variation (both 2020). Composed from plastic clothing tag pins, Tan’s little sculptural forms, reminiscent of marine organisms, are encased in acrylic cabinets, lit like a science exhibit. Yavuz Gallery (Singapore/Sydney) hung an eye-catching body of works by rising talent Luke Heng, whose paintings explore the liminal space. Asking us to reconsider the value and meaning of painting, Mizuma Gallery (Singapore/Tokyo/New York) presented monochromatic paintings by Ben Loong. Rendered in plaster, the attractive, glossy surfaces, layered and sometimes speckled with spots of gold, are an inquiry into the meaning behind narratives and myths. On opening night, a performance titled Octopada by Danish-Filipino artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, for The Drawing Room (Manila) drew the attention of everyone. Impersonating the eight-limbed marine creature, her costume changed colours to mimic objects she touches—upon discovering my bright orange Charmander socks (yes, nerdy), she turned into an orange…octopus.

 

Artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen interacting with CoBo Social managing editor Denise turning orange at the touch of her socks. Image courtesy of CoBo Social.

 

Of the three galleries from outside of the region, neugerriemschneider (Berlin) decked out the walls of their booth—which was conveniently facing the tent entrance—with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s silkscreen images portraying scenes of protests, each source image a hand-drawing of a newspaper photograph. untitled 2019 (beauté esthétique with no shampoo) also featured a cushioned bench and ceramic teaware made by the artist—and green tea for thirsty visitors. As with any Tiravanija artwork, the experiential component is essential. Meanwhile on the other side of the tent, a Danh Vō installation at Vitamin Creative Space (Beijing/Guangzhou) had visitors and organisers talking for days. Next door, Jan Manton Art (Brisbane) showcased Indonesian heavyweights Heri Dono and Jumaadi—all favourites of many collectors who were present.

 

Rita Targui and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at the booth of neugerriemschneider (Berlin). Image courtesy of STPI — Creative Workshop & Gallery.

 

Aside from booth offerings, the S.E.A. Focus talks programme, titled SEAspotlight, was a particular standout. The panel discussions sought to shine light on each part of the region individually—selectively, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—while also engaging in wider discussions. A keynote lecture from mega-star curator and artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist had the tent packed out with enthusiasts and admirers on Friday night .

After countless bowls of hand-crafted black sesame ice cream at Gillman Barracks and endless refills of bak kut teh for dinner— let’s not forget, inside all serious art enthusiasts is a serious foodie and Singapore is a foodie’s heaven—I left Singapore enriched with all it had to offer, some minor hiccups aside. Value doesn’t come from astronomical price tags or mega-scale events, rather what it can give to make itself and its region distinctive. S.E.A. Focus, alongside the countless exhibitions and events of Singapore Art Week, further cemented the proposition that Southeast Asia continues to be growing and thriving—as its rising young talents can certainly attest to.

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 

 

 
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