A New Art Ecosystem Arises in Southeast Asia

by Claudia Dias on July 6, 2010

In October 2008, the Asian art market registered seismographic activities, which revealed how quickly the complex boundaries between ethnic groups, language and religions are dissolving within Asia: in Hong Kong at Sotheby’s auctions of contemporary art from Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, price results surpassed their estimates five-to tenfold, while prices for art from India and China were collapsing.

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It may come as a surprise that most collectors of the world are now to be found not any longer in the U.S. or Europe but in China. According to Andrew Foster, managing director of Christie’s Asia, the auction houses concentrated their auctions since 2002 and 2006 on Hong Kong – now No. 3 on the Richter scale of the global art market – because now one can also bid via Internet and telephone. The auction results are gradually recovering to the record numbers from the boom years. Won-Jae Park, owner of the contemporary art gallery One And J. in Seoul, however considers most buyers of Southeast Asian Art are speculators, but that doesn’t mean “that there isn’t any good Southeast Asian art.”

In New York, Vishakha Desai, director of the Asia Society, is excited about the fact that after 250 years Asia’s trading accounts again for half of all world trade, and hence brought into motion the art trade within ASEAN countries too: recently a gallery from Mumbai opened a branch in Taipei, auction houses from Indonesia opened shop in Singapore, and art colonies from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia exchange exhibitions with each other.  At the same time Desai complains that the Asian art market is entirely focused on sales.ranjani_sopheap-pich-w

Sundaram Tagore, who runs galleries in Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles, falls into line with Desai’s view that the Asian art market is operated purely as an investment vehicle. “In the West galleries work like talent agencies for their artists; they represent in general a group of artists and grow with their success and fame. In Asia, however, artists define their own market: they make loose alliances with several galleries, which means, they really only work together on the secondary market.”

And recently auction houses started to commission directly artists for works which go for auction. Won-Jae Park thinks a lack of trust between galleries and artists are responsible for these kind of profit-oriented practices, but their success, he believes, will be short-lived. Astonishingly, galleries like Bodhi Art, Nature Morte and Bose Pascia in India, which operate according to familiar Western principle, nevertheless seem to survive in this shamelessly commercial art-landscape with its weak infrastructure.

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Deepak Talwar, owner of galleries in New York and New Delhi comments: Artists, who bypass galleries are eliminating on so many levels their possibilities of getting exposed to potential collectors, museums, and critics etc.; with a gallery they can grow beyond just selling one piece at an auction, can even get a solo show; auction houses don’t take a position towards the piece of art, only in respect of its market value.” Investing into art for Talwar, means to build a collection , which requires financial resources, “but above all a concept and the courage to act one’s vision. One should concentrate on a small number of artists and also accompany them through various phases.” So far, Talwar cannot single out any contemporary Indian art-collection that could be compared with the in-depth collection of say the Dia Art Foundation.

2008 the Devi Foundation opened its doors in New Delhi, one of the first public collections in India. With more than 2,000 contemporary works from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, Anupam Poddar is the most important patron of the arts of the subcontinent. “Beyond the media hype on the soaring prices, there has been hardly any discussion about the quality of work. This indicates the infrastructural deficiency of Indian art criticism.  The art educational institutions in India are dated and they are not catching up with the rapidly changing art world.” Furthermore, Poddar fears that the myopic art authorities of the government could very well affect the development of the Indian art industry. Desai speaks in this regard of a missing Ecology of Art,(..) with which I mean curators, museums, galleries auction houses, and art critics which we desperately need for the development of quality criteria. There are not enough professionally run museums in Asia. The education system in Asia is focused more on science and finance, while the arts have been neglected.”donnaong_jasonlim-w

In contrast to Korea or India, Singapore is investing in a systemic improvement of infrastructure for the arts landscape; the beneficiary is ultimately the whole of Asia.  Only the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery can compete with the number of contemporary works from Southeast Asia. Both hold triennials on which artists dependent from remote countries such as Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, who only get few opportunities to display their works. The Queensland Art Gallery began exhibiting and collecting important works from Asia long before the art market even reached the artists. When the National Art Gallery of Singapore opens in 2014 it will have the world’s largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian art.

Anupam Poddar avoids auctions. Instead, he tirelessly visits artists’ studios and galleries, and never misses an international art fair in order to track down talent from around the world. Talwar remarks: “Buying at art fairs or auctions is like taking a shortcut: it eliminates the process of searching, and a single work says only little about the oeuvre of an artist.”

For the time being, however, it is still the price tag that overrules quality on the Asian art market .


This article was published in German in the KUNSTZEITUNG April, 2010; Text by Claudia Dias

Robert Ventura: The Strong And The Beautiful, 2009; courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art
Ranjni Shettar: Bird Song III, 2009; courtesy of Talwar Gallery
Sopheap Pich: Cycle 2, Version3, 2008; courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art
Sherman Ong: Ticket Seller, Video 2009; photo by Claudia Dias
Ming Wong: In Love for the Mood, poster 2010; photo by Claudia Dias
Donna Ong: “Asleep, A Room Awakens”, 2009; courtesy of Wada Fine Arts
Jason Lim: Ceramic works; courtesy of Jalan Bahar Clay Studios

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