I step into the Gajah Gallery space, and out strides its owner Jasdeep Sandhu, all ready to throw down 2 badminton rackets, a shuttlecock and the grim gauntlet of a sporting challenge:
“Do you play badminton?” he asks.
“Seriously? Like right now? Stop messing around,” I respond.
“Serious, let’s go– step further back, come on, leave a good distance.”
And so, the challenge is issued!
The first few shots are washouts for me (I am after all in an unwieldy pencil skirt. I am also as you can imagine, totally unprepared for this). But the game soon picks up, and we manage a few decent rallies. The walls surrounding our little “court” are plastered with pricey works of art (a safe distance away, of course). Jasdeep’s ever-so sporting gallery assistant Tessa snaps some photos, while politely stifling her laughter.
Suffice to say, this is the oddest work meeting I’ve ever been to in my life.
There’s something deliciously decadent, however, about playing a full-on game of badminton within the hallowed space of the gallery white cube, and it’s an image that I think sums Jasdeep up perfectly. His gallery is a Singapore institution, having been set up in 1996, and has a heavy focus on Indonesian art. The man himself is something of a gentleman-about-town, a bon vivant whose booming voice can intimidate as much as it can inspire confidence. He never takes himself too seriously and yet, his dedication to (and knowledge of) the field of Southeast Asian art is beyond doubt.
The badminton game ends soon enough ( for the record, I tire way before Jasdeep does, even though he probably has a good 10 years on me, if not more), and so we get down to business:
Let’s talk about how you started Gajah Gallery, in 1996.
I basically worked in a gallery selling European art, and within the first 3 to 4 months, I was convinced that I was going to work in Southeast Asian art. Visually, it was very exciting, I could associate with it and understand it. I would browse through Art Asia Pacific reviews of Indonesian art, and the visuals were just so moving. They really made me feel like I needed to see this art.
Do you remember what those works were?
There was an Affandi for sure. The Srihadis were beautiful, and even the late Nyoman Gunarsa’s works, with those amazing wooden frames. And then I slowly progressed from there – it got me very emotionally motivated and about a year later I decided to open my own shop.
I went on a huge trip to gather Southeast Asian art – Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar. It was a struggle when we did our first show and later opened up the gallery. There wasn’t much of an art market then– it existed, but it was not as extensive a market as we have now. What helped the gallery was that we picked up very significant artists within the first 3 years. The first show had Aung Soe – who is now regarded as one of the leading (Asian) Modernists. It helped a lot (that we were) successful in identifying important artists, and within those first 3 years, that’s what we did.
How did you pick these artists? People always want to know- how does one acquire the “eye” to choose well?
It’s just a visual calling and you have to have a slight understanding of what the situation is for the artist in his surroundings. What are the issues (he faces)? For example, with Aung Soe, he was striving to be a contemporary, modern artist. He was trying to reinvent the understanding of his culture (from images of) boats and the Irrawaddy River and whatever… he was more into Buddhism and identifying something that was more natural to him.
So, with no large art market at the time, who attended your shows in the early days?
One of the things I did was to physically walk around in the roads off Bukit Timah (in Singapore), like Swiss Club Road, to drop off flyers at houses. One smart thing I did was to set up a show at Alliance Francaise, it got me a small entry point into the art-loving world, including both expatriates and Singaporeans. If you get a bit of representation from every group, eventually you build a nice crowd at gallery openings.
So how do you think the gallery scene has changed from those early days?
The bulk of it has remained the same, but the most significant change to me is that of prices. The gallery scene changed significantly around 2006 to 2007 with several of our artists going up in price multiple fold. Immediately, our scope of activity quadrupled and it put us on a steady path – because, before that, we were just treading water. Not only did our artists appreciate in value, we could move towards a more professional form of representation. The artists who started with us and whose prices went up, are still with us, and we are very happy about that.
Would you then say that your success was due to the way the market moved, rather than say, Singapore’s infrastructure, or as a result of any institutional or government support?
The government provides the hardware, not the software. They provide things like buildings, institutions, cash, and policies. But you can’t expect them to do everything. Once these structures are around, it’s up to you to start taking advantage of them. I think maybe where the government could focus more attention, is in developing undergraduate degrees specialising in fine art in Southeast Asia. I have students, scholars from overseas coming in (to the gallery) who know everything about Western art, but nothing about say, Cheong Soo Pieng, or Tang Da Wu. I feel this handicaps us, as it puts (Western) systems of learning above anything that’s available around us regionally.
What do you think of the NGS? We’ve heard people say that the space is oddly – utilised, that they find it difficult to understand as an “art museum.”
The criticism is perhaps fair, but it’s a very young space. I think it’s hard to even come up with something like a permanent hang at this stage. It’s so young, how would one know right away how to curate such a huge and fantastic space? And we certainly don’t have to follow anyone’s ideas of what is correct, we are a young society, and we have to be brave and make our own decisions.
There will be difficulties for sure, and yes perhaps it’s a pity that the structure wasn’t built from the ground up, with 6m- high ceilings.
It is a courthouse, but you can still use it, you just have to be creative! I think overall, that they have done a fantastic job. The commitment that Singapore has to fine art is second to none in Southeast Asia, and second in Asia maybe only to the Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
What were your best and worst personal experiences as a gallerist?
The best? Getting to understand and know the works of Aung Soe. I was very lucky because his focus, ideals, and philosophy guided me a lot in the first few years of the gallery. He has several works which are fantastic.
The worst? The worst would I think have been…SARS…! It was a very difficult time, no one was coming out, it was horrible, not easy at all. I know this is not juicy.. but yes… SARS… [shudders]
Tell us about the Yogyakarta (Yogya) Art Lab?
After the boom of 2007, we decided to reinvest in the people we worked with and who got us to where we are, i.e. the community in Yogyakarta. We realised that art production and materials were not always very good, for example, the bronze production in Yogyakarta. Mainly this was because people could not afford good, solid, materials. We managed to set up the Lab and a foundry, and eventually imported bronze from the United States.
We try to keep our processes and chemicals as clean as possible. That’s helped. Yunizar’s been able to produce some fantastic bronze works in our foundry, and it’s been a fortunate coincidence that his works have done well, so this helps to keep the foundry going.
The Art Lab has really brought a different dimension to the gallery.
We’ve also opened up a small art space in Yogyakarta, that we keep beautifully maintained with proper lighting and climate control so that artists can be inspired to want to show in the space. We recently held a very successful show there, SuperNatural, showcasing artists from Singapore.
We noticed that the wall texts for that show were in English – was that a problem for an exhibition held in Indonesia, for an Indonesian audience?
Not really, some of the texts they would have studied while growing up, would have been in English. Also, (the Indonesian viewers and artists), tend to look at the works. They can pretty much suck the soul out of a painting the minute they look at it.
So, Indonesian artist Semsar Siahaan – why is Gajah Gallery organising a show about him, and why now?
This guy is a gem, one that is being re-discovered by local and foreign academics at the highest level. We have been planning this show for 3 years now, as it has been dependent on the availability of certain key works that could anchor the show.
This is no more about us being a (commercial) gallery, but about a very important artist’s legacy. Semsar is – according to one academic – possibly the most important Indonesian artist of the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, involved in the struggle against President Suharto. He suffered a lot and he was very much at the forefront of the art activist movement. We have the presence of works such as Olympia: Identity with Mother and Child (1987):
And G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man (2003):
We are not just showing bits and pieces here. We are, if I may say so, showing a highly significant body of his work.
Why do you think was he overlooked? Was Semsar not selling well previously?
He wasn’t that well-recognised financially. Several things happened to Semsar: he almost had the life beaten out of him, fled Indonesia, spent a few months in Singapore and then spent 4 or 5 years in Canada. He was living outside of his market. Semsar was a forgotten man by the time he came back to the region in 2004. He then died in 2005. He was in the process of setting up his art school and foundation in Bali, but then just fell off the radar.
If you could only look at one artwork for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would probably be a small, little paper Aung Soe – one of his Buddhist works- one of these small Buddha faces with no title :
Because you can carry them anywhere you want to go! (Editor’s note: They are indeed only 19cm x 25/27cm in size).
I would just carry them around with me all the time!
Gajah Gallery’s showcase of the work of Semsar Siahaan, Art, Liberation. An Exhibition of 28 works from 1984-2004, opens to the public from 2 – 29 November 2017. Opening hours here.