With an expanded program launching for Singapore Art Week, S.E.A. Focus continues to explore what it means to be part of a Southeast Asian arts community.
Singapore has long defined itself as a hub for its connective role within Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific landscape. With remarkable finesse, the city-state’s hyper-connectivity and political stability has seen its growing reputation as a financial center become intertwined with the state’s robust cultural investments, resulting in the development of what could be seen as the epicenter of a nascent regional art market that eschews nationalism in favor of delocalized systems of exchange and connection.
In S.E.A. Focus, the cultural platform now returning for its fifth edition from January 6–15, 2023, this notion of delocalization and connection has taken center stage. Beginning as a boutique art fair in 2019 with the aim of spotlighting Southeast Asian galleries and artists, the platform has evolved its approach to experiment with the idea of a regional perspective. The 2021 edition, for instance, scrapped the standard booth format in favor of an expanded curatorial arrangement, inviting galleries to present works in an exhibition framework organized around the theme of ‘hyper-horizon’. That operational decision has been retained with the 2023 edition, themed around the title ‘a world, anew’, exploring new modes of engagement in an era that has undergone several paradigm shifts.
‘I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of identifying S.E.A. Focus as an art fair, even a boutique art fair,’ says Project Director Emi Eu. ‘I saw it more as a platform or an organized event that could really bring together different stakeholders from across the arts industry to one place where things could happen. I wanted to have more engagement with non-profit organizations and patrons that are not directly linked to the commercial aspect of the art market.’ While the pivot away from market logic may seem counterintuitive for an arts initiative in a country that ostensibly exists as a global marketplace, Eu’s vision outlines a long-term perspective on the undercurrents fermenting beneath the surface: specifically, ambitions for Southeast Asia to connect on its own terms. The idea is to facilitate the development of networks that can go beyond the format of prescribed regionalisms, to see artists circulate within the global arena more freely, and be less bound to expectations of geographically predetermined metrics.
To this end, S.E.A. Focus has steadily expanded to include, aside from a series of public talks, a robust moving image program, OFF Focus, organized in collaboration with The Projector and curated by Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film. This year, aside from films by Martha Atienza (Silverlens), Phuong Linh (A+ Works of Art), Khairullah Rahim (Yavuz Gallery), Tada Hengsapkul (Nova Contemporary), and Mella Jaarsma (ROH), the program presents six Super 8 short films shot in the 1980s to 2000s by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who will be in the city for an in-person talk as part of the event.
Tiravanija will also be participating in a new sidebar platform being introduced in 2023 called Collaborations, which aims to spotlight and cultivate more experimental formats of installation-making and cross-industry collaborations. Blurring the boundaries between performance, objects, and lifestyle, ‘Dirty Dishes’, is a three-way collaboration between S.E.A. Focus, Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider, and the Michelin-starred Singaporean restaurant Burnt Ends. Centered around dinnerware crafted by long-term collaborators Tiravanija and sculptor Tobias Rehberger, the idea is to display these objects before their use during a special dinner hosted at Burnt Ends, after which the dirty crockery will be exhibited before being taken home by guests who ate from them.
While highlighting non-traditional, presentational modes and engagement outside standard institution-audience dynamics, the aim of S.E.A. Focus, says Eu, is to also ‘shine a light on the work of gallerists’ who are crucial to the Southeast Asian art ecosystem in their support of the region’s artists both regionally and internationally. In keeping with this, another Collaborations project involves Guangzhou-based Vitamin Creative Space, which will present an installation by Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Võ with the support of the Shanghai-based M Art Foundation, an artist-driven organization that works outside institutional formats to support leading and emerging talents.
Though keenly ambitious in its expansive efforts, S.E.A. Focus’s exercise in self-definition also comes at an important juncture for Southeast Asia, as a fast-growing region that collectively encapsulates the third largest labor force in the world after China and India. Realigning along political and economic fronts, the region’s prosperity is also leading to a new consideration of its relationship with art and consuming art. Describing a general lack of galleries within the region despite robust and dynamic art scenes, Eu opines that community development for ecosystems across local, national, and regional scales is important, with S.E.A. Focus being able to ‘provide that one platform where everybody can come together’ to distill the notion of an expanding polyphonic regional community.
With the much-anticipated Art SG set to launch in January 2023, concurrent with S.E.A. Focus as part of the broader Singapore Art Week, there is certainly a demand among established and new regional players for developing such a community. ‘Over the past decade, Singapore’s art scene has evolved tremendously,’ notes Art SG Director Shuyin Yang. ‘The country’s status as a leading financial, tech, and aviation hub is further accentuated by its rapidly developing cultural scene.’ With ‘an established base of sophisticated collectors in the region,’ and an emergent ‘younger generation of new art lovers who are searching for artists and works which resonate culturally for them’, Yang has observed ‘increased global interest in Southeast Asian artists and art spaces over the past few years, especially in contexts relating to cultural dialogue and exchange, and regional engagement.’ This growing interest is generating a sense of anticipation, especially given the August 2022 results of Sotheby’s first Modern and contemporary art auction to be held in Singapore in 15 years, which has amplified the sense that the Southeast Asian art scene is entering a period of exciting growth.
In the case of S.E.A. Focus, though, that growth is conditional on its generative capacity to build a networked community whose aim is to support artistic practices in the region. ‘S.E.A. Focus is one of the most important platforms for art in Singapore,’ says Liu Ying Mei, owner and founder of the young 39+ Art Space, based out of the same industrial complex that hosts the Singapore Art Museum and S.E.A. Focus’s current campus. ‘We would like to support the growth of the community through participation in the event, while taking the opportunity to shine a spotlight on our own Southeast Asian gallery artists.’ Richard Koh of Richard Koh Fine Art shares similar sentiments: ‘We are looking forward to seeing the different forms of contemporary art that will be presented at S.E.A. Focus 2023. The works will give an insight into how contemporary art has evolved throughout the region and over time.’
With that in mind, the theme of S.E.A. Focus 2023, ‘a world, anew’, is emblematic of how a region defined by rich national art markets and art scenes is entering a period of reconfiguration. ‘I did not want to call it a rebirth, because it is not a rebirth. It is a restart,’ says Eu. ‘We are going with the times and making the best out of what we have.’
Alfonse Chiu is a writer, artist, and curator based between Taipei and Singapore. They were the Fall 2021 e-flux journal Fellow and are currently the director of the Centre for Urban Mythologies (CUM).
S.E.A. Focus is a leading showcase and art market hub dedicated to Southeast Asian contemporary art.
Source: Art Basel