Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2012-13

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As the Hong Kong-based MAP Office wins the top honour at the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, Edmund Lee looks at the charity’s legacy in the regional art scene.


When Howard Bilton came up with the idea of the Sovereign Art Foundation and Tiffany Pinkstone joined him for the launch in 2003, the two probably couldn’t have anticipated the immense growth in stature that their art prizes would go through in the following decade.

For the first Sovereign Asian Art Prize, in 2004, the foundation accepted 150 entries and in the end raised US$40,000. The organisation has since raised almost US$4m for artists and charities for disadvantaged children in Asia. Sponsored by Bank Julius Baer for the third consecutive year, the first prize is currently US$30,000. “We now have over 300 entries coming in from the best artists from around the region,” says director Pinkstone of the Asian Prize’s latest edition, whose 30 finalists came from 18 different countries – including Palestine for the very first time. “The more countries we can reach and the better known we are around the region,” says Bilton, founder and chairman, “the more we like it.”

In a way, the all-embracing vision of Bilton and Pinkstone couldn’t be better exemplified by the selection of MAP Office – the Hong Kong-based artists Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix, respectively born in Monaco and France – as the winner of the 2012-13 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, which was announced on February 21. Their winning artwork, titled Back Home with Baudelaire No. 5 (2005), was initiated in Hong Kong in 2004 – corresponding to the duo’s 10th anniversary of living in this part of the world – with the intention of documenting globalisation through the process of handling millions of containers.

It took the artists almost a year to organise the boat trip between the Shenzhen port of Yantian and the Kwai Chung port in Hong Kong. They then documented the entire process of the 24-hour voyage, on a super container poetically named Baudelaire, in what turned out to be a series of large-format photographs and a 20-minute video. The thematic focus of the series is emblematic of questions that MAP Office has been working on for many years, including identity, geographies and territorial dynamics, which are similarly evident in their more recent works on island and archives.

“It’s a work of bittersweet beauty that reminds us that Shenzhen is looming just a short boat ride away,” says nominator and art consultant Jehan Chu, who describes the photo as ‘a gorgeous image that would open up any wall into an ocean view with minimalist colour and form’. Whereas Pinkstone expresses delight at finding out the winning work is one she remembers seeing years ago and has ‘admired ever since’, Bilton reveals the rapport it has with the jurors. “The skill [in the work] is not immediately obvious but the judges gave it the highest score ever,” he says. “I think it’s a work which grows in appeal the more you look at it.”

Acknowledging the significance of being ‘recognised by the community we have chosen’, both Gutierrez and Portefaix agree that Hong Kong-based artists have been doing great work and are slowing getting the attention they deserve. Indeed, with the robust gallery business and rapidly expanding art fairs in the city, it’s easy to overlook the fact that our artists have been faring remarkably well in the Art Prize’s history: Jeffrey du Vallier d’Aragon Aranita, Tsang Kin-wah and Chow Chun-fai respectively won the top prizes in 2004, 2005 and 2008, while the Public Vote Prizes – which went to artist Mark Salvatus from the Philippines this year – have also gone to three Hong Kong-based artists in the past nine years (Simon Birch in 2004, Yip Siu-ka in 2005 and Lam Tung-pang in 2006).

“We have had quite a few Hong Kong winners over the past [few years], which is great given the international jury and the strong competition that comes from around the region,” says Bilton, referring to the luminary panel of judges, which this year includes David Elliott (advisor to the Central Police Station project), Emi Eu of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Tim Marlow of White Cube, Lars Nittve of M+, and Philip Tinari of Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. “I think [the award to MAP Office will] further strengthen Hong Kong’s position as a developing arts centre in Asia.”

Read our extensive Q&A with Howard Bilton and Tiffany Pinkstone, where the two talk in detail about the selection process of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize and the charity work of the Sovereign Art Foundation. For updates, visit sovereignartfoundation.com.

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