It’s been five years since Singapore art fair S.E.A. Focus burst onto the scene, making an impressive entry after the messy and sudden departure of Art Stage Singapore. The platform’s evolution since 2019 has been no less dramatic, having to grapple with a fully–fledged global pandemic, just as it was starting to find its feet.
Aimed at fostering a deeper appreciation of contemporary art and artists in the Southeast Asian region, this was the new art platform that punched beyond its weight. As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, we thought it would be a good time for a follow-up chat with Emi Eu, project director of S.E.A. Focus and executive director of STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery (STPI) to look back at the last five years of this pioneering event.
Hello Emi! Let’s start with this year’s theme for S.E.A. Focus– a world, anew. Tell us a bit more about how this curatorial angle was developed and how the galleries were selected?
Since the pandemic, we’ve switched our format to that of exhibitions. If you remember, for the first two years we presented S.E.A. Focus in the traditional format of an art fair, with each gallery having its own booth.
But when the pandemic hit, we moved to Tanjong Pagar Distripark for the 2021 and 2022 editions of S.E.A. Focus. When we saw that the ‘white cube’ art space here was not as big as Gillman Barracks, we decided to pivot to an exhibition format. That’s when I realised that we needed to have a curatorial theme—in order to put up an exhibition, rather than just a hodgepodge kind of ‘hanging’ of the works.
So we had hyper-horizon as the theme for 2021, and then chance…constellations last year. In 2023, the entire world is coming out of this whole pandemic period, so we wanted to have some kind of a reset and restart somewhere. This is a recalibration of all the things that we started out doing, so the theme of “a world, anew” is in line with that concept.
Let’s talk about ART SG. S.E.A. Focus has always been billed as a showcase, whereas ART SG is more explicitly an “art fair”. Could you expand on the differences between the two?
I think the main difference between S.E.A. Focus and Art SG is the format. We have an exhibition format, whereas Art SG is in the traditional art fair format, where galleries pay for their booths. While there is a fee to participate in S.E.A. Focus, it is much lower, and that’s the whole point. When we started back in 2019, we realised that many galleries from Southeast Asia, being very, very new galleries or younger galleries, could not possibly commit to so many different fairs because it is a big financial commitment. So when we started out, we wanted to address this challenge for the galleries by offering a nominal entry point by way of fees, and we continue to do this.
Of course, during the pandemic, we had lowered the fees because of the restrictions on travel and movement, but we have since gone back to the previous fee structure.
How sustainable has that model been?
Without the National Arts Council (NAC) coming in, it is not very sustainable business-wise. But I think that this is the other difference from Art SG. Art SG is a privately-held company, a business for art fairs, so they have to make money. Not that we don’t want to make money. Of course, all non-profits also have to make money and be sustainable, but we knew going in that it was going to take some time to really develop this business, and we hope to continue to do that. It’s just taking longer to come to a point where it makes business sense, and we’re looking to build a public-private partnership.
Is S.E.A. Focus still the anchor event of Singapore Art Week?
Yes, it is still the case, because ART SG is completely on its own and independent. The National Arts Council is our commissioner, and S.E.A. Focus is the anchor event. That’s why we opened on the first weekend of Singapore Art Week.
We’ve noticed that you’ve acknowledged ART SG in your list of thank-yous on the official signage at S.E.A. Focus. Do you think there might be some kind of future possibility where S.E.A. Focus might be subsumed into Art SG or the two might be merged?
[We’ve included the thank-you], because we’re collaborating on some of the programmes, and we want to have this kind of reciprocity. With Singapore being really small, it just doesn’t make sense if we are not collaborating.
[On the possible merger], I don’t know, that is something that only time will tell. I know that Magnus [Renfrew] and Shuyin [Yang] are putting all they have towards making Art SG a success, and we definitely want to contribute towards that as well. Because we have to all succeed, and we have to all come out well to make this Singapore Art Week a success, and so we’re all working together in that sense.
We want to make sure that everyone who comes through Singapore Art Week will be impressed. Quite a lot of people who are coming in have never been to Singapore or this region, but are very influential in the art world. We just want to make sure that they have the right, real impression of what Singapore can provide and offer, and of what happens here.
Do you think the art market here in Singapore and regionally, is presently big enough to sustain two art presentations like S.E.A. Focus and ART SG, or do you see this as a starting point to develop a growing market?
I think Singapore is too small to be an art market on its own, so we don’t – and neither does Art SG, I’m sure – see Singapore as the sole market. The region is the market, but the demographics of the population who have come to reside in Singapore have changed tremendously as well in the last three years, and there has been a great shift in the demographics in the region too.
The existing landscape definitely has to grow. S.E.A. Focus’ other vision is to bring Southeast Asian art to the international market. So I would say that the future of S.E.A. Focus for me and for my team is to look beyond Southeast Asia. How do we bring the world to Southeast Asia? And vice versa, how do we go to the world? I think that is the next step for us.
We last spoke in 2018, before the very first edition of S.E.A. Focus. Looking back, what have you learned?
I think the main learning point – and not only for the S.E.A. Focus project, but for me personally and for STPI in general – would be to always be ready and to be adaptable. The pandemic threw us into the deep end and then we had to basically figure out how we were going to survive. It was like sink or swim, right?
The learning point for me was to take care of my team. Now that everybody can work from everywhere at any time, it just feels like you’re working constantly. We’re constantly engaged to do things, so how do I make sure that my team members or even myself, don’t feel like we have to work constantly? You just kind of fall into that trap, even if you don’t want to. I started thinking about how to ensure that, as I was someone who was also in charge of everybody’s well-being. The sustainability of the platform is not only about finances, but more importantly, the people behind it.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned aspirations of having Beyoncé and Jay-Z (or the equivalent of that kind of star power) in the Singapore or regional art scene, in order to make it accessible to different kinds of people. Do you still think the same way? Have you managed to create these kinds of over-the-top experiences?
I mean, we had Takashi Murakami [at STPI]! He’s friends with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, so I got pretty close! And he’s friends with Pharrell. I read an amazing article on Kendrick Lamar and I said to my husband, I want to work with Kendrick Lamar at STPI (to which he wished me luck 😊). The article got me thinking about how it would be so amazing to have him and Kehinde Wiley at STPI. I stopped watching music videos after the Michael Jackson era but then I watched Kendrick Lamar’s video for The Heart Part 5 and it was just so mesmerising. The way he tries to convey his messages, it’s really quite powerful. Somebody like him who grew up in different circumstances, but who’s now living a celebrity life, has gone from one extreme to the other extreme. I would love to talk to him and just find out his artistic inclination, visually. Kehinde Wiley is also very cerebral, and these are two guys that I would really love to meet and work with.
Tell us more about the S.E.A. Focus Fringe Film Programme in collaboration with the Projector and OBJECTIFS.
Our fringe film programme started last year and we were very lucky. One of my team members highlighted to me that The Projector was having a pop-up space at Clarke Quay. So we went to visit and it was such a cool space. The venue was formerly a dance club called the Liquid Room, and they had left everything as it was. When we started the programme last year, we wanted to give people a taste of what Southeast Asian artists do in the medium of short video and film.
This year we approached OBJECTIFS to come on board and curate the programme as it should be. And I’m hoping that visitors from both inside and outside of Singapore will make an effort to go to see our films there. I mean, we’re making a statement that art is not just something that you put on the wall or see as a sculpture, but something that really comes across in different, diverse ways. Anybody who is artistically inclined would get inspiration from watching film or from going to an exhibition or listening to music. Everything is related.
On that note, tell us more about Bastard Cooking at Burnt Ends, the gastronomic experience designed by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi, German sculptor Tobias Rehberger and the Australian chef-owner of Burnt Ends, Dave Pynt.
This event is a very special one because it’s never been done here in Singapore. Rirkit’s cooked in many places with his usual collaborators like Tobias and Antto, and “Bastard Cooking” has taken place in countries like Hong Kong pre-COVID. With Antto, they have published a cookbook called Bastard Cookbook. With his long-time friend, Tobias Rehberger, the German sculptor, he’s cooked in many, many different countries.
S.E.A. Focus is collaborating with neugerriemschneider gallery to present Dirty Dishes. The gallery is also selling the dinnerware produced by the artists, both Rirkrit and Tobias, so the buyers of the dinnerware will get the dinner as well. You have to eat the entire 12-plus course dinner out of one piece of dinnerware throughout the night, and then you get to keep it. The dinnerware is not cleaned between courses, so if you don’t want to eat something, it’s going to be left there.
When the dinnerware goes back to the collector/diner, will it continue to have those remnants on it?
Yes, they’ll have to wash it.
Tell us about the SEAspotlight Talks – what can we expect?
These talks are always there to provide more insight into what is happening today, so we’ll definitely have a talk on NFTs and the blockchain because Tezos is one of our sponsors. I think it’s really a timely moment to talk about where this is heading, and to hear from the people who are actually running it.
I do see the blockchain as being a very important part of the way we operate in the future. It’s something that we should really try to understand more so that we can use it to make our operations and businesses much more transparent and better.
We’re also going to address what it means to be an arts patron. The demographics have changed and people are amassing art, collecting, and developing their collections at a much faster rate than before. I hear a lot about young people who have the means to collect and who have amassed and built up their own collections, wanting to open a museum, for example. So what does it mean to be an arts patron in today’s world? We’re going to talk about that.
And then we have invited the Art Galleries Association Singapore (AGAS) to come and talk about their challenges and what it’s like to have a gallery in Singapore now that we are open again, and starting to have many Western galleries come in. We are going to address this and hear from the galleries themselves on what it is like to work in a field where internationalisation is necessary, while being grounded here in this small city-state.
Is it fair to say that S.E.A. Focus has a bit more of a focus on building patronage and developing young patrons as opposed to say, art appreciation for the general public?
I think art appreciation is something that is constantly growing and that job is really done by the museums like the Singapore Art Museum, the National Gallery Singapore and the National Museum of Singapore. They are doing that work, so our focus is slightly different because there is a commercial aspect to it and we really want to build a pipeline for patronage and legacy. Everybody plays different roles in the arts landscape. So let museums do what they know best — we’re not specialists in conducting art appreciation classes.
So, what can we expect over the next five years?
Kendrick Lamar and Kehinde Wiley? (laughs)
I think the next five years are really about how we’re going to bring S.E.A. Focus and Southeast Asian art, out to the world.
Thank you Emi!
S.E.A. Focus 2023 runs from 6 January to 15 January 2023. Tickets are on sale at SGD10 and accessible via www.seafocus.sg. Each ticket is valid for multiple entries.
Fringe Film Programme “OFF Focus” takes place on 7, 8, 14 & 15 January 2023. Tickets are priced at SGD8 per screening and available for purchase on www.theprojector.sg/seafocus.
For the full outline of SEAspotlight Talks and other information and updates on S.E.A. Focus, please visit www.seafocus.sg.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
This article is produced in partnership with S.E.A. Focus. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.
All images unless otherwise stated, are courtesy of S.E.A. Focus.