Illustration by Harriet Seed.

The Lure of the Glossy

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When I started my first gallery in Kuala Lumpur almost 20 years ago, I insisted that its tagline be “Southeast Asian Art.” Of course, there are many who would take issue with the very idea of Southeast Asia as a single geographical, economic, political or even cultural entity. For them, the region is just too diverse and inchoate—a cacophony of different and unconnected voices. However, where others saw vast, unmanageable differences and an intellectual black hole, I saw an opportunity and, indeed, a challenge. I wanted to locate the themes that united the region and make sense of its local art practices and aesthetics.

Needless to say, I was not alone in this regard, because by the mid-1990s when I’d started business, the global auction houses—Christie’s and Sotheby’s—had also opened up branches in the region. Initially, they appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by Southeast Asia’s enormous diversity and its nebulous form, selling a farrago of paintings, trade ceramics and Malay jewelry. But there was no denying that their entry reinforced my own endeavor, helping to introduce a new category called “Southeast Asian Art” in the global mind.

Setting themselves up in Singapore, the auction houses initially offered pretty paintings by dead expatriate artists such as Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, the Belgian painter who lived and worked in Bali. They also offered Nonya ware—a colorful, if garish, imported ceramic ware much favored by the sinicized business elite of the region. However, supplies of good quality Nonya ware eventually ran short, as did the Le Mayeurs, although constant resales enabled the market to stutter along. As time progressed, the “Southeast Asian Art” category was expanded to include a host of deceased local artists. However, given the relative youth of the history of painting in the region, even these sources soon began to dry up. 

Finally, the auction houses broadened their ambit to include living artists, some of whom were in fact reasonably young. In 1998, I toured the region’s capitals with the then-head of one of the auction houses and suggested that he consider works by contemporary artists such as Montien Boonma. Thankfully, I was talking to someone with imagination and foresight, and so began the new subcategory “Southeast Asian Contemporary Art.” I mark it as a signal achievement. This new division had low reserves as well as its own particular quirks, with works from non-Southeast Asian artists—for instance Walasse Ting, whose connections with the region are somewhat tenuous—often being included in sales . . . but that’s another story.

Nonetheless, running a small gallery in Kuala Lumpur, I recognized the wider reach of the auction houses and, from time to time, worked with them to expand the audience for the region’s art. However, while I published foldout catalogs with long essays, the auctioneers published glossy catalogs with prices and no essays. Dollars and cents, after all, are easier to understand than an art historical discourse. It was a no-brainer for them. 

The power of glossy auction catalogs cannot be underestimated. One of the saddest realities is that auction catalogs are often the most-read books in artists’ studios. And collectors’ libraries often have more catalogs on their shelves than legitimate art books. The idea of contemporary art was something many new collectors just couldn’t grasp. How can a blurry photo be art? But as soon as a dollar sign is attached to the image, it becomes immediately accessible, or at least quantifiable. Some regional museums are known to host solo shows only after an artist has done particularly well at auction.

During these boom years, from 2005 to 2008, there was an auction almost every weekend, sometimes even two. The young artists couldn’t paint fast enough to feed this buying binge. Some started to bypass galleries and supply directly to the auction houses. I have seen the auction houses’ moving vans outside artists’ studios waiting to pack still-wet paintings. In addition, in the absence of any clear definition of the contemporary, these new collectors flocked to paintings of current celebrities, and the struggling artists followed this model of success. Every month, endless paintings of Andy Warhol, the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Angelina Jolie and Aishwarya Rai appeared in almost every Indonesian auction catalog.

Twenty years on, there is still only one institution in the region—the Singapore Art Museum—that makes any serious attempts at collecting and studying Southeast Asian art. But sadly, because tourism and censorship are two key factors in that gallery’s genetic code, its credibility and reach have suffered. The auction houses have rushed to fill this gap. Apart from the big two, we now have five Indonesian auction houses operating in Jakarta, Singapore and sometimes Hong Kong, along with four Malaysian auction houses and three local auction houses based in Manila.

The point is that auction houses, with unmatched marketing budgets, are great at reaching wide audiences, and that is generally a good thing. More people are looking at the region and its art because of their reach. However, the auction houses also need to cultivate a more enduring audience for regional art by presenting a better selection of art and accompanying this with more rigorous arguments. The point is also that, in the absence of credible publicly funded institutions, private initiatives aimed at making art accessible to the public will become increasingly necessary.

And the last point is that, in the current environment, greater public interest is not being met by any institutional response and is distorted by the market. The commercial galleries and alternative spaces remain the only platforms for serious artists doing serious work during one of the most exciting and tumultuous times in our region’s history.