Around the world for art

Art lovers plan trips to catch art fairs in places as far-flung as Mali and Haiti

The national pavilion of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2013. -- PHOTO: VENICE BIENNALE
The national pavilion of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2013. -- PHOTO: VENICE BIENNALE
Artworks on display at Frieze London 2014, a contemporary art fair. -- PHOTO: LINDA NYLIND/ FRIEZE
Artworks on display at Frieze London 2014, a contemporary art fair. -- PHOTO: LINDA NYLIND/ FRIEZE
Gajah Gallery displays at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2014. -- PHOTO: JESSICA HROMAS
Lawyer-gallerist Valerie Cheah and Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami at Art Basel in Hong Kong this year. -- PHOTO: VALERIE CHEAH
A seashell sculpture by British artist Marc Quinn at last year’s Venice Biennale. -- PHOTO: BT FILE

A night in Paris and four in Arles, then a flight to Venice and a train ride to Rome.

This whirlwind journey was one of several trips art lover and gallery owner Gwen Lee made last year to catch art biennials and fairs overseas, including well-known photography festival Rencontres d'Arles and the famed Venice Biennale. Her itinerary could easily pass for a leaf out of the travel diary of a growing number of art enthusiasts here who, whether they are industry professionals or aficionados, have centred their travels on the spectacle of blockbuster art exhibitions.

It is not unusual for curious travellers to sneak in a day or more of art and culture when on vacation. But the rise and growing prominence of art biennials and fairs have turned them into a force to behold. Cultural pride and ambition for international recognition have spurred many cities to organise their own non-commercial biennials, while the hunger for art-collecting has led to the burgeoning of commercial fairs.

This proliferation, in turn, has pushed art shows on to greater scale and scope as they compete for global attention. Often, they present works numbering in the hundreds, produced by an international roster of artists and, especially with biennials, featuring star curators.

There are now more than 150 biennials around the world - on top of hundreds of art fairs and photography festivals - that have sprung up over the last decade, some in far-flung places such as Mali and Haiti. Indeed, the ascendance of art biennials worldwide has led to the founding of the Biennial Foundation in 2009, an independent, non-profit arts organisation based in Amsterdam that shares information and expertise on these recurring mega art shows.

Singapore too, has held its own contemporary art biennial since 2006 and at least seven art fairs this year.

Art lovers here have, as a result, been drawn into the swirl of biennials and fairs, which have become too big to ignore and too hard to resist.

Marketing consultant Jean Tsai, an avid artsgoer in her 50s, is among those who have fallen headlong into this biennial- and fair-driven wanderlust.

The art travel bug bit her in 2007 after she attended the inaugural Singapore Biennale and an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore on the history of critically acclaimed exhibition documenta held in Kassel, Germany, every five years.

She says: "I began travelling specifically to attend art fairs and biennales in 2007. That was the year that was labelled 'The Grand Tour of the 21st century' because documenta, the Venice Biennale and the Sculpture Projects Munster all took place in the same year, making it an irresistible triple whammy."

The Sculpture Projects Munster is an exhibition of sculptures held every 10 years in public places in the German town of Munster.

Since then, Ms Tsai has been back to Venice for its art and architecture biennales, and has gone to the Istanbul Biennial and Art Basel in Hong Kong fair, "to learn and to feast my eyes on art that I might not otherwise see".

Lawyer Valerie Cheah, 47, who became interested in art in 2011, has likewise been chalking up air miles "to see the world" at art fairs that have become international showcases for contemporary art. In the last three years, she has visited fairs such as Art Jog in Yogjakarta, Indonesia, and Art Basel in Hong Kong and already, she has drafted a travel itinerary for next year. A must-stop on her list: the Venice Biennale, which opens on May 9.

Ms Cheah, who also runs pop-up gallery Jada Art, had to give the previous two editions of the Venice Biennale a pass because she was too busy. This time around, she has cleared her calendar and plans to take her two children, aged 10 and five, with her.

While it is not her first time to Venice, she says she is looking forward to her first visit to the much talked-about biennale. "I hope to see nonconventional works and large installations in the beautiful setting of Venice."

With more here making arty trips overseas, Singapore-based art gallery Yeo Workshop has found itself offering bespoke tours and art advisory services to a small group of clients, collectors and avid fairgoers at Frieze London last year and Art Basel in Hong Kong in May this year.

For art world professionals including curators and gallerists, hitting the circuit of biennials and fairs has become de rigueur.

Professor Ute Meta Bauer, 56, founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and co-curator of the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale next year, says: "As curators, we expose ourselves to new approaches in curating at biennales and fairs, and we network and catch up with artists and colleagues."

She adds of art fairs: "For curators and others working in the field, art fairs are not only the market of artworks, they are also the marketplace of the art world itself."

Ms Bala Starr, 48, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore at the Lasalle College of the Arts, who has been an art globetrotter since the early 2000s, says one reason she travels to see art is because "art and art practice are part of an international dialogue" and biennials are "often where you see the most ambitious new practices first develop".

And when business mixes with pleasure, the outcome can be favourable.

For Ms Talenia Phua Gajardo, chief executive of the online art gallery and consultancy The Artling, a visit to Art Basel in Hong Kong earlier this year led to a meeting and collaboration with famed British architect David Adjaye.

He became the lead advisory judge of the OUE Artling ArchiPavilion Design Competition. The contest is to design a pop-up pavilion that is able to house about 45 works at The Lawn at Marina Bay to coincide with the Formula One season next year.

Ms Phua Gajardo, 30, says: "Amazing things can happen at art fairs because you find like-minded, passionate, creative people to connect with."

Time, however, is of essence.

Ask any art fair or biennalegoer about his itinerary and a picture of early mornings, late nights and restless pounding of the fairground emerges. Navigating these monumental exhibitions with cavernous halls and long lists of ancillary talks and parties is an art in itself.

Mr Paul Khoo, a lecturer at the School of Art, Design and Media at the Nanyang Technological University who is in his 40s, travels to biennales and fairs a few times a year. He says of these visits he makes with fellow art-loving friends: "We are hard core. We go in in the morning and we get out at the end of the day. It is easy to be caught up in the excitement."

For seasoned art travellers, however, fatigue can set in when the novelty wears off.

Ms Lee, 38, who runs the contemporary art gallery 2902 and co-founded the Singapore International Photography Festival in 2008, says: "Art fairs usually start out exciting, but after a while, there is a standard formula; they have a certain number of booths, works from a number of countries and a segment for emerging artists. They have to be smart to reinvent themselves."

Which is why for next year, she has set her sights on visiting Unseen, a fair organised by the renowned Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, which spotlights undiscovered photography talent and unseen work by established photographers.

In keeping with the spirit of an art globetrotter, however, it will not be a one-stop trip for her. But where else to? She is still plotting her getaway.

Tips to survive art fairs

Grab a map of the exhibition grounds

With hundreds of works sprawled over multiple exhibition halls and venues, the only way to avoid getting lost or repeating ground you have covered is to have a map so you can check off the places you have explored. It is also useful to mark out galleries with pieces that catch your eye so that you waste no time getting back to the booths to snap up the works, suggests lawyer and seasoned fairgoer Valerie Cheah.

Get on the gallery mailing list

If there are galleries showing work you are interested in, get on their mailing lists, says Ms Talenia Phua Gajardo, chief executive of the online art gallery and consultancy The Artling. She says: "It is likely that if they are hosting an event during the fair period, you may get invited if you are on their mailing list."

Do not be afraid to ask questions

Gallerist Richard Koh says he often sees people who "just walk around and look at art without asking any questions or engaging with what they are seeing". If you are curious, ask politely. You will usually get answers.

Bring comfortable shoes

Whether you go for the art or parties, these juggernaut art shows demand you to be on your feet, so be kind to yourself and wear comfortable shoes. If you must match your shoes with your party outfit, pack a separate pair of glamorous kicks, which is what Ms Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, a curator and part-time fine arts lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, does.

Do not procrastinate

The major art biennials and fairs draw crowds of visitors and hotel rooms are often snapped up quickly. Gallerist Audrey Yeo says: "For art fairs like Art Basel in Miami and Basel, Switzerland, it is advisable to plan your hotel stay a year ahead as regular fairgoers tend to book their rooms for the following year when they leave the fair this year.

A version of this story was published in the March 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app.

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