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It was a far cry from the usual kind of 19th hole: David Ciclitira, chairman of the Parallel Media Group, was in Seoul in 2007, helping to create a golf tournament for the South Korean capital, when he and his wife Serenella, long-time art lovers, were invited to a new exhibition in the city.
The show was called New Asian Waves, and it brought together the work of some of the continent’s most promising young artists. It left a marked impression on the couple. “I said, ‘We must see some more work from these artists – there must be some kind of book’,” David recalls as we sit in the lounge of Brown’s hotel in London. “But there wasn’t – even in Korean.”
In addition to piquing the couple’s interest as collectors, the show made them feel that there was more to be done. “This was a fantastic group of artists, who hardly anyone had ever heard of in the west,” he says. So the couple got together with auction house Phillips de Pury and the Saatchi Gallery, which was looking for novel forms of art to show in the grand spaces of its new gallery in London’s King’s Road.
The result was a book as well as a 2009 exhibition, both of them under the title Korean Eye (“It sounds corny, but the idea came to me as I was walking under the London Eye one day,” says David). The show, celebrating the so-called “Moon” generation of contemporary artists, was both critically acclaimed and popular. “It was supposed to be on for two weeks; it lasted for four months.”
What might have been a sideshow for the Ciclitiras has turned into something much bigger. There have been “Eye” shows and books for Indonesia, Hong Kong and, later this year, for Malaysia. In 2012, there was another Korean Eye show at the Saatchi, which attracted half a million visitors. “It is incredible how those artists have matured in that time,” says Serenella. “Their work is so confident now. It is very exciting.”
The latest incarnation of the “Eye” brand (David and Serenella bridle at my use of that word but reluctantly agree that it is appropriate) is the foundation of the Prudential Eye Awards for emerging Asian artists. A shortlist has already been announced, and five category winners will be revealed in Singapore on January 18. They will receive $20,000 each, while the overall winner will get an extra $30,000 and a solo show at the Saatchi Gallery.
The work selected is eclectic in tone and subject. “The range and breadth of contemporary art we reviewed is only possible in greater Asia,” says Saatchi Gallery chief executive Nigel Hurst. The categories reflect the changes of emphasis in contemporary art: as well as painting, sculpture and photography, there are also prizes for digital/video work and installations.
The Ciclitiras’ philanthropy started in the 1980s, when they started donating prizes to students at London’s Royal College of Art. “We enjoyed mixing with the students,” says David. “The reason we like art is that we like the artists who make it.” Enthusiastic collectors of contemporary art, they emphasise more than once that they never sell. “We live with our art. It is all around us,” says Serenella.
I ask what was particularly striking for them about Asian contemporary art. Many people contend that cultural globalisation has made it impossible to talk about regional or national characteristics, but Serenella demurs: “I see art as a voice. And that voice speaks for the environment from which it comes. Of course it touches on different topics, art trends, religions, social situations.”
The emphasis on abstraction and manual dexterity struck her in the work of Korean artists. “We came across many photographs, installations, sculptures – but very little in the way of oil paintings. They prefer to use their hands, in building things.”
She concedes that in 50 years, it may not be possible to talk about national tradition. “Right now, young people still look to old ways of doing things. But who knows if that will last? With all the changes in technology, young people may forget what is behind them, and only look ahead.”
I ask her about the “hottest” inclusion in the Prudential shortlist, Pussy Riot’s now-famous video “Punk Prayer ‘Mother of God, Put Putin Away’ ” (2012), which helped land two of the Russian group in jail, and her eyes light up. “It is fantastic. I think of three words. Engaged. Subversive. Courageous. That is what defines them for me. That is why I voted for it. Art must not always be safe. It must raise issues, and talk about problems.”
Her husband stresses that the “Eye” shows and books were produced independently of any government assistance, although he says those governments have been galvanised by their efforts. “They use the books to promote themselves. Countries such as Malaysia and Singapore are desperately trying to catch up with other countries, particular South Korea, where content is king.
“What we are trying to do is happening at the right time. Art is giving these countries a sense of pride, and bringing to life their national identities. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come and say, ‘Why haven’t you been talking about this?’ ”
The outsiders are having an evident impact: they are also working with the British Council to place their books on the national curriculums of the countries they have surveyed. “They are being given away in embassies. People talk about sport and what have you, but contemporary art is the universal language,” says David. And this is a win-win programme. It just keeps rolling forward.”
The inaugural Prudential Eye Awards ceremony will be on January 18 in Singapore, with an exhibition that runs to February 5