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Founder of 39+ Art Space Liu Ying Mei talks about Chinese contemporary artists, the Singapore art scene and NFTs

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 11 min read
Founder of 39+ Art Space Liu Ying Mei talks about Chinese contemporary artists, the Singapore art scene and NFTs
Liu: I find it very rewarding promoting young artists and following the trajectory of their careers PHOTO: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore
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When one thinks of Chinese art, what typically come to mind are watercolour paintings of ancient history and culture, great landscape masterpieces and fine calligraphy. However, what Liu Ying Mei wants to put across in her current exhibition — now on till June 26 at 39+ Art Space — is that artists from China can be contemporary, innovative and edgy, too.

To showcase the diversity of artistic talent from her homeland, she curated a group show of five young critically-acclaimed artists, predominantly in their 30s, whose works span a wide array of themes and mediums. Fang Wei is known for his surreal depictions of the human condition, Lin Ke is known for his creative debasing of technological structures, Wang Yi is renowned for his large scale illusionary, post-minimalist paintings, Su Chang is recognised for his uncanny subversions of the mundane in sculptural forms, and Zhang Yunyao is known for his eccentric revivals of classical motifs.

Wang Yi, Hub, 2021, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of 39+ Art Space

Fang Wei, Imperial Tree, 2021, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist

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Su Chang, Inward Loop. Photo courtesy of the 39+ Art Space

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Lin Ke, Madonna and Child in Gray, 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist

As you traverse through the spacious all-white gallery — located in the burgeoning art cluster of Tanjong Pagar Distripark on Keppel Road — you can see why Liu has chosen to highlight these five contemporary artists. While uniquely different in styles, they all showcase similar contemplations and reflections towards an increasingly globalised culture, from Photoshop-inspired digital art to holographic imagery.

She singles out digital artist Lin Ke — whose work has made it to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles — for being the most revolutionary of the bunch, who has a knack for transforming mundane objects of the physical world and manifesting them into digital representations through Photoshop combined with different material applications.

“I try not to explain too much about the art pieces but I’m happy to share the background of the artists. The viewer should have a dialogue with the work based upon your own experience. Every individual’s journey with art is very unique and open to interpretation,” says Liu.

Theoretical postulations aside, Liu says you do not need to know about art to love art. She is happy to just have more people embrace its beauty and hopefully want to acquire a piece for themselves. “There are many different entry points for people to gain access to art. No matter what level of art collector you are, or just a culture seeker, curiosity will make you want to explore further,” she says. “I think if you are more engaged with art and culture, you become happier because you connect more with yourself.”

Zhang Yunyao, Inward Centrifugal Force, 2015, Oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist

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As a commercial art gallery, all the pieces in 39+ Art Space are for sale and start from a few thousand dollars. For example, Zhang Yunyao’s Inward Centrifugal Force paintings, depicting a sculpted body in motion, are sold as a pair where the large 2m version costs $34,000 while the 40cm miniature is $6,500. Liu is also quick to add that art — like other collectibles such as watches, whiskey and wine — does appreciate in value and makes for an attractive item for investment. “I bought a painting by Shanxi-born painter Zhai Liang when he was first starting out and now it’s worth at least $40,000,” she adds.

This exhibition marks the second presentation since 39+ Art Space’s opening in January with a vibrant installation by Thai artist Mit Jai Inn. This July, Liu will be holding another group exhibition featuring three Asian-American female artists, all based in Los Angeles.

“We see 39+ Art Space as a nouveau platform to introduce and promote international artists across Asia, and to springboard Asian artists to the global stage, as well as to be a key player in the region’s secondary art market.”

Growing up with art

Liu has had 20 years of experience in the industry having worked with renowned international artists in prestigious institutions and museums across the world. Born in Shandong — deeply rooted in Chinese traditional art — she took special interest in the arts, literature and philosophy from a very young age. After graduating in Economics, she continued her studies in Germany and travelled through the rest of Europe where she eagerly sought out museums and art galleries housing artworks she had read about and loved in European art history books.

The turning point in her life was attending the Venice Biennale 1999 when she visited installations by China artists Chen Zhen and Cai Guo Qiang. She was deeply moved by and enamoured with their contemplation of Chinese philosophy and their application to contemporary art sensibilities.

Liu started working in Beijing as an art research assistant, eventually moving on to curate and organise art exhibitions and cultural exchange art shows. She worked with internationally renowned artists like Joerg Immendorff and Anthony Gormley in the prestigious National Museum of China and China Art Museum among other art spaces, and worked with the British Council, Japan Foundation and German Institutions.

Liu also hosted a private visit for a show for the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and worked with the French Pavilion in Shanghai Expo 2010, showcasing Paris-based Chinese artists like Chen Zhen, which was visited by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Her passion for the arts urged her to open her own art gallery in 2007 in Shanghai’s French Concession where she had the pleasure of showcasing young and established Chinese and international artists. Liu also became a highly experienced art advisor, possessing a talent in helping important collectors add highly sought-after art pieces to their collection.

Expanding horizons

Always seeking to develop her understanding and expand her horizons in the art world, Liu moved to Singapore in 2012 to discover and learn about the Southeast Asian art scene. Here, she took the opportunity to visit artist studios, art fairs and art galleries in cities like Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Manila, at times collecting inspiring pieces for herself. During this time, she also worked as the Southeast Asian representative for White Cube — one of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries with spaces in London and Hong Kong — while raising her Singapore-born daughter.

It was only last year that Liu decided it was time to open her own gallery after securing a 465 sq m unit at Tanjong Pagar Distripark, home to leading cultural institutions including Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the site for the annual showcase of S.E.A Focus. Timed for the launch of Singapore Art Week, 39+ Art Space officially opened its doors in January to focus on showcasing internationally-established and emerging contemporary artists. Liu says the plus sign in 39+ signifies positivity and the hope for more branches in the future.

As one of the first large-scale events to happen after the pandemic, the turnout at art week was understandably huge but a happy problem for Liu, who enjoyed traffic from both art collectors and people from all walks of life. “We had so many visitors that I had to charge entry fees to control the crowd back then. There’s a huge appetite right now for people to go out and see and do things,” she adds.

Presenting a year-round programme of solo and group exhibitions, artist-at-work and studio presentations, as well as talks by leading industry players, 39+ Art Space aims to enliven and enrich the vicinity and expand a greater appreciation for contemporary art in Singapore and the region. As an experienced art advisor, Liu is also able to consult, curate, commission and source for artworks from anywhere around the world for private collectors. The gallery also can be leased out for private events.

In this exclusive interview with Options, Liu shares her thoughts on the arts scene in Singapore, art investment and more.

Why did it take you close to a decade to open an art gallery?

When I first moved here in 2012, I did visit Gillman Barracks to view the galleries when it had just become a newly-appointed art cluster, but the timing was not right, as I was in the early stages of pregnancy. Last year, I came to Keppel Road to view the space and was impressed by the 6m-high ceilings and expansive floor area. I could envision a museum-like space displaying large format artworks as well as bigger sculptures. I only planned to open the gallery this year because I predicted that there will be a high demand for art right after the pandemic.

As the owner of an art gallery, what do you bring to the table?

I do what artists cannot do, which is to connect their work with art collectors around the world and plan for their career growth, much like an agent. I think I’m a very good advisor and I can spot talent right away.

Artists are a very different group of people. They’re very forward thinking and look at things in different perspectives and are always challenging themselves in their work. I respect them a lot because they work alone which is hard enough, plus they have to believe they’re good, even though they have experienced so much failure.

I find it very rewarding promoting young artists and following the trajectory of their careers. I suppose it’s my motherly instincts to want to nurture, understand and groom younger talent.

Of the thousands of contemporary Chinese artists, how did you arrive at these five?

I am not only drawn to academically well-trained artists with international appeal, but the work itself — the media and how it’s applied to the art form. These five artists are younger but already very well-established in their careers because they have very strong concepts and philosophies behind their work. For me, the allure of contemporary art is how the concepts can be really mind-bending and out-of-the-box, yet very inspiring.

In your 20-year career, how have you seen art evolve through the years?

People used to say you can never make a living from art — they think it’s a hobby or form of entertainment — but this is so not true. In fact, the art industry is booming more than ever. I have friends who used to laugh at me for working in this slow-moving industry, but now they have their own private museums!

I’ve also noticed an exponential uptake in art appreciation thanks to more arts programmes offered in schools. Younger people feel more inclined to choose art as a subject now because parents see the value in exposing their children to art and are more encouraging than before.

Artists too are evolving and moving away from traditional subjects to more abstract surrealism imagery in response to the world we’re living now and whatever problems societies are currently facing with, whether economic, political or social. Contemporary art really carries the spirit of this time. It portrays where we are right now and what’s happening in the world. To see how an artist internalises all of these things and expresses it out into art it’s amazing.

What is your wish for art in Singapore?

Singapore is a thriving cosmopolitan city with lots of international influence. My hope is that when people think about art in Singapore or Southeast Asia, you think about 39+ Art Space and how it’s a launchpad for some of the greatest artists. I would also love for our gallery to be a social club of sorts where people come to connect and engage in mutual discourse on all the things they love whether it’s art, business or culture. I’ve always felt that art is a great vessel for meaningful connections that transcends race, culture or status.

While I do observe a greater acceptance among the youth, it would be nice to see professionals take art as seriously as luxury goods like whiskey, wine and watches, and see it as a form of investment, whether to sell or just keep as a collection. The magic of art is being able to turn someone who has completely no interest at all into an avid collector. I have some friends who never looked at art in their lives and after visiting my gallery, fell in love with the pieces and bought them, without any prompting from me!

What are your impressions on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) for the art world?

I am really happy that people from the IT and finance worlds are coming together to make art into a commercial product, but I think it’s still early days. NFT art is not art we’re equipped to deal with, at least not in a traditional sense, because its value and currency is set by the cryptocurrency market and not academic art historians. I think for the digital savvy, it’s the perfect collectible item that’s tagged to a known investment value. I totally think this could be the future, but for traditional art collectors like myself, this is still in the process of exploring.

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