While many of us spent the pandemic picking up new hobbies and perfecting the art of baking sourdough, Liu Ying Mei was busy making plans to open a contemporary art gallery.
She realised the fruits of her labour when she opened 39+ Art Space at Tanjong Pajar Distripark in early 2022, just in time for Singapore Art Week (SAW). SAW attendees might recall the gallery’s extensive showcase of Thai artist Mit Jai Inn’s immersive, sunrise- and sunset-themed works.
Currently, the gallery is hosting a group show featuring Chinese contemporary artists Fang Wei, Lin Ke, Su Chang, Wang Yi, and Zhang Yunyao. It’s a diverse selection of works, which are all breathtaking in their own way.
Zhang paints references to classical art, biblical motifs, and mythic creatures (think muscular, dynamic bodies; an undulating snake; and a watchful owl) in soft, hazy strokes to a great, striking effect, while Wang’s abstract geometric works appear to gleam and glow on the opposite wall.
Quickly, you’ll notice the walls at the back of the gallery bear the same patterns as a Photoshop layer. Displayed on them are Lin’s digital depictions of a cat, Madonna and child, and a woman’s portrait — an ode to the artist’s interest in the relationship between modern technology and art-making.
In the adjoining room, the curved, textured forms of Su’s stark white sculptures pop against Fang Wei’s psychedelic landscapes, rendered in expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colours. The group show ties into the gallery’s expansive vision of exhibiting international artists at different stages of their careers.
So far, the gallery’s exhibitions seem to reflect Liu’s own international experiences and interest in the global art scene: having studied in Germany, and lived and worked in Beijing and Shanghai, before calling Singapore home.
Read on for our interview with Liu, where we chat about the challenges of opening an art gallery during the pandemic; the decision to join the ever-growing arts cluster at Tanjong Pagar Distripark; and how her previous art world experiences converge at 39+ Art Space.
Galleries are notorious for being difficult businesses to run, so it’s even more impressive to learn that Liu had set up 39+ Art Space during the pandemic.
Aware of how many Singaporeans remained captive audiences with no ability to travel during the pandemic, Liu felt that Singaporeans wanted to see different types of art but “there weren’t (many) opportunities to see international art.”
Taking things into her own hands, Liu was resolute to “open a gallery in Singapore to see what happens,” with hopes of uniting art industry professionals and enthusiasts. The also gallery takes its name from its address, 39 Keppel Road.
Before setting up 39+, Liu ran a gallery for five years in Shanghai, where she showcased Chinese and international artists. There, she also worked on public art projects and projects for the 2009 Shenzhen Architecture Biennale and 2010 Shanghai World Expo.
It took Liu six months, from commencing rental discussions to finding an architect for the space, to bring her vision to life. A major challenge was how “everything went very slowly,” since landlords worked from home and nobody knew when Singapore was going to open up.
As for why she chose Tanjong Pagar Distripark, she cites not only the presence of the Singapore Art Museum and other galleries, but also how the complex has high ceilings, wide spaces, cargo lifts, and storage facilities.
Obstacles didn’t cease even after Liu settled on the gallery’s location and was finally able to start setting up 39+ Art Space. She recalled this initial period as challenging, as “construction was slow… because there was a shortage of labourers and construction materials.” On top of this, designing the space took two months; not because the design process was slow, but because Liu and the architect simply couldn’t meet to discuss their plans.
Other challenges included the high cost of shipping due to the pandemic and how Mit — the featured artist of the gallery’s first exhibition — was unable to supervise the installation of his works due to travel restrictions at the time. Mit’s expansive works had to be shipped from Chiang Mai to Bangkok before arriving in Singapore, as there weren’t any direct flights.
“But Mit is an experienced artist and he gave us precise instructions on how to install the works,” Liu shared. The detailed works came in individual pieces and took Liu and her team “around twelve hours” to install.
Despite the tribulations, Liu remained determined to open up in time for Singapore Art Week 2022 — and that she did.
A Platform for International Contemporary Art
39+ Art Space began its exhibition programme with Mit because the established Southeast Asian artist never had a solo show in Singapore. Drawn to his “techniques, philosophy, and concepts” — which Liu felt haven’t been recognised enough — she wanted more people to know about his work.
On the current group show that features a mix of middle-career and established contemporary Chinese artists, Liu says that this choice was made in response to how “there aren’t many galleries [in Singapore] showing contemporary Chinese art.”
She added that some people have “preconceived notions about what Chinese art should be…so I want to show people what Chinese artists are doing, that they aren’t only focused on traditional techniques or ideology. Chinese artists are very universal.”
Summing up the gallery’s vision, Liu asserted:
“I want to present contemporary art — it doesn’t have to be from China…I want people from Singapore and the region to see the forefront of contemporary art, as well as new methodologies and subject matter.”
Looking ahead, she shared that an upcoming exhibition will focus on emerging Los Angeles-based Asian women artists. “We want to show artists at different stages in their career, like emerging, middle, and established,” Liu said. “It’s more about the quality of the work to us.”
Having worked in the arts internationally for over two decades, Liu has some thoughts on the industry’s current trends. While I was curious to learn if each city that Liu had worked in, such as Beijing or Hong Kong, had specific art trends, she said that generally speaking, there aren’t.
“The art market has become more global, (as) different online formats of exhibitions and art fairs are booming,” she explained.
Liu noted a “high demand” for emerging artists around the world in the past few years, due to the growing number of young collectors. “They are more educated these days (as they) grow up with a certain art education, and travel around a lot so they’re open-minded and well-informed,” she added.
However, looking closer at Singapore, Liu shares that the collecting habits are a little different and still remain “quite diverse.” Some collectors are only focused on modern Singapore or international artists, while younger collectors tend to express interest in practitioners from Southeast Asia.
Ultimately, with 39+ Art Space, Liu strives to “get more general audiences interested (in art) and bring collectors in. I hope to promote artists from the region and get them internationally recognised while also bringing global artists to the region.”
39+ Art Space is located at 39 Keppel Rd, #03-01 Distripark, Singapore 089065. Click here for more information.
The group show with Fang Wei, Lin Ke, Su Chang, Wang Yi, and Zhang Yunyao runs until 26 June 2021.
An earlier version of this article contained references to Liu working in the art world for over a decade. This reference has since been edited.