The inaugural Taipei Dangdai (台北當代) was a first-class contemporary art show. That is, it was devised for the one percent and not for the likes of you and me, though we too may have enjoyed the picturesque event.

Around 28,201 visitors showed up at Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center over three days (Jan. 18-20) to gawp at hundreds of works from heavyweight contemporary artists. There were curated tours, talks from the artists themselves and even decent coffee.

That’s not all: There were pop-up shows and gallery openings sprinkled around town, art events in the mountains and custom tours of the city’s major art museums, which dovetailed nicely with the ongoing Taipei Biennial.


Credit: Jules Quartly

'Aggregation 11-FE008' by Chun Kwang Young, a mixed media work on Korean mulberry paper.

There was art for everyone, which is surely a good thing. The real deal, however, was the business going on behind the scenes, in the closed-off Collectors’ Lounge where flutes full of the sponsor’s champagne were quaffed; or over dinner at an expense account restaurant in the Xinyi district of the city.

Rich people, also known as “cultural philanthropists,” flew in from all over Asia for the event billed as “Taiwan’s Art Basel moment.” UBS, the Swiss bank and principal sponsor, arranged for high-net-worth local clients to attend. Another bank jetted in “whales,” or high-spending individuals, from Shanghai.

The idea was to get them to spend more than US$1 million (NT$30.9 million) on a piece of artwork. This would not be easy, according to experts in the field, who claimed Taiwan buyers were cautious and patient by nature. Yet, by all accounts, it worked, and the next edition of the event will take place in January 2020.


Credit: Jules Quartly

A visitor to Taipei Dangdai at the Nangang Exhibition Center poses in front of the oil and velvet picture 'Ha Ha Ha' by Mel Bochner.

Dangdai Director Magnus Renfrew told The News Lens the event had exceeded expectations. “One of the things an art fair can do is shine the spotlight on the art scene of the city for a few days,” he said.

“I think the tremendous success of the inaugural Taipei Dangdai and the response of the local and international community has helped to bring greater attention to the cultural scene in Taipei than it had previously,” he added. “And now, Taipei is gaining its rightful place in the imagination of the international art world.”

According to a number of gallery owners, local buyers were not shy about flashing the cash after all, though they were described as better mannered than many of the big hitters who gather at Hong Kong’s similar but longer established Art Basel event.

Georg Baselitz’s “The Messenger” was sold for US$2.3 million (NT$71.1 million) to a local foundation, Anish Kapoor’s “Mirror (Garnet to Laser Red)” made US$966,600 (NT$29.9 million), the Yoyoi Kasuma painting “Infinity Net” sold for more than US$1 million, and a Neo Rauch painting went to a Taiwan collector for US$650,000 (NT$20.1 million).

This should have come as no surprise, really. Taiwan is a high-income country and ranks seventh for private wealth management with UBS. The Knight Frank Wealth Report cites 28 billionaires, 254 people worth more than US$100 million and 4,550 multi-millionaires.

ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, meanwhile, describes Taiwan’s collectors as being “amongst the most progressive in the region.” It is also a recognized center for antiquities, Chinese modernism and Western impressionism.

Magnus Renfrew’s insistence on ensuring that works were available for under US$8,000 (about NT$250,000) paid off handsomely, too. “We hope everyone can feel they are part of this,” he was quoted as saying before Dangdai started.


Credit: Jules Quartly

There was art for everyone at Taipei Dangdai, including these two kids, who spotted a painting celebrating the 'Baby Shark' meme.

One individual unable to take home a souvenir on a part-time art teacher’s salary was Claudia Huang. She enjoyed the glamour of the occasion and the opportunity to see the works of so many high-profile artists in one place. Like many others, she posted selfies on her social media accounts, framed by contemporary artworks.

“Some of the works were really good but all I can do is appreciate them because my pockets aren’t deep enough to buy them,” commented Huang, who lives in Taipei. She added that many of the works had similar styles and were rarely cutting-edge, experimental or truly creative.

“In fact, these kind of international art fairs are just window dressing and sugar-coated money games; and not really anything to look forward to in terms of new art or artists.”

It’s hard to disagree with her assessment and it’s doubtful the industry leaders, collectors, galleries and art institutions that made Dangdai a success would either.


Credit: Jules Quartly

A close-up look at a pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen work from Keiichi Tanaami, one of the leading pop artists from postwar Japan.

Taipei does edgy art and if that’s your bag, then the first edition of Ink Now, which opened this month at the Expo Dome, previewed artificial intelligence works from Victor Wong and a set of ink paintings from women artists.

If it’s challenging art that you’re after, look no further than the Taipei Biennial, where the two curators, Mali Wu and Francesco Manacorda, have called on Indigenous land right protestors to occupy Taipei Fine Arts Museum. One video exhibit, from Zheng Bo (鄭波), shows a man passionately fornicating with plants.

Another show, at Jut Art Museum, in Taipei’s Da’an District, focuses firmly on the future and looks at urban architecture and contemporary art – but not necessarily the kind that comes with bumper price tags and is bought for the resale value at least as much for its beauty.

In comparison, Dangdai is like an advertisement for art, with its conservative approach, beautiful people and glossy packaging. It’s a money-making operation and good business for Taipei, which has struggled to gain recognition for its artists and art institutions.

Partly this is because of the political situation, according to articles in the Financial Times and other publications. But it’s also because the timing wasn’t right and it needed someone with the vision of Magnus Renfrew to see it through.

After all, Renfrew has been there and done it before. He set up Art Hong Kong in 2007 and sold it four years later to the MCH Group, which owns Art Basel. “Dangdai is the next step in developing the art market in Asia,” Renfrew told the Financial Times.

If so, this can’t be a bad thing. Collecting art may be a rich person’s game, but it can also entertain the masses.

As Tim Neuger of the Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider, put it: “Look at the people, look at the walls.”


Credit: Jules Quartly

The Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider represented the super cool Icelandic-Dane Olafur Eliasson, whose work is shown here.

Credit: Jules Quartly

'Pirelli Tires and Steel I-Beam,' by the Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino.

Credit: Jules Quartly

Even the Dangdai coffee shop had art worth stopping for.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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