“I DON’T KNOW if there is anything sexy going on,” Asia Art Archive’s Chantal Wong told me when I bumped into her on a plane bound from Hong Kong to Singapore last Tuesday, though I think she was just being modest. While the rest of us were flying over to catch some of the radiant waves around Art Stage Singapore, Wong was in the small but powerful city-state on a twenty-four-hour award run on behalf of AAA for Best Institution, one of thirteen categories organized by Prudential Eye Awards. (The main recognition went to Japanese collective Chim↑Pom with a prize of $50,000; another went to the gallery FuturePerfect for its support of emerging artists—no cash prize, though.)
Inside the Moshe Safdie–designed ArtScience museum later that evening, the red carpet–dressed crowd gathered for the Prudential cocktail reception. “I have never seen such a formal event in Singapore,” said artist Charwei Tsai. “Usually people come in shorts.” I caught up with art historian Charles Merewether, who’s joining Hong Kong Baptist University next month, and talked with collectors Rudy Tseng and Kenneth Choe as they pondered questions of conservation while looking at Jane Lee’s soft, painted installations. Promising to come back for the afterparty, I skipped the Oscarsesque ceremony and set off for a more intimate award event: the inaugural US embassy–backed Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art, held at the residence of the ambassador.
“It’s ironic that this prize should be launched here. But I guess Singapore has to start somewhere,” dealer Benjamin Milton Hampe chuckled later, referring to the city-state’s censorship practices (among them the restrictive ratings issued by the Media Development Authority, and the overzealous caution exercised by the Singapore Art Museum, both of which have led to works being banned or canceled). But that night Indonesian artist FX Harsono, who won the $5,000 award, and the other nominees were thrilled. “You can either accept things or try to change them, and Singapore cannot say no to the US,” reasoned Art Stage founder Lorenzo Rudolf.
The next morning I toured “Singapura: 700 Years” at the National Museum, where curators Yap Soo Eiand Ong Shihui reminded me of the island’s rocky history: its colonial past, the deadly Japanese occupation during World War II, its murky postwar period, and its independence in 1965. I made a short detour at the Singapore Art Museum to catch the progression of Melati Suryodarmo’s twelve-hour performance I’m a Ghost in My Own House, in which she grinds charcoal while wearing a white dress—still reasonably clean at that early hour. Arriving at the fair for the preview, Maria Elena Rudolf, Lorenzo’s wife and business partner, was gracefully greeting VIPs as if to a gala party. “It’s the family touch,” said Pablo Rudolf, Lorenzo’s son and director of VIP relations.
“I always imagine fairs to be like swimming pools: Some artists swim, some drown, some reach the surface,” Juan Alcazaren explained to me at the Drawing Room’s booth. Gilbert & George, who were opening a solo exhibition with Arndt at the Gillman Barracks, signed books by the VIP lounge. “I would like to have a smile from the gentleman,” commanded a woman as she photographed them with her husband. She glared at Gilbert, who executed a smile instantly.
After a flamboyant vernissage, the Singapore Art Supper at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was a bit of a disappointment. “There is a woman in a box throwing dirt. Are we supposed to eat it?” cracked a hungry guest about an unconvincing performance parked along the wall. “Where is the food?” “The white wine is warm.” “It ran out.” “It’s the same guy who was playing last night at Prudential, and the light is pink again.” “It’s such a great venue, though…” The hall emptied faster than it filled.
The next day I attended the talks program, a mix of personal presentations and networking opportunities. They became punchier as the day moved along, ending with Sarah Thornton’s conversation about her latest book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts. The event was packed with an elated crowd fascinated by Thornton’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Among them was Adeline Ooi, newly appointed director Asia of Art Basel, being given many late congratulations. Before I popped by Heman Chong and Ming Wong’s fete, hosted in a bar in Chinatown, I swung into the Singapore Art Museum again, this time for the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize. Ho Tzu Nyen’s video installation Pythagoras came in first, but apparently he was in Berlin. At the museum, artists and curators cheerfully smoked on the verandas or drank beer in the courtyard, exuding a by now familiar award-glee camaraderie.
Friday morning the mood was more sober at the Arts House, where David Feldman, vice president of the Mona Lisa Foundation, introduced intrigued guests to the Isleworth Mona Lisa, believed to be the original from which Da Vinci created the Louvre version. That evening, some of us hopped on a bus toward the military camp–cum–arts campus Gillman Barracks for Art After Dark, an obstacle course of seventeen galleries, pop-ups and open studios, and Yang Fudong’s smart, glamorous show at CCA. At Michael Janssen, crowds were mesmerized by Wong Lip Chin’s rotating installation of large, emotive portraits. “This is when you realize it was upside down on the other side,” reflected an attendee. At Sundaram Tagore, Hiroshi Senju’s seductive fluorescent waterfalls contrasted with the animated crowds. “With Singapore’s fiftieth anniversary, every kind of activity is on steroids,” explained Ota Fine Arts’s Christina Chua, busy watching over the Rina Banerjee works on view. Carlos Rolón aka Dzine took over Pearl Lam gallery with electric colors, wallpaper, and a bespoke chandelier. Somewhere on the grounds, Lee Wenperformed to The Internationale. Outside Tomio Koyama, a girl who’d bought a print by Ucup ran toward the Indonesian artist, bursting, “I don’t understand all the words, but I love it!” while further down at Equator Art Projects, Indonesia-based artist Hahan showed loud graphics and a painting that seemed as good a précis of the week as any: IT’S NOT ART UNTIL IT’S SOLD.