Art Fair Philippines points the way home

Customs glitch aside, Art Fair Philippines could teach Hong Kong how to nurture its own artists, writes John Batten

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm

There was a hint of trouble on the eve of the second edition of Art Fair Philippines held in late February. Art dealer Michael Janssen's shipment of art by Ai Weiwei - including cans of milk formula to be installed in the shape of China and previously exhibited in Hong Kong - was being held without explanation by customs in Manila.

The exhibition and its opening at the Ayala Museum was delayed by one day to February 22, but it still seemed the entire exhibition might be postponed.

There was speculation of possible political undertones to the delay, given the fractious diplomatic relations between the mainland and the Philippines. Then suddenly, without explanation, the shipment was released hours before the art fair's gala opening on February 19.

Many young Filipino artists promoted by galleries are able to make a decent living from sales

It was no surprise that Janssen, with galleries in Berlin and at Singapore's newly opened Gillman Barracks, was promoting Ai in Manila. Despite not being on Hong Kong's art radar, the Philippines has excellent links with Europe and the US through its colonial connections.

Together with a well-educated diaspora, Manila's large middle class and a wealthy philanthropic sector that supports a variety of private museums, the city is a lucrative art market. Recognising this, Christie's, whose contemporary Southeast Asian art auctions have a longer history than auctions of contemporary mainland art, was prominent at the fair.

Despite the way Hong Kong's media extols the city as an important art market, it has predominantly been auction houses and Art Basel's Hong Kong edition that are the focus of collectors. The primary market - works in galleries that have never been sold on the market before - continues to struggle.

In contrast, Manila is riding a wave of enthusiasm for its domestic art. Many young Filipino artists promoted by galleries are able to make a decent living from sales, while older artists are being rediscovered by younger collectors and have become sought after - including Jaime de Guzman, who featured prominently in the fair.

Hong Kong's great advantage as a destination for overseas-sourced art is its free-port status, liberal taxation and financial reporting environment. Many places in Asia, including the mainland and Japan, have stringent customs regulations on art. Likewise, the Philippines' opaque customs regulations will limit the fair's future growth.

This year's event - held in Manila between February 20 and 23 - recorded a 40 per cent increase in audience from 2013. It had 10,000 attendees who visited 29 exhibitors and seven featured installations - including Kawayan de Guia's massive Bomba. The fair was spread around the capital's business district of Makati. With a central car park as a venue, the event used mixed-media installations as a focus for the galleries which occupied two floors.

Louie Cordero's Pong on Earth - featuring spray-painted, irregularly shaped ping-pong tables - was an "interactive" art piece, opened by the Philippines' national table tennis team; it attracted a stream of players throughout the tournament - sorry, I mean art fair. Airbrushed with layers of design, text and patterning inspired by jeepneys (the Philippines' ubiquitous bus/jeep), these tables were cultural icons mimicking the bounce of the art market and its players.

Mo Space revived a display from last year - entitled I, Object - of small art objects by contemporary artists. They were shown with Lena Cobangbang's essay of "ten statements on the subject of objects and as a speculative extrapolation on the title", which explained that each piece was "… something more valuable than it really was by its … transposition, from form to language, from material to symbol, from toilet to the gallery, from the supermarket to the art fair". It was a fine display of art as commodity.

Among Mo Space's eclectic displays was M.M. Yu's redesigned Variable Series collection of photographs on the same subject - objects found in Manila and made into smaller, amulet-like photo-books that could be hung from a car rearview mirror.

Geraldine Javier's Chapel of Many Saints and Sinners was an overt "commentary on organised religion", presented by Singapore-based Equator Art Projects. This display of angels, saints and Satan, all produced in the woodcarving centre of Paete, were elaborately embroidered and clothed by Javier who speculated that "the obsession with angels can be ascribed … to this desire for unseen company and an unseen guide. Perhaps that's why we need religious figures, we want to feel their presence in a more tangible way."

Art Fair Philippines is riding a wave of interest in art sweeping through Southeast Asia. Hong Kong should embrace this renaissance by reaching out to the region: our neighbours' enthusiasm could be infectious.

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John Batten is president of the International Association of Art Critics - Hong Kong