Filipino artists shine at Art Basel Hong Kong
People crowd around Ai Weiwei's Forever, taking selfies with the dissident Chinese artist's sculptural installation the size of a small car that assembled and welded bicycles together in an unbroken loop. Nearby, a couple of well-dressed businessmen linger on paintings by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. In another part of the vast exhibition hall, high school students clumsily avoid tripping on He Xiangyu's mannequin installation depicting a body facedown on the floor.
And outside the exhibition halls, surrounded by kiosks selling art books, magazines and small prints, a long line has formed at the ticket counter, people jostling to purchase tickets to one of Asia's largest and most important annual art events: Art Basel Hong Kong.
From May 14 to 18, a large chunk of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center was carved out for a 5-day visual art extravaganza that showcased all that is new and trendy in the global art world. Formerly known as Art Hong Kong, this is the second time that the art fair is celebrated under the famous Art Basel brand.
To call this event big would be a disservice – the art fair dominated nearly the entirety of the convention center. Over 240 of the world's leading galleries were grouped into 5 sectors – 4 (Galleries, Insights, Encounters, and Discoveries) at the convention center and one (Film) at the Hong Kong Arts Center across the street – and exhibited artworks that represented over US$1 billion worth of visual art. The Hong Kong event is one of three that Art Basel holds every year, the other locations being Basel, Switzerland and Miami, USA.
Though Art Basel remained primarily an event for collectors, it also gave art lovers from all over Asia a chance to take in new developments in the global art scene and interact with art professionals from around the world. And among the famous galleries and art installations, 4 galleries are from the Philippines: Finale Art File, The Drawing Room, and Art Informal held exhibitions under Insights, the sector dedicated to "precise contextual and thematic presentations by important artists from the art scenes across Asia," while Silverlens Gallery displayed artworks at the main Galleries sector.
These 4 galleries embody the Philippines' growing art scene, and their participation in Art Basel Hong Kong underscores the growth of outside interest in the Philippine visual art.
If that wasn't enough, Filipino artists were also included in the exhibitions of foreign galleries – particularly the works of Louie Cordero at the booth of Hong Kong's Osage Gallery (displaying 2 works similar to his ping pong tables at Art Fair Philippines earlier this year) and works by Rodel Tapaya, Jigger Cruz, and Geraldine Javier at the booth of Berlin's ARNDT.
Hand Made Violence
Four rectangular metal sheets, roughly the size of large-screen LED televisions, riddled with bullet holes and coated in black automotive paint, were installed at Finale Art File's booth. In this piece called Braille, the bullet holes are arranged in a pattern that spells out the following words in Braille: "abusive," "anger," "paranoia," and "sadistic."
The artist, Bembol Dela Cruz, describes how, through his research, he found out that"...a large percentage of firearms in the Philippines are unregistered..." partly due to potential gun owners failing the necessary psychiatric evaluations because of the aforementioned reasons. On his metal sheets, the exit holes face viewers as if they were shot at. "I used the exit holes to bring about tension between the viewer and the artwork," says the artist, adding that he overcame his own fear of guns when he used a .45 caliber pistol to shoot out the holes.
The four panels are part of a larger exhibition of Dela Cruz's works that also include paintings and cartographic sketches of guns as described to the artist by inmates in Bilibid prison. The exhibition is meant to reflect the artist's concern over gun violence.
That message was key to the exhibition being accepted by Art Basel's Selection Committee. Vita Sarenas of Finale Art File, a veteran of the Philippine art community, explained that the submission process was particularly stringent. "When you apply, you have to explain the concept of the artist," she says. "We have to show what is happening in the Philippines. It should also represent a milestone in the artist's practice."
Bembol Dela Cruz is more concise about the process: "It was an idea first. It was about conquering my fear of guns and to control loose firearms. Luckily, our proposal was approved," he said. And this was an idea that clearly resonated with the international audience. "We've had very positive reception [of Bembol Dela Cruz's works]..." Sarenas said, "... and garnered a lot of interest."
Sidd Perez, Curatorial Associate of The Drawing Room and co-founder of Planting Rice, highlighted the importance of events like Art Basel Hong Kong for Philippine artists and galleries – particularly the art fair's ability to bring exposure to artists that would have otherwise served the tastes of only a few local collectors. "We have to open up the practices of our artists to the region we belong in," she says.
Works on display
This meant rethinking how art is produced and who it's produced for. In many ways, the works on display at Art Basel were far from the rural scenes we so often see in Manila art events, and people who made the journey to Hong Kong are looking for avant garde concepts, techniques, and practices.
This environment compelled The Drawing Room to submit an exhibit proposal for newer artists instead of the tried-and-true. "Since I came onboard programming," says Perez, "I realized that the projects the gallery was bringing to international art fairs were blockbuster presentations of our mid-career to senior artists, like Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan and Jose "Jojo" Legaspi. Hence, we decided that it's time to highlight the younger artists of our gallery."
These two artists – Vermont Coronel and Troy Ignacio – formed an interesting partnership. In their exhibit, the two tackled the urban landscapes of third-world cities like Manila. "Curatorially, I've been developing this project of how younger artists read the city, particularly Manila," Perez explains. "And I think Vermont and Troy represent a particular language that we wanted to showcase for Art Basel.
This series of two- and three-dimensional cutouts of various media – including photos, wood, and acrylic – bring the hazy confusion of a modern developing city to life through disjointed imagery and "street art" techniques, such as graffiti. "Troy and Vermont's works have always been attractive to people, especially because of their hand-crafted quality" says Perez. "So it's no surprise that we've been getting a lot of positive feedback."
The opposite approach was taken by Art Informal, which chose to extend their display of works by heavyweight contemporary artist Jose Jon John Santos III from Art Fair Philippines. One of the hottest Philippine artists around, with works reaching millions of pesos in the auction scene, two large works by the artist – Hide & Seek and Re(f)use covered the two wall panels of the corner booth.
Hide & Seek is an installation of resin-coated fabric bags that were hung at interval spaces. "The veiling renders the objects as residual, vestigial, and lingering forms," wrote University of the Philippines professor Leo Abaya in the catalogue. "But while the gesture seems inertial, it paradoxically calls to mind the Proustian notion that appearances conceal the true nature of things."
Re(f)use uses a similar technique, but instead compacts the fabric, then ties them together with string to form a 198 cm x 274.3 cm wall hanging. And Silverlens Gallery, not being a part of Insights but instead holding a booth at the main Galleries sector, displayed works from Hanna Pettyjohn, Luis Lorenzana, Maria Taniguchi, Patricia Eustaquio, Pio Abad, and Yee I-Lann.
Ultimately, Philippine participation at this important event showcased the best in the Philippine contemporary art scene, and the positive reception of Philippine artists and galleries furthers the momentum of our growing art community.
The goal, though, is that Filipino artists will eventually be invited to contribute works to the institutional side of the art fair: the large scale installations curated by Yuko Hasegawa for the Encounters sector, or the emerging artists of the Discoveries sector.
Conversely, it'd be great to see local art events follow the same exacting curatorial standards of Art Basel. But for now, it seems that positive recognition at events like Art Basel is a step in the right direction. – Rappler.com