Taiwan is only 180 kilometres from the coast of China but it displays an utterly different cast of mind. So when President Xi Jinping unleashed another round of sabre rattling rhetoric this month, declaring that Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with the mainland, one thinks instinctively of what might be lost rather than gained.
The deal, of course, would be the same as Hong Kong – “one country, two systems”, but in Hong Kong it’s widely believed that existing freedoms are being gradually eroded. In China itself the intrusions of government are growing so ominous that many say: “it’s just like the Cultural Revolution”. Heaven forbid.
Taiwan may be thoroughly Chinese in its traditions but the influences of the United States and Japan have had a powerful impact. Among educated classes English is spoken with an American accent, while Japanese businesses may be found everywhere. These influences extend to an art market which has a contrasting character to that of the mainland.
In China it’s a show-off market, with newly rich collectors eager to strut their stuff by buying high-priced works, often with little concern as to authenticity. Dealers will tell you that Taiwanese collectors are more prone to take a slow, considered approach, laying emphasis on quality and consistency. Large sums may be spent but with a good deal of circumspection.
This may not sound like the most promising place for a contemporary art fair (a bit like Melbourne, really), but last week the inaugural Taipei Dangdai art fair was launched with much fanfare and claims of success. “Dangdai” in Mandarin means “the present moment” – a moment that is witnessing the worldwide ascendency of the art fair model.
Taipei Dangdai was the initiative of Magnus Renfrew, an Englishman abroad who pioneered the Hong Kong art fair, back in 2007, selling it on to the Art Basel group who have made it into a monster. Renfrew gained the backing of art fair veterans, Tim Etchells, Sandy Angus and Will Ramsay, and found it surprisingly easy to sign up Swiss banking giant, UBS, as chief sponsor.
From 160 applicants, a selection committee whittled down the exhibitors list to a manageable 90, including a who’s who of the world’s über galleries: David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Pace, Perrotin and White Cube, for starters. They added a cross-section of leading Asian dealers such as Arario, Eduard Malingue, Hyundai, Kukje, Nichido, Ota Fine Art, Pearl Lam and Whitestone; included 19 Taiwanese galleries, led by big names such as Tina Keng and Eslite; and finished with a range of younger galleries from around the region. It was a formidable line-up.
This is the kind of roll-call that Lorenzo Rudolf has only been able to dream about as he laboured through 8 years of Singapore Art Stage. Rudolf did, however, provide a major topic of discussion in Taipei through his decision to pull the plug on this year’s Art Stage only one week before opening. He compounded the drama by turning his press release into a J’accuse! style letter to the Singaporean government.
It’s hardly a surprise that both dealers and sponsors seem to prefer Renfrew’s less flamboyant style. The moral of Rudolf’s story is that art fairs are not a guaranteed way of making money. Even the Art Basel group has begun to divest itself of its stake in a number of regional fairs.
There is a limit as to how much the average gallery can pay to attend these international fairs. If your name is Zwirner and you can sell a painting by Yayoi Kusama for more than US$1 million in the first day, the costs are not an issue. If you are a small, up-and-coming gallery that has been selected from a highly competitive field and given a subsidised booth, it’s a lucky break that might still prove financially ruinous.
The informed nature of art collecting in Taipei made the show an irresistible proposition for the leading galleries, and many of them seem to have cashed in. Hauser & Wirth, for instance, decided to go with a solo exhibition of abstract paintings by German artist, Günther Förg (1952-2013), who is hardly a familiar name in Asia. By the end of the first day they claimed to have sold six works, for prices as high as EUR 475,000 (AUD$756,000).
In terms of introducing a neglected artist, Hanart TZ of Hong Kong was probably on safer ground with the paintings of Ye Shi-chiang, who died in his 80s after spending his entire life shunning exhibitions. These works, which featured large planes of colour and a few simple images, were disarmingly subtle. To my eye they were the most engaging paintings at the fair.
With a view to the future, Taipei Dangdai divided the show into four categories: Galleries, Young Galleries (no more than 8 years old), Solos and Salon. The latter was the most original idea, inviting all participating galleries to contribute a work priced at less than US$8,000. It formed a bridge between those able to pay the rarefied prices charged by the major dealers, and new collectors on tight budgets, anxious to get a toehold in the market.
Australian art was represented by Sydney’s Sullivan + Strumpf – this country’s most avid attendees of art fairs, and the only local gallery that has opened a branch in Asia. They swear the Singapore experiment is paying off, but it requires a perseverance that few of their peers would contemplate.
As usual, S + S managed to include a really eye-catching work, namely a sculpture by Sam Jinks of an oversized dung beetle pushing a ball of glittering gold. It’s a wry metaphor, but the meaning is ambiguous. It may represent the artist (or the dealer), turning base materials into gold; or perhaps Jinks is suggesting that something may look like gold but be as worthless as dung – unless you’re a beetle.
The other Australian entry was a solo show of paintings and painted tiles by Noel McKenna, hosted by mother’s tankstation of Dublin and London. Defiantly out of alignment with the more spectacular displays, McKenna’s deadpan, suburban vignettes made a strong impression. It was a lesson in how to stand out from the crowd through a strident display of modesty.
In terms of sheer spectacle it was hard to go past Tomiyuki Kaneko’s bold, stylised animal pictures at Mizuma Fine Art, or an installation by Haegue Yang that filled Gallery Kukje’s entire booth with textured wall patterns, Venetian blinds and great shaggy protuberances. Yang had an equally wild installation in last year’s Sydney Biennale, and this Dangdai piece would have been equally at home in a contemporary museum show. One wonders how a collector might approach such a phenomenon, unless of course, it was one of that growing band of collectors who have their own museums.
Taipei Dangdai Art Fair
Taipei Nangang Exhibition Centre, Taiwan
18 – 20 January, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 January, 2019