Lorenzo Rudolf, the man with ‘a head of stone’

“I will never be Asian. I will never be part of Asian culture but sometimes, it’s an advantage to see something from the outside.”  — Lorenzo Rudolf, founder and director of Art Stage Singapore

WORDS  SAM L. MARCELO | PHOTOGRAPHY  JONATHAN BALDONADO

How do you say “no” to Lorenzo Rudolf, the man credited with turning art fairs — Art Basel among them—into the spectacles that they are today? A polite e-mail won’t do, as Norberto “Peewee” Roldan, found out. It’s a September afternoon and Mr. Roldan is sitting in his house in Quezon City, waiting for the Swiss art impresario to arrive. “I don’t know why he’s coming,” he confesses. “But it’s flattering for someone like Lorenzo to pay attention to your practice. He knows what he’s doing, he knows what’s happening in Southeast Asia, and he knows what the future has in store for Southeast Asian contemporary art.”

Mr. Roldan, a multimedia artist whose works are laced with sociopolitical commentary, was in the middle of planning and preparing for shows with Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York, Arndt Gallery in Berlin, The National Gallery of Singapore, Art Basel Hong Kong, and Art Fair Philippines in Manila. Adding yet another event, one of the magnitude of Art Stage Singapore to boot, felt impossible. “Although it’s a great opportunity, I had to decline.”

A ringing mobile phone interrupts his train of thought. It’s Mr. Rudolf on the other end. He’s at Green Papaya Art Projects, an art space co-founded by Mr. Roldan, and he’s asking why Mr. Roldan isn’t there. The two men sort things out over several dropped calls and a choppy cellular connection. Mr. Roldan apologizes for the confusion and sends Mr. Rudolf directions to his house, which is, thank goodness, only a short distance from the gallery.

A Fairmont Makati limo rolls up after a few minutes and out comes Mr. Rudolf, his wavy hair swept back and his eyes veiled by lightly tinted lenses. He limps into Mr. Roldan’s living room, his beringed hands resting on his forearm crutches. “I tore a muscle going to galleries in Beijing,” he explains. “I saw a new gallery I had never seen before and wanted to have a look. There was a ramp going up and I slid.” Even worse: the gallery was closed. “I didn’t have the chance to go in, and so, in the end, it was absolutely stupid. So you see,” he continues with a smirk, “work in the art world is dangerous.”

Pleasantries over and done with, the two men (one rail thin, the other ursine and expansive) sat opposite each other—both bearded, clad in white shirts and jeans, Buddhist prayer beads adorning their wrists—and engaged in a sprawling conversation covering contemporary art, the role of a contemporary artist, and, of course, the art fair.

Mr. Rudolf pitches the idea of a forum, similar to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but focused on arts and culture. The theme for the first one, he reveals, is urbanization (an appropriate inaugural concept because it is universal and “not too politically controversial”).

“The growth of the city into mega-monsters—growing so fast that the social gap between the very rich and the very poor becomes bigger and bigger—happens all over the world,” says Mr. Rudolf. “Forget the fair. Think about this project and your position.”

The idea of illuminating Southeast Asian art by way of urbanization is catnip to a cultural activist like Mr. Roldan. Twelve minutes into the conversation, the artist is nodding his head, stroking his beard, and saying that joining Mr. Rudolf’s forum would be wonderful—all thought of multiple deadlines forgotten.

With a “yes” somewhat in the bag and the promise to thresh out details extracted from Mr. Roldan, talk moves to other things: how competition is important for artists, how New York-based gallerist Sundaram Tagore is a gentleman and a great salesperson, and how there is no single Asia but many Asias.

Sensing the threat of Manila traffic hanging over his head, Mr. Rudolf gets ready to leave. The two men have been talking for an hour. “Let’s do something really spectacular,” he says to Mr. Roldan. “If you have ideas for great speakers from anywhere in the world, tell me. I would like to have the Pope if I could, he’s doing a wonderful job at the moment.” Handshakes and European cheek kisses exchanged, Mr. Rudolf grabs his crutches and limps out, his mission accomplished.

SWITZERLAND AND SZEEMANN

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In the background: Sex Obsession by Yayoi Kusama, 1992, diptych, acrylic on canvas. Lito and Kim Camacho collection.

“Careers today don’t go in a straight line. They go all over the place,” Mr. Rudolf tells High Life. The director of Art Stage Singapore is sitting on a couch in the residence of Lito and Kim Camacho, art collectors he counts as good friends. The first floor, an explosion of polka dots and tentacles, might as well be a shrine to Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist whose red bob and bangs became famous after she collaborated with Louis Vuitton.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1959, Mr. Rudolf saw the first building fully wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, environmental artists famous for cocooning structures in fabric. Wrapped Kunsthalle (1967-1968) was commissioned by Harald Szeemann, a Swiss curator Mr. Rudolf considers his “intellectual mentor.” “I had the chance to grow up at the right time at the right place. Seeing that Szeemann show was quite important to the rest of my life,” he says.

As heroes in the art world go, Harald Szeemann (1933-2005) is legendary. His obituary in the New York Times recognizes him as having “invented the curator as art star, a globe-trotting, deal-making, usually male impresario of large-scale exhibitions that bore the imprint of a single vision and succeeded or failed on the strength of site-specific works executed specially for the show.”

“We became friends and he was quite influential on me. Our ways crossed many, many times,” says Mr. Rudolf, who lived in the southern part of Switzerland at the same time as Szeemann. “I don’t know if my life would have gone in a totally different direction if I had not met somebody like Szeemann.” He thinks about it a little more and decides that, yes, it would have. “I never met somebody before who was always curious to find new things. He was somebody who was so open-minded, so curious. You must imagine him as somebody who opened the door for contemporary art in general, somebody who became the first big exhibition-maker and curator, somebody who was the star in the Western world. That’s something that impressed me the most and I try also to always be as open as possible.”

Live in Your Head: When Attitude Becomes Form, a landmark exhibition curated by Szeemann in Bern in 1969 and remounted in Venice in 2013, was instrumental for Mr. Rudolf. “That was probably the big breakthrough of contemporary art because what Szeemann declared there is that art is not what is on the wall or on a pedestal: Art is an attitude. Art happens here, in your heart. And he showed a lot of artists who weren’t known, who didn’t make art in the traditional way. This exhibition was like a big bang in the art world.” When Attitude Becomes Form included the likes of Richard Artschwager, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and so on.

Despite the early exposure to Szeemann’s revolutionary exhibitions at the Kunsthalle, Mr. Rudolf chose to study law at the University of Bern for two reasons: the first being that his father was a lawyer, and the second that he had to take up something “serious.” “I’m glad I studied law because I learned a lot—not only what a contract is, which is good to know, but also how to think systematically,” he says. “Law is something that opens a lot of doors.”

After getting his degree, he joined a telecommunications firm as a public relations manager and, on the side, dabbled in painting. “That’s how I started in the art world, but then I realized that there were a lot more artists better than me,” he says with a chuckle. Joining Art Basel, he continues, represented an opportunity to bring together what he had learned in PR and his passion for painting.

Art Basel before Lorenzo Rudolf—according to Mr. Rudolf—was nothing more than a trade show, with art pieces displayed with all the glitz and glamour one might accord the newest line of toasters. Sarah Thornton, in her book Seven Days in the Art World, writes: “When Art Basel opened in 1970, it looked like a flea market, with pictures stacked up against the walls and dealers coming in with canvases rolled up under their arms.”

When Mr. Rudolf became director in the 1990s, he put into place two things that eventually turned the fair into the nexus of money and status that it is today: corporate sponsorship and a VIP program. Mr. Rudolf brought in UBS in 1994, despite violent objections. It is important to remember that back then, contemporary art wasn’t the “statusphere” (a word coined by Tom Wolfe and used by Thornton) that it is now. “Art and a bank? I was lynched,” Mr. Rudolf remembers, “but art is money. Good thing I have a head of stone. I didn’t give up.” After 21 years, UBS is still Art Basel’s lead partner and its relationship with the fair covers all three editions: Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong.

The Swiss impresario’s “head of stone” served him well once again when he was trying to persuade stakeholders that Miami Beach, Florida, was a viable location for the expanding fair. Though launched in 2002, after Mr. Rudolf’s departure from Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach was initiated during his tenure. “What’s in Miami? Sun, surf, beach, drugs. It’s known as God’s waiting room,” he says of the coastal city’s reputation then. But for Mr. Rudolf it was plain as day — “logical,” in his words—that Art Basel should set up shop there and not in New York.

Miami was already on the pop-culture map thanks to MTV, which opened its “Spring Break” series in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1986. As for its art-world credentials, Mr. Rudolf pointed out that Miami, since 1993, has been the home of Rubell Family Collection and Contemporary Art Foundation, a 45,000-square-foot space (formerly a Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated goods facility) that featured the works of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker and Andy Warhol.

Sometimes, all it takes for people to understand is a metaphor. During a meeting, Mr. Rudolf spied an American football signed by Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino sitting in the office of a potential business partner. “I said that Art Basel Miami Beach would be Super Bowl of the art world,” he says, reliving the light bulb moment clinched the deal.

SOUTHEAST ASIA AND SINGAPORE

Since stepping down as director of Art Basel in 2000, Mr. Rudolf served as the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair (2000-2003) and founded the now defunct ShContemporary in Shanghai. He created Art Stage Singapore in 2010, almost two decades after Singapore authorities first approached him the idea of launching an art-related event. Getting the timing right,he says, was key. “In the ’90s, in Southeast Asia, most art scenes were really very, very small,” he says. “I told them: ‘Time will come, surely, but, at the moment, it is too early. It makes no sense and it would be counterproductive. If there is no market, if the art scene is too small, it will not make sense to do something international.’”

Again, he brings up Szeemann as “the guy who went to China and brought Asia into the conversation.” Mr. Rudolf is referring to the 48th Venice Biennale of 1999. Curated by Szeemann, it featured Chinese experimental art and alerted the West to developments across the Pacific. “The big locomotive was China,” says Mr. Rudolf. “It was this big boom, this big hype of Chinese contemporary art that happened in the mid-’90s and toward the late ’90s when Harald Szeemann brought contemporary Chinese art to the Venice Biennale. That was really the big opening.”

“It is clear that China and India are huge scenes, huge markets but they are also just the tip of the iceberg because behind these two countries, everywhere in Southeast Asia, new art scenes began to grow,” he adds. “In a short time, Southeast Asia was really able to develop not only scenes but also markets—that means galleries, museums, collectors. And that, in the end, is the basis to do an art fair. Without that you have no infrastructure, it would be difficult.”

(The situation, of course, varies from country to country. Where the Philippines has a strong gallery system, Mr. Rudolf suggests that one would be hard-pressed to name a single gallery in Malaysia. Indonesia, the biggest market for contemporary art in Southeast Asia, has only a few. “I can count them on the fingers of my hand,” he says.)

He envisioned Art Stage Singapore, which he launched in 2010, as an Asian fair, hence its tagline “We are Asia.” “We need to give a platform where Asian players can also demonstrate themselves. It’s clear that you need a certain dialog between East and West—it makes no sense to make an Asian ghetto,” he explains. “But, on the other side, it has to be a fair that, first of all, thinks of Asia, and Southeast Asia especially. We need also a fair that gives a chance to collectors, curators, media from all over the world to come here and to experience Southeast Asia. If I want to learn what Southeast Asian art is, I think I can much easier do it here than in some fair in the West.”

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Lorenzo Rudolf at the 2015 edition of Art Stage Singapore. According to data provided by the organizers, last year’s fair featured 197 galleries and enjoyed a visitorship of 51,000—the most in the fair’s five-year history. It also counted 7,204 VIPs and 1,508 collectors. Despite these numbers, several local galleries have opted not to join this year’s edition.

 

The worldly confidence with which Mr. Rudolf issues these pronouncements is tempered by his self-awareness. “I will never be Asian. I will never be part of Asian culture but sometimes, it’s an advantage to see something from the outside,” he admits.

WHY COMPETE WITH GUCCI?

Heading into 2016, where does Mr. Rudolf’s Art Stage Singapore stand? More to the point, where does it stand in relation to Art Basel Hong Kong, the third and newest fair in the family that Mr. Rudolf walked away from in 2000.

“Art Basel is 50 years old. It’s the biggest brand in the world. If I were to open a fashion brand and you were to ask me, ‘Do you want to compete with Gucci or LVMH?,’ I would say no, surely not,” Mr. Rudolf replied. “My goal is not to compete with Art Basel but to complement it. Basel is part of my past. We know each other very well. It’s two different worlds: If we see Hong Kong as the door to what is happening in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan—established art scenes and markets—then Singapore is a young, fresh world.”

Filipino gallerists who embraced Art Stage Singapore during its first few outings are now divided on its relevance. The number of participating Filipino galleries peaked in 2015, at seven (although it bears saying that organizers offered free booths to entice potential exhibitors into joining). According to data provided by Art Stage Singapore, the 2015 edition featured 197 galleries and enjoyed a visitorship of 51,000—the most in the fair’s five-year history. It also counted 7,204 VIPs and 1,508 collectors.

The 2016 edition, as of this writing, features four Filipino exhibitors: Art Informal, MO_Space, Galerie Stephanie, and Finale Art File. Worth noting is the absence of fair regulars such as Silverlens and The Drawing Room, galleries that are committed to showcasing their artists in international events. “It’s gotten more difficult every year as less and less people come, both collectors and galleries,” said Silverlens Director Isa Lorenzo, whose experience as an Art Stage exhibitor runs counter to the fair’s official numbers. “There are other ways, more cost-effective and more impactful, to get people to see our Silverlens artists during Singapore Art Week,” she added. In lieu of exhibiting at the fair, Ms. Lorenzo’s gallery is mounting a solo show by Renato Orara in Artspace@Helutrans. Furthermore, Silverlens is participating in Art Basel Hong Kong, as is The Drawing Room.

Art Informal’s Tina Fernandez, who met with Mr. Rudolf during his visit to Manila in September, admitted that her gallery wasn’t supposed to join the 2016 edition of Art Stage Singapore. “We were not going to participate at first but we were given a platform at minimal cost to present a work that is noncommercial,” said Ms. Fernandez, who is showing an installation by Felix Bacolor. “Lorenzo is very personable, accommodating and, at the same time, very driven to make sure that Art Stage is the most important art fair in Singapore. If he sees that the work to be presented is important for the viewing public to see, then he offers a big helping hand just so that this work is seen.”

THE WORLD IS NOT BLACK AND WHITE

It’s a day after Mr. Rudolf’s visit to Mr. Roldan. Mawen Ong of MO_Space is standing in her gallery, the walls of which have been stripped of paint by conceptual artist Nilo Ilarde. Carved letters spell out found text and the most powerful sentiment, “If Your Work Speaks For Itself, Don’t Interrupt,” doubles as the title of Mr. Ilarde’s show.

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If The Work Speaks for Itself, Don’t Interrupt by Nilo Ilarde. White wall, stripped paint. 2015. Mr. Ilarde is presenting a version of this work at this year’s edition of Art Stage Singapore. Photo courtesy of Nilo Ilarde/MO_Space gallery.

 

“Lorenzo has an incredible and persuasive knowledge about art but I see him as a brilliant businessman,” said Ms. Ong prior to Mr. Rudolf’s arrival at her gallery. “The art market frenzy is changing the way artists produce art. It’s hard not to give in to the siren’s call. It’s not that it’s bad to sell—it’s good— but artists have to push themselves and push against the market and show it things that it has to understand.”

When Mr. Rudolf shows up, still assisted by crutches, he surveys the space and stands before If Your Work Speaks For Itself, Don’t Interrupt. “It’s beautiful,” he murmurs, his eyes roving over the letters incised into the wall. “I love it. It can provoke.”

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Mawen Ong of MO_Space and Lorenzo Rudolf share a light moment during Mr. Rudolf’s gallery visit. Seen in the background: Works from Nilo Ilarde’s show If The Work Speaks For Itself, Don’t Interrupt. Mr. Ilarde is showing a similar wall piece at the 2016 edition of Art Stage Singapore.

He turns to Ms. Ong and congratulates her. “I would like to show something like this in Art Stage Singapore. What do you need?,” he asks.

“A wall.”

(The pair go back and forth, with Mr. Rudolf asking more questions and Ms. Ong offering noncommittal answers.)

“How big a wall? This, in an art fair, would be wonderful. Shall we do it?”

“The conditions should be met. And the conditions depend on the artist.”

“What are the conditions of the artist?”

“His willingness.”

“That’s your job,” Mr. Rudolf says with a laugh. “It’s your job to convince him.”

Another afternoon, another mission accomplished. (In December, Ms. Ong confirmed that MO_Space would be presenting a wall work by Mr. Ilarde at Art Stage Singapore 2016: a giant gallery label composed of letters made by stripping off paint. “Lorenzo didn’t persuade us,” she said, “we all agreed that the work would find a good audience at the art fair.”)

Mr. Rudolf’s interest in Mr. Ilarde, an “artist’s artist,” his push to include Mr. Roldan in the cultural equivalent of the Davos meeting, and his willingness to help Ms. Fernandez show Bacolor’s installation all spring from the desire to frame Art Stage Singapore as more than just a mercantile endeavor. “We have to be clear: it is not possible to separate the art world into a commercial one and a noncommercial one. Both are part of one art world but I think we need balance,” Mr. Rudolf told High Life during the interview at the Camacho residence.

The same thought surfaces in his conversation with Ms. Ong, but in prettier language: “I think the world is not black and white. The world is gray and everybody has to find his own gray.”