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BANG or Whimper?

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Singapore Really Really Free Market, organised by Post-Museum. Photo by Jennifer Teo

Happy New Year and we like to admit we can’t keep up already! Last week saw seven gallery openings, as the commercial arm of our ever-growing culture industry returns from their Christmas and New Year break. While we are excited with this strong display of market force (perhaps signaling a time of greater economic growth in the coming year?), we can’t help but wonder if this show of number is by any means indicative that we’re getting better art? Is this BANG or *whimper*?

In a country that is virtually impossible to gallery hop (the most I have done in one afternoon is four galleries), one hope that the trip to experience art is bloody well worth it. Thankfully, we have the internet these days as a teaser of some sort and while it is by no means the best way to assess works of art, it can at least provide you with a clue on what you might encounter on your gallery visit.

We all know the dangers of having a market. It’s not that it stifles creativity, it just redefines what creativity is to mean a spectacle. Large canvases, vague political statements, gimmicky conceptual tinkering, self-portraits (urgh!), you get the drift. Don’t we have enough of these, are we right to demand for more?

But I’m no marxist curmudgeon and I value what market gives us – incentive! – and an economy to keep our middle class artist with a roof over their head so that they can go on to produce works that incite, inspire and excite us. There is unfortunately a tendency for the art market in Malaysia to become a conservative force that repeatedly generate demand for a particular style that an artist is known for and thereby restricting artists the opportunity to explore in new directions.

This is not entirely the case in other countries where galleries actually spend effort providing proper representation for their artists. Artist representation, done professionally, allows gallerists to spend more time understanding their artits because they are actually investing in each and every artist they represent. In this instance, whenever there is a significant artistic shift, gallerists are more able to defend, persuade and convince collectors regarding the value behind the changes. Together with collectors, they collective invest in an artist’s career and more readily provide him/her with the opportunity to improve and progress to the next stage of artistic development. And to some extent, perhaps even expect it.

It is hard to imagine a supportive community of this nature in Malaysia where the market forces is driven largely by a lack of curiosity towards art practices that do fall into the conventional collectible categories. Market for installation, video or performance documentation is still largely non-existent while these are staple mediums through which contemporary artists have more effectively (this is of course arguable since we have entered the digital age) reflect on the ethos of our day and age.

The past decade saw a local art boom that have generated and shaped a particular coming of age narrative in regards to the growth, expansion and concerns in Malaysian contemporary art. If the local market has played such a crucial role for the past ten years, its future as an influence on the creative direction of the country remains uncertain. This is not to say it will fail to continue driving its own specific aesthetic agenda.

As we enter a new decade, we need to ask, ‘Can the market remain relevant to contemporary art?’ Can it support the creative output of our younger generation? Will art that is supported by the market be consigned to the footnote of our art history or can it step up and play a more active role in shaping our cultural landscape? If so, how? We like to hear from you.



This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 25 January 2010.

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