Art Basel Hong Kong strikes the right notes, Singapore galleries report strong sales

In the surest sign of the evolution of Singapore's gallery scene, the island's largest contingent of galleries participated in Asia's premier contemporary art fair in Hong Kong and netted handsome sales.

More than 10 Singapore galleries participated in the packed third edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, up from three in the inaugural fair two years ago.

The fair, which saw 233 galleries from both the East and the West taking up two floors of the cavernous Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, ended on Tuesday with happy faces among gallerists and collectors from around the world, and the Singapore contingent was no exception.

German gallerist Matthias Arndt, who also has a base in Gillman Barracks, had to do a second hanging when all the works he presented in the first hanging sold out by Sunday, just two days after the fair opened with a three-hour private view for invited collectors.

Mr Arndt, who eventually sold more than 20 artworks, with prices ranging between US$10,000 (S$13,900) and US$330,000, called the fair, with its roots in Basel, Switzerland, a place to "make great contacts from both the East and the West". Among the works he sold was a colourful mixed-media installation, drawing on elements of Indonesia's rich street art, by seminal Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho. It was sold to a major museum in Australia.

Japanese and Singapore gallery OTA Fine Arts, which shared its booth with top London contemporary art gallery Victoria Miro, sold a painting by leading Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for US$650,000 to an American collector. Not to be outdone was the Singapore's STPI, which sold 18 works by international artists with prices ranging from US$1,300 to US$150,000.

Other international galleries with Singapore outposts showing at the Hong Kong fair included Mizuma Art Gallery, Pearl Lam Galleries, ShanghART, Silverlens, Tomio Koyama Gallery and Galerie Michael Janssen. They were joined by Singapore's Yavuz Gallery and Gajah Gallery.

STPI director Emi Eu, who was participating in Art Basel Hong Kong for the third consecutive year, felt the fair was growing in its international standing.

She told The Straits Times: "We met a great group of people who were very interested in the works we brought and we were especially happy to see more visitors from Europe as well as an increase in the number of regional collectors. I take this as an indication that the fair's reputation is growing and its roots are getting stronger."

This point was echoed by the fair organisers, who noted that it had become a stop for museum directors and curators from leading international arts institutions - such as New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the United Arab Emirates' Sharjah Art Foundation and London's Tate Modern.

There was, however, a small dip in visitor numbers for the Hong Kong fair, which was led by a new director, Malaysian Adeline Ooi. This year, it had nearly 60,000 visitors, compared with more than 65,000 people for last year's edition. Organisers attributed the drop to last year's fair being open to the public for one more day.

The dip in visitor footfall was offset by the flurry of cheques being signed. This year's top sale was reportedly a 2000 painting, Dead Monkey - Sex, Money And Drugs, by Turner Prize-winning British painter Chris Ofili, known for his use of elephant dung in irreverent and colourful paintings. New York- and London-based gallery David Zwirner sold the work for US$2 million.

Several galleries reported sales in excess of US$500,000. Seoul's Hakgojae Gallery sold iconic Korean artist Nam June Paik's Internet Dweller, 1994, an installation made up of a colour television and lighting fixture, for US$500,000 to a foundation.

The annual fair was rescheduled this year from May to March to avoid clashing with the Venice Biennale in May, a major event for the art world. Despite initial concerns about the new dates that included two weekdays, the fair struck mostly positive notes.

Standing out in the largely commercial setting was the superbly curated section titled Encounters. Curated by Alexie Glass-Kantor, executive director of contemporary art centre Artspace in Sydney, it presented 20 large-scale sculptural installations and museum-type displays by artists from the Asia Pacific, Europe and North America. It premiered several new works, including an installation by Singapore's Zai Kuning, alongside previously exhibited pieces by artists such as India's L.N. Tallur.

There was also an excellent programme of art dialogues, several of these held in open venues which made them more accessible and added buzz to the fair. Among those deep in conversation were leading China artist Cao Fei, prominent German curator and art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist and India's Jitish Kallat, artist and curator of the KochiMuziris Biennale.

International visitors, while impressed with the scale and organisation of the fair and its mix of East and West, called for more of such innovative curated events.

One of them was award-winning architect and urban planner Gudjon Bjarnason, who divides his time between Reykjavik in Iceland, New York and Pondicherry in India. He called the fair "exciting" and "sometimes overwhelming", adding that he would like to see "more outdoor performances or installations integrating it... to the city, its parks, surroundings and the overall Asian context".

Several Singapore collectors were also spotted at the fair, among them lawyer Ryan Su, 26.

He said: "The fair has a fresh vibe. Unlike Basel, it is not too serious. I found the atmosphere buzzing with collectors and gallerists feeding off one another's energy. I find in its third edition, the fair here has truly come into its own."

deepikas@sph.com.sg