Good vibes from Manila (Art Fair Philippines 2015)

by Cheah Ui-Hoon [This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.]

Entry to the Art Fair Philippines in Makati City is managed by bouncers, a sign of how hot the event is and a reflection of the fast-growing art market in the country. 

"NO, Ma'am, you cannot enter. You need the organiser's pass. Your invitation is for later," repeated bouncers in black several times in the past few days. Checking every one who came up the elevator for a pass or an organiser's sticker, the bouncers had to be extra vigilant for a couple of days up to hours before the start of Art Fair Philippines (AFP) on Wednesday afternoon.
"Yes, we had to hire the bouncers because we had collectors sneaking in to buy the art pieces before the fair started!" laughs Trickie Lopa, one of the co-organisers of the three-year-old AFP.
An art fair with people resorting to trickery to do their shopping even before it opens is as good an indication as any of its success, especially this one held in a nondescript car park in Makati City.
An exquisite Marina Cruz work was sold two days before the fair, for example, says a gallery staff at 1335 Mabini. "It was a buyer who had a tag worn by fair exhibitors, and she booked the piece," he explains. The work sold for 230,000 pesos (S$7,000). Even as he spoke, a pair of elderly Filipino ladies overheard the news of the sale, and made loud noises of disappointment. Although, to be fair, the VIP sale had already started an hour before - with many works, much less a Marina Cruz - a well-loved and acclaimed artist in the country - snapped up by then.
Before the next wave of invited guests arrived at 7pm that night (AFP has VIP and vernissage times), Silverlens Galleries had already sold most of their pieces to the VIP collectors. "But we started sales only at 2pm, it must be said," says Isa Lorenzo, its co-partner.
Filipino Amanda Barretto Lim and her friend Robinzon Fernandez were among the collectors who did try to get in earlier than the stipulated time, but weren't successful, they admitted. In the end, they stood at the entrance waiting to be let in right on the dot and snapped up four to five pieces at the galleries they had targeted. "We had done our research beforehand, and we knew which artists were being shown by which gallery," says Ms Barretto Lim. "To us, art is a worthwhile investment still."
If there was a slowdown in the art market in other parts of the world, the buyers in the Philippines certainly don't seem to be affected as the market in their own country continues to boom and flourish.
This is AFP's third year, and it has drawn more exhibitors with 33 galleries, including eight foreign galleries. From four special exhibits last year, there are now 12 spread over two floors of carpark space.
"The carpark venue was something that appealed to us because it's quite edgy, and fits in with the personality of our gallery space, which is quite raw," says Gaby Dela Merced of Vinyl on Vinyl, participating for the first time.
The fair also drew Michael Janssen and Edouard Malingue from Singapore and Hong Kong respectively, of their eponymous galleries. "I visited last year and liked the feel . . . it's fun and good," says Mr Janssen, who brought in some European artists' works and also teamed up with a local Filipino art group to carry local artists.
Growing crowd
Mr Malingue brought American artist Jeremy Everett's works, which is abstract and process-based, as a counterpoint to Filipino art in general, which is quite strong in figurative works. "I liked the vibe as well when I visited last year - it's relaxed and joyful, so I thought it was worth coming here to talk to people and to get to know the market better," he says. "Looking at art is gaining momentum in Asia . . . and it's the duty of the gallery to be friendly and make contacts," Mr Malingue says, adding that although one can be picky about which fairs to go to in Europe or North America, he deems each art fair in Asia to be important because of the growing art crowd.
The strongest point of AFP - as seen in this edition - has to be the calibre of the artists and their work. And the 12 special exhibits are a highlight, besides the way certain galleries have curated their shows.
Tin-Aw Gallery caused quite a splash with its uniquely curated show made to look like a grocery store. "Manufacturer's Advice: Content May Vary" is a show supported by the Tin Can Makers Association of the Philippines - and more than 100 artists were asked to give their take on tin cans.
"The whole thing is a take on the 1996 travelling exhibition, 'Yes the Filipino Can!' curated by Bobi Valenzuela," explains Dawn Atienza, one of the directors of the gallery. The whole show, with its supermarket-related content, naturally speaks of art in terms of consumption. That said, the cans were flying off the shelves when the VIPs visited yesterday.
The character of contemporary Filipino art - which are based strongly on its cultural and socio-political history - came through in Alwin Reamillo's work and also Kawayan de Guia's.
The former's father was formerly a piano maker, before the piano manufacturing industry in the Philippines crashed in the 1987 Asian economic crisis. Besides the two pianos Reamillo appropriated for his art work, his work also involves found objects.
"I'm interested in transcultural migrations and movements," says the 50-year-old artist who is based in Australia.
Kawayan de Guia's work reflects his interest in film, and his sculptures made out of 35mm celluloid film, shaped together with resin into parts of the American Statue of Liberty, also light up like lightboxes - revealing the core material when one takes a closer look.
Gnawing sound
Mixed media maker Ted Ermitano lugged over the trunk of an Arenga palm, teeming with larvae of weevils, and amplified the sound so onlookers could listen to their incessant gnawing. On the other side of his dark room, he set up a digital-based work for people to draw on the computer surface, with the picture generating corresponding tonal sounds.
Artist Geraldine Javier celebrated the local Filipino art scene with her hand-embroidered portraits of the various players in the industry for her special project.
While the reference to local culture and history was strong and symbolic, confronting ideas of power, colonialism, materialism and consumerism, there were also artists such as Annie Cabigting whose work commented on how art is seen, signified and replicated. Her special exhibit was a clever reproduction of a MOMA (New York's Museum of Modern Art) gallery - presenting three iconic works in MOMA's collection, and then the space set up replicates the wooden floor of the gallery and the Mies Van Der Rohe Barcelona chaise.
While the visitorship is mainly Filipino, organisers Dindin Araneta, Trickie Lopa and Lisa Periquet hope that AFP would become the one-stop shop for foreign visitors who are keen to find out more about Filipino art and to collect it.
"Which is why we try to get collectors and galleries to cooperate and not to pre-sell the works before the fair starts. Otherwise, there are a lot of disappointed visitors," says Ms Lopa. "We want everyone to have a chance."
But it's getting harder to do so without being dictatorial about it. Besides the bouncers keeping out collectors physically, there's also social media and collectors with established relationships with galleries who inevitably find it easy to get first dibs on the works.
But increasingly, galleries are now working with artists to reserve or debut some of the best works by artists for the fair; even as the fair organisers commission artists to make works specially as special exhibits.
"When the fair first started three years ago, there were more figurative works and paintings, as that's the strength of Filipino artists, but this year, there's a wider variety of expression with more sculptures and 3D works as well," notes an observer.
The quality strived for raises the profile of the fair considerably - and true enough, it's drawing the region's collectors and curators from Indonesia and Singapore. The Filipino art market is on acceleration mode, and its neighbours are taking note.
  • Art Fair Philippines ends this Sunday at 9pm, at levels 6 & 7, The Link car park, Makati City
The AFP in its third year has drawn more exhibitors with 33 galleries, including eight foreign galleries. From four special exhibits last year, there are now 12 spread over two floors of carpark