Art Paris Art Fair a great platform for Singapore art in Europe

It is barely two hours into the vernissage of Art Paris Art Fair at the Grand Palais in the French capital on Wednesday.

A steady stream of thousands of visitors is already thronging the fair, many pausing to take selfies with Singapore artist Sai Hua Kuan's dramatic steel sculpture Ling Ting No. 2 ("Listening") on the steps of the sprawling heritage building.

Inside, many visitors pause at the work of Singapore artists - Lee Wen's eye-catching Splash! series of photographs and Zul Mahmod's click-clacking kinetic sculpture No Substance, made out of laboratory glassware.

More than 58,000 people attended last year's edition of the fair, and fair director Guillaume Piens is expecting even more this year, with Singapore and South-east Asia as its "guests-of-honour".

The fair is a partner event of the Singapore Festival in France, which officially opens in Paris on Friday, and the special platform was organised and supported by the Art Galleries Association Singapore.

Mr Piens says: "When I first arrived in Singapore, I didn't know anything about it and I had a lot of cliches in mind - it's a very boring place, it's like the Switzerland of Asia... we French are always very rebellious against the authorities.

"Then I came back for this project, and I was totally amazed and seduced. Singapore is very interesting and very important, but you don't know it yet."

Through the fair, which runs till Sunday, he wants to highlight Singapore's multiculturalism and "incredible variety", a country that can go head to head with Hong Kong and its leading art fairs because of its close ties to South-east Asia.

He is convinced that Singapore will be invited back to subsequent art fairs in the region after its time in the spotlight. Last year's fair featured China, and next year's edition will look to South Korea.

There are eight Singapore galleries and 56 artists from Singapore and the region at the fair, which features a total of 140 galleries from 20 countries. Organisers declined to disclose the cost of putting the fair together.

Singapore-based curator and researcher Iola Lenzi helped put together the focus on Singapore and the region. She says the French response has been one of curiosity and fascination, particularly when it comes to Singapore's comfortable approach to blending and moving through genres and cultures.

She says: "I guess hybridity is, for the French, a very contemporary concept, but I've been trying to explain to them that for Singapore, it's a very old concept, and that artists use it very naturally... they're using it because it's part of their cultural baggage."

While many felt it was still too early into the fair to judge the response of French collectors and visitors, gallerists' moods were cautiously optimistic.

Ms Carole de Senarclens, director of Singapore gallery Art Plural Gallery, told Life!: "I think this part of the world is mostly unknown to them, and that is always the most interesting one. Everybody thinks it's the next big thing.

"People are not risk-averse in Europe; it's the opposite of Asia. People are very keen to buy what they love, and in general they follow their instinct or taste."

Art Plural Gallery is featuring the photo and video work of Sherman Ong as part of its lineup.

Chan Hampe Galleries presented a solo show by Singapore artist Dawn Ng conceived specially for the fair titled A Thing Of Beauty - a series of photographed installations of objects carefully selected from mom-and-pop stores across Singapore. The limited-edition prints are priced between €4,100€ (S$6,166) and €7,500.

Ng, who was at the fair, said: "There's been a lot of curiosity about the works, and it's quite fresh to the European eye. They're always curious about how the works were shot, why they were of importance, the visual language of Singapore and more about its context."

While there was curiosity and interest, a key question was how to sustain it, to which many gallerists and artists took a wait-and-see attitude. France and continental Europe are largely untested markets for Singapore artists and galleries.

Director of the STPI Emi Eu says that through speaking with friends and French collectors, they discovered that there was "a really great interest in contemporary art in Asia that is not Chinese"; many were beginning to find Chinese art "over the top, or been there, done that".

And since many French collectors might be reluctant to make the trip out to South-east Asia to see the artwork, art fairs in Europe are "a good opportunity".

STPI is showcasing the work of several well-established Singapore and Asian artists, such as prominent sculptor Han Sai Por's Topography (2013), which evokes textures and landscapes from cast cotton paper, priced at €14,800, and prints and paintings by Heman Chong, ranging from €1,300 to €3,800. Other artists include Indonesia's Eko Nugroho and Thailand's Rirkrit Tiravanjia.

Ms Eu adds that she decided to come for this art fair because "Singapore artists really do need this kind of platform."

Her sentiments were echoed by fellow gallerist Benjamin Hampe of Chan Hampe Galleries: "We don't know about the French market and how open they're going to be to Singapore work."

But he noted that with the concerted efforts of the Singapore in France Festival and the special platform for Singaporean work at Art Paris: "We have no better chance than this."

French tour guide Ariane Nabarro, who was at the fair on Wednesday, thought the guest-of-honour platform was "a great idea", and a way "to discover what Singapore can propose to France".

Having spent nearly 20 years in Singapore, the permanent resident was thrilled to see the work of Singapore artists on display, particularly Sai's commission at the Grand Palais entrance.

She said: "It really shows that Singapore can offer a lot more than just shopping malls. There are some works here that are very new, I've never seen them before in Singapore and they are very interesting and creative."