Southeast Asian Galleries Set Their Sights on Art Basel Hong Kong

Ted Loos, The New York Times, 27 March 2019

BANGKOK — Next to a row of luxury hotels in a bustling business district here in Bangkok, the art gallery Nova Contemporary occupies a former storage area at the base of a high-rise apartment building.

“There’s no gallery area per se in Bangkok, so this is fairly normal,” said Nova’s cheery owner, Sutima Sucharitakul, of the location of her sleek space. “Everything is fairly spread out.”

On view at Nova through Sunday is a conceptual exhibition called “The Uncertain,” featuring works by the Thai artist Jedsada Tangtrakulwong.

By design, the show changes depending on the weather: On sunny days, some of the works are not available to be seen, remaining hidden in various ways, and the response to that offbeat approach has been mixed. Some visitors have been angered and have shared their feelings emphatically with Ms. Sucharitakul and her staff.
“This is pretty advanced for Bangkok,” she said with a shrug.

Her hunt for an appreciative new audience for her artists is precisely why she will show her wares for the first time at Art Basel Hong Kong, alongside about 240 other dealers, from Friday through Sunday at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.

Nova reflects the stronger Southeast Asian presence at the fair, now in its seventh edition, demonstrating the event’s status as a market hub in a vast and diverse region.

There is no shortage of collectors with money or artists with ideas; they simply need a place to find each other.

“The presence of the Southeast Asian dealers is quite remarkable this year, and quite varied,” said Adeline Ooi, the Asia director for Art Basel.
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“It’s wonderful — but I’m biased since I’m from Malaysia,” she said, laughing.

In addition to galleries from mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan — already known as market forces — the fair this year includes Richard Koh Fine Art, with spaces in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore; Artinformal and Silverlens, both from Manila; and Nadi Gallery and ROH Projects from Jakarta, Indonesia.

“People think the Asian market equals the Chinese market, and that’s not true,” Ms. Ooi said. “Asia is a puzzle. But every year at the fair, we peel back a new layer and it gets deeper.”

Part of the issue is vast geography. The fair features six galleries that have exhibition spaces in India, which is more than 2,000 miles from Hong Kong.

“Asia is so massive,” Ms. Ooi said. “People think we know each other, and we don’t. We’re all still learning about each other.”

She added, “It’s one of the things that makes me hopeful — the show can be a platform for movements that don’t always catch the attention of the art world.”

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, said he was in awe of the “unparalleled diversity” on hand.
“It’s been a voyage of discovery to do a fair in Asia and dig into the real complexity,” Mr. Spiegler said. “You have countries that are Buddhist or Christian or secular, colonizers and the colonized, and dozens of languages.”

By contrast, Europe — where Art Basel started and where it stages a fair in Basel, Switzerland, in June — “is so small that cultures bleed together,” he added. (There’s also a Miami Beach fair in December.)

Like Ms. Ooi, Mr. Spiegler said that he thought the contingents from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and other neighboring countries were significant.

“The Southeast Asian element is often underestimated by the market in terms of the collectors, galleries and the artists,” he said.

That was certainly the opinion of Jun Tirtadji when he founded ROH Projects in Jakarta six years ago. “We felt there was a need in Indonesia,” Mr. Tirtadji said. “There’s so much talent here.”

ROH has been participating in Art Basel Hong Kong for five years, and the fair has helped shape the business beyond just the few days of the event.

“We have learned so much from Adeline and Marc,” Mr. Tirtadji said. “I attribute a lot of our success to them. They took it upon themselves to provide a guiding framework for how a gallery should be run.”

ROH specializes in emerging Asian contemporary talents, and this year it features eight artists including Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, an abstract painter based in Bandung, Indonesia, who works with pigmented resin and ash, forming paintings with his hands instead of a brush.

Mr. Tirtadji said that the scene in Jakarta, in all its contradictions, had to be viewed through a different lens from that of New York or Hong Kong.

“The art world in Indonesia is quite cosmopolitan,” he said. He added, “But many of our collectors are buying their first piece of art with us.”

Isa Lorenzo, the founder of Silverlens, has been showing at the fair since it was called Art HK, before it was bought by Art Basel’s parent company.
“There’s definitely a north-south division,” she said of the Asian market. “The north is much bigger economically, but fewer items are bought and sold. In the south, it’s more chaotic, but a lot more is bought and sold, at lower price points.”

At Silverlens, Ms. Lorenzo changes exhibitions regularly, “and every opening is packed,” she said. “It’s a vibrant arts scene and very community-oriented in the Philippines. We have zero government funding for the arts. We have to all hold hands and make it happen ourselves.”

In the fair’s Kabinett sector, Silverlens will present the work of Pacita Abad (1946-2004), a Philippine artist who lived all over the world, including the United States. The booth will display pieces from her “Masks and Spirits” series.

“She did a combination of quilting, painting and sewing objects onto canvas,” Ms. Lorenzo said. “It’s an alchemy that combines all these traditions.”

Despite her presence in collections around the world, to Ms. Lorenzo’s mind the artists is “still somewhat under the radar, and needs to be represented everywhere as a major artist.”
Hong Kong’s reputation has also been attracting Western galleries.

Ms. Ooi said organizers were excited about the “heavyweights” taking part for the first time this year, including the New York dealers Paula Cooper and Matthew Marks.

The dealer Almine Rech, who has galleries in Paris, London, Brussels and New York — and will soon open one in Shanghai — has had a booth at Art Basel Hong Kong since the first edition.

“For us, the Asian market is ever more important — especially in the last two or three years,” Ms. Rech said.

As a dealer accustomed to far-flung transactions, Ms. Rech said that the Asian market was still “a very different world.”

“Collectors often want to have an adviser on hand, and they want to have a dialogue about an artwork right in front of a piece,” she said. “They take time, they have a long discussion and then they make a decision.”

By contrast, Ms. Rech said, “Americans feel they know a lot already.”

Her selection at the fair will include works by Picasso, Peter Halley and Tom Wesselmann.
For her part, Ms. Sucharitakul’s Nova Contemporary booth will show sculptures and videos by the artist Moe Satt, who lives and works in Myanmar, in the fair’s Discoveries sector.

The centerpiece of the booth is “Dove With Revolution Hand,” a sculpture by Mr. Satt that addresses the 1988 civil uprising in Myanmar.

As Ms. Sucharitakul has learned, the reaction of collectors to a given work is anyone’s guess. But shortly before the fair, she was hopeful not only for sales, but also for the biggest Thai collectors back home to know that she was a part of Art Basel Hong Kong.

“It will get me a lot of respect,” she said. “People know what this fair is, and that it means something.”
Correction: March 27, 2019
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the founder of the Silverlens gallery in Manila. The founder, Isa Lorenzo, is a woman, not a man.


A version of this article appears in print on March 27, 2019, on Page S1 in The International New York Times.