When East Meets West

In 2011, a new art event took place that would, over the next four years, change the position of Singapore within the Asia Pacific art industry. The very first edition Art Stage Singapore was held at Marina Bay Sands and each year since, the event has attracted worldwide attention. At the 2014 edition of the art fair, the team from EZ had the privilege to sit down for a chat with the man behind Art Stage Singapore, Lorenzo Rudolf. We discussed how the art fair has grown and its relation to the Southeast Asian and global art market in general.

Lorenzo Rudolf is a prominent figure in the art world. Long before he headed east and brought a much needed breath of fresh air and vigor to the Southeast Asian art world, Rudolf was at the helm of the world’s most recognised and lauded art fair for the modern and contemporary – Art Basel. From 1991 to 2000, he led Art Basel as its director.

This Bern, Switzerland native has always been surrounded by art, not surprisingly. ‘It started all in the house of my parents who were art lovers and culture lovers. I grew up in a place at the time which was probably one of the most interesting moments in the history of contemporary art,’ said Rudolf during the interview on the last day of Art Stage Singapore 2014.

‘Exactly at this time the Kunsthalle Bern was directed by a guy who was at his time considered crazy but he was the one who really opened the doors for contemporary art as the conceptual thing with his very famous exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form. I was once standing in front of his museum in Bern and saw this museum was packed; it was the first time I crossed a packed building,’ he said. The ‘crazy’ curator was none other than the controversial Harald Szeemann, said to be the most important curator of the post-World War II period.

‘So I was probably also lucky to grow up at the right time, at the right place. In that context I made my career start as an artist myself and then realizing that there were better artists than me, and coming to the point, maybe I can bring together my professional background with my passion to organize events – that’s the way how we’re doing it, and I became director of Art Basel, and from there, step by step it continued,’ he said.

After his long tenure with Art Basel, Rudolf traveled around the world setting up various other fairs, namely the Frankfurt Book Fair and the International Fine Arts Exposition in Palm Beach. In 2007, he headed to China to launch the ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai. ‘The first country in Asia which really became important in the international arts was China, and that had a lot to do also with Swiss, maybe. The first big gallery in China, it was a Swiss who opened it and is still today the biggest gallery,’ explained Rudolf on the Swiss-China art connection. Incidentally, it was also the great Harald Szeemann who would be instrumental in bringing Chinese art to the international art world.

However, Rudolf’s fascination with Asian art had started long before his move to the East with the first piece of art work from Asia that he had collected during his time at Art Basel. ‘The first few pieces I bought were in the early 90s, which were brought over to Europe through these people,’ he said. It would seem coincidental that the bridging of Southeast Asian art and the global art world would be paved by yet another Swiss.

As he became involved with Asian art during his stint at SH Contemporary, Rudolf’s interest for it deepened. It was his first big show in Asia and China at that time was experiencing a huge boom, quite rightly an exciting time of growth for the art world. Inspired by the buzz around him, Rudolf felt the urge to do something in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. ‘I fell more and more in love with this region because I think Southeast Asia has incredible creativity, and it’s not only a creativity which is trying to fulfill certain Western criteria of contemporary art, but has its own character and identity,’ he said. And that was how the seed for Art Stage Singapore was planted.

‘That’s also the reason why I decided to come to Singapore and do this show here. The show, which is a platform for the entire Southeast Asia, brings (the countries) together and in exchange, at the same time, opening a window to the West,’ he said about the concept behind Art Stage Singapore. 2014 marked the fourth edition of Rudolf’s grand visionary plan of a world-class art fair based in this oft-overlooked part of the world, and the mark Art Stage Singapore has made on the overall art market of this region is not just highly visible, but also profound.

‘I think today we are at a situation where we have a momentum all over the world for Southeast Asia. There was never a curiosity and interest in Southeast Asian art as today; that has surely to do also with the phenomenon here. I’m glad we can help Southeast Asia to go out, to become a part of this global art world, to integrate Southeast Asia in this global context. That’s why, at the end, I’m happy that we can contribute,’ he said.

‘I think today we are at a situation where we have a momentum all over the world for Southeast Asia. There was never a curiosity and interest in Southeast Asian art as today …’

Southeast Asia is comprised of diverse art scenes; each of the nations in the region has their own distinct art scenes that have their own unique microcosms. To bring them together as how Rudolf has done with the Southeast Asia Platform at the 2014 edition of Art Stage Singapore is quite a novel concept, to say the least. The discourse between the different member countries makes for a rather fascinating study. ‘I think what is important in the Southeast Asian context is when its different countries and art scenes begin to interact with each other – not only the Indonesians among the Indonesians, Malaysians with Malaysians, Thais amongst Thais. I think it is important to have this exchange,’ Rudolf explained.

‘Contemporary art is a global language; it is an expression which has to be understood everywhere. A good art piece done by a Malaysian artist is understood in New York as well as in Jakarta. A good art piece done by an Italian artist is understood in Singapore as well as in Tokyo. That’s what you have to create here. I think for that, this place here is ideal, because Southeast Asia is quite a big region. There are a lot of interesting artists, but not a lot of infrastructure. Here we have the infrastructure. Here we can build up the bridge to the West, to the world, to everybody,’ he said, making a point for the suitability of Singapore as a hub for the region, ‘And that at the end is what we do.’

This year, to coincide with Art Stage Singapore, the Singapore Art Week was held with numerous art-related events strewn all across the island nation. There were also a number of auctions held, capitalizing on the congregation of the movers-and-shakers of the art world in Singapore for the week. When asked his take on the cluttering of so many art events at the same time, Rudolf commented, ‘Every medal has two sides, I think. On the one side, it’s good to have a lot of things around and not only one event because it attracts a lot of people. On the other side, it’s clear the more you have things around that people spend money on, the more it spreads left and right.’

‘Contemporary art is a global language; it is an expression which has to be understood everywhere. A good art piece done by a Malaysian artist is understood in New York as well as in Jakarta.’

However, seeing that collectors are a discerning bunch in general, and some might be collecting art for the sake of investment, the presence of many art auctions and sales also mean that they have a wider selection to choose from. ‘They concentrate their purchases where they really want, where they find the best,’ said Rudolf, adding that this translates to the different players in the art scene trying to do their best to outdo the other. ‘The more you have around, you always have to try to be the best and then you can be sure people come here to sell and buy.’

‘It’s proof that Southeast Asia and Singapore is moving, it’s developing. If that was not the case also, nothing would happen. So in other words, all in all, I think it’s great but it has to be (coordinated) a bit. Only then can we have a round and sound result as something without any concept behind it would help nobody’, he said on the activities surrounding Art Stage Singapore 2014, ‘If really a lot of events are complementing each other to create something new, great! It’s fine.’ Seeing the success of Art Stage Singapore 2014 and the various art-related activities that Rudolf’s brainchild has inspired, it all bodes good news for the development of the Southeast Asian art world.

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