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S.E.A. Focus 2021 goes beyond the virtual art viewing room

By PRISTINE L. DE LEON, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 25, 2021 5:00 am

International flights, crowds and a little bit of herd mentality used to fuel the bigger art fairs.

“You go with friends, you meet like-minded people, you find people who support the same artists,” says Emi Eu, project director of S.E.A. Focus and executive director of STPI in Singapore. “Sharing in person is so much more affective and longer lasting.”

In the past year, this was what most organizers, gallerists, and collectors lost when fairs shifted to online platforms. Returning to an entirely physical exhibition, though, could nonetheless be a bigger gamble, as costs for shipping, accommodation, and booth installation might not translate to sales that rely on the host country’s collecting class.

Well aware of the stakes, the third iteration of S.E.A. Focus launched, running until Jan. 31 with the highest number of participating galleries, a roster that includes Artinformal, The Drawing Room, and Silverlens from Manila. Eu credits this rise in number to the fact that they’re able to play with a hybrid format.

The title “Hyper-horizon” couldn’t be more apt, as it invokes a fixed boundary line amid a turbulent sea, but at the same time an uncharted, infinite expanse.

This edition includes an onsite exhibition at Tanjong Pagar Distripark, which they call S.E.A. Focus Curated, and an online showcase, S.E.A. Focus Digital, which is done in partnership with the online market platform, Artsy.  

As an anchor event in the annual Singapore Art Week, S.E.A. Focus seems bent on showing how the city-state, as curator Joyce Toh remarks, continues to be an access point to art in Southeast Asia.

Joining the team this year as head of exhibition and programs, Toh explains that she envisioned a show “that would capture the diversity and also the life and spirit of Southeast Asia, so that when you come into this exhibition, you get a feeling for what Southeast Asian contemporary art is like.”

The title “hyper-horizon” couldn’t be more apt, as it invokes a fixed boundary line amid a turbulent sea, but at the same time an uncharted, infinite expanse.

 Kristoffer Ardeña’s “Ghost Painting (Cracked Category): National Bookstore”

In favor of fluidity, S.E.A. Focus foregoes the booth layout typical of art fairs. The idea is, of course, refreshing, given a climate where we’ve grown weary of physical restrictions, and where the art fair fatigue that built up in pre-COVID years might as well translate to booth fatigue.

For Eu, it’s not so much novel as it is practical. They may be the first to do it in the region but, with travel constraints still in place, she anticipates many other fairs taking on the same format to keep afloat.

It’s hard to imagine a younger fair, or at least, less seasoned managers pulling off the same tactic with as little risk. While practical, the logistical changes also rely on the trust built over the years between the galleries and organizers.

“Usually with every fair,” says Toh, “the galleries travel with the works, they hang it, they take care of it.” One gallery even mentioned that it felt like sending off a child without its parents.

  Rirkrit Tiravanija, “untitled 2016 (nothing)” 

Even the two women felt the anxiety – or may we say the suspense? – that came with these unpredictable arrangements. (Would the galleries be sending video works? File sharing seems more convenient these days than shipping!)

To Toh’s surprise, artists and galleries took a chance, sending over major pieces. Among the highlights is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “untitled 2016 (nothing).” From afar — that is, from my screen — it would be interesting to ask how the site-specific tapestry installation ties into the Thai artist’s more relational practice.

Opposite this scale is Filipino artist Gregory Halili’s miniature paintings where, on capiz shells, he renders the eruption of Taal volcano through oil and ash that filled his studio. Inviting discourse on the region, Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s “The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia” is installed here as a video work after having gone through various exhibitionary forms.  

There is only so much that reproductions can do, which is why the fair’s online presentation goes beyond a virtual viewing room. Editorial segments, public talks, insider tours, virtual visits to artists’ studios and gallery-led webinars are all part of the lineup.

 Alvin Zafra’s “Baluarte de San Diego”

“We’ve always wanted to take S.E.A. Focus further afield, (outside) this region,” says Eu, “and I think online really provided that first step.”

The decision to partner with online market platform Artsy as the host of S.E.A. Focus Digital, as well as with frieze magazine to co-present a talk on the “un/sustainability” of large-scale exhibitions is strategic in expanding reach.

Both outlets are rooted in the west, while still able to initiate connections in Asia through programs like Frieze Academy. While the future of fairs is still being determined, this particular undertaking shows that nimbleness and imagination are key to their staying power.

Running from Jan. 22 to 31, S.E.A. Focus is an initiative led by STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery and supported by the National Arts Council. For more information on admission, public programs and VIP access, please visit seafocus.sg.

Banner photo from Tropical Future Institute / seafocus.sg.