With the excitement of discovering one of the finest contemporary art collections in Hong Kong (finally, we have that too!), I found myself at the bottom of an industrial building, caught in a gigantic cage-like elevator whose doors were too heavy to pull. When I finally arrived on the 19th Floor, I was confronted with another pair of ultra-contemporary doors whose imposing science-fiction outlook speaks of its promise… Welcome to Hong Kong, the City of Surprise!
Housed in a 464 square meter loft is part of an art collection of around 200 pieces that William has assembled since 2003, the year when we worked together in a public art project. An architect, a collector, but also an artist, William traverses freely the boundaries of different roles. His collecting activity is a way of growing up with the artists, as well as way of exploring his own profession and artistic creation.
Selina Ting, 18 May 2012
On Collecting Contemporary Art
Selina Ting [ST] : As an architect who participates in the production of contemporary art and collects art, you must have a very personal approach to art. So, what is art to you?
William Lim [WL] : As an architect, I have been asking myself “Is architecture art?” There are architects who want to be artists and artists who want to be architects. To me, the main difference between art and architecture is that, while both art and architecture are trying to convey an emotion, architecture tries to express itself in a more positive, pleasing and aesthetical manner. Whereas, art tries to touch on other aspects of human emotions and experiences such as pain, suffering, discomfort. That’s also why it’s really hard for an architect to authentically cross the limit into the realm of art. Personally, art is definitely something that I can connect to. The emotional connection between a viewer and an artwork is very subjective. When I like a piece of work, I don’t want to analyze the reason. I don’t think there is any scientific reason to explain that either. I believe that a good artist always gives his heart and spirit to his works. When the heart is not there, as a viewer, you can feel it.
ST: And as an artist who collects?
WL: Well, my experience as an artist is very recent. I have done a few shows so far, the earlier shows were very rational and always as a reflection on my profession as an architect and how it influents my art. Now, I think that it’s more important to do works that are more sensitive and spontaneous, that touch on the emotions rather than the rationality and aesthetics. I guess such change also comes from my activity as a collector. I learn it from my collection, through my contacts and sharing with other artists, from understanding how they think, how they conceptualize their work, how they research into their work in a philosophical manner, etc. I always feel the need to challenge myself. I think collecting is the same as any other activities. It takes time to learn. You always start with something simple, advance with time, and then you want to challenge yourself.
ST: Is it a lonely life as a collector in Hong Kong?
WL: [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. Everyone in Hong Kong is very busy, but we do have friends who collect, and we share ideas and visit each other’s collection. Every collector has his distinctive style and direction. In general, the collecting scene in HK is growing and there is an increasing awareness in the society that HK artists are important and they need support.
ST: How many active collectors in HK?
WL: I think there are around 40 to 50 active collectors in contemporary art. But there are more and more young professionals who start collecting.
ST: With ten years of collecting experience, you are already an “old collector” in HK! Do you share your experience with the new comers?
WL: [Laughs] Compare to other countries, I am a very young collector! I would introduce good artists to other collector-friends. But I think that art collecting is a very personal thing. It starts as a passion but it can grow into something philosophical. So every individual has his own likes and dislikes. I won’t try to influent other people.
ST: Comparing to the wealth of the city, the number of collectors in HK is very low. What are the reasons that the culture of art collecting didn’t develop in HK until now?
WL: I think HK is always a very practical city, people definitely need to do things for good reasons, and one of the good reasons is financial return. Contemporary art is never known as a financially lucrative product until the last five to ten years when Chinese contemporary art became financially highly lucrative. That’s why people started collecting contemporary art in the region. At the same time, don’t forget that there are some exceptionally fine collections of traditional Chinese art in HK. It was just that people tend to perceive contemporary art as something easy without historical value. To change such mindset, of course, we need years of education. The fact that Hong Kong will soon have one of the world’s biggest contemporary art museums and a cultural district, people start to open their mind, and start to think of art and cultures as important elements for a city. As an architect, I would say that contemporary art looks very good with contemporary interior design!
ST: You started by collecting traditional art as well, right?
WL: Yes, that was at the very beginning. I moved quickly to contemporary art but I wasn’t focusing on anything at that time. I bought whatever I personally like. Now I am focusing on HK contemporary art. Well, I think that for any collection, ultimately, you need a focus.
ST: What brought your attention to the local art scene?
WL: The interesting thing about HK artists is that there wasn’t a real art market here, so their work is very personal and doesn’t mean to be commercial at all. Hong Kong art is a relatively new area for international collectors. Now the art fair is helping a lot by bringing international collectors and galleries to HK and in introducing local artists. Some overseas galleries want to meet HK artists when they are here for the fair. Some artists, like Tozer Pak, Tsang Kin-Wah, Lee Kit, Kacey Wong, etc., are already present in some international shows. So I think there is definitely a very good potential for established artists to flourish and young artists to have more opportunities.
ST: Do you focus on a particular group of HK artists?
WL: I have works from artists such as Tozer Pak, Lam Tung-Pang, Tsang Kin-Wah, Lee Kit, Morgan Wong, Kwan Sheung-Chi and Wong Wai-Yin, Ho Sin-Tung, Nadim Abbas, etc., I think they are among the most interesting young artists in HK. It’s not my intention to focus on only a few HK artists but rather on the works that I like. However, as an architect, I was trained to think conceptually, because the concept of an architectural project or an artwork is very important. Perhaps that’s why I am particularly attracted to conceptual art, like the works of Tozer Pak and Tsang Kin-Wah. The concept of each project in their work is so clear that you don’t need to explain too much.
ST: You have some very young, even still pretty unknown artists in your collection as well.
WL: Yes, it’s a challenge to buy works from young artists and even fresh graduates. I think collecting art is also growing up with the artists. That’s why I like to start with young artists. The new generation of HK artists are maturing very fast and attempting something different from their previous generation. We see Tsang Kin-Wah’s presentation in Mori Art Museum and the Lyon Biennale 2009 which were of international standards. Tozer’s work is collected by the Tate Modern and some pieces that I collected are constantly in loan in different countries. So, I believe in a few years’ time, particularly with the M+ collection, these artists will develop very fast and become international. Last year, I was invited by the Collectors House to show the collection together with the Dutch collection G& W (Albret Groot) and the DSM Art Collection in Holland [Except why not just come right out and say it, march – June 2011]. I always think that the best way to test and to promote HK artists is to put their work on an international platform.
On Conceptual Art in Hong Kong
ST: About collecting conceptual art, I am always curious to know how far a collector can go, particularly when it means immaterial art or art of poor material.
WL: Let me give you an example. I have a piece which is in fact a Bonsai that I have to take care of and maintain it.
ST: [Laughs] So the artist is giving you labour work! You are totally responsible for what you purchased. How ready are you to accept this kind of propositions from artists?
WL: I have a very challenging piece from Tozer Pak, One Day of the Artist’s Life. It is the most challenging work I have collected so far. A work like that, you have totally no idea what you are collecting. It’s basically 24 hours of an artist’s time that you are buying, but then what’s going to happen during the 24 hours? The interesting point about this work is that it has a life of its own. When you collect, there is a process of purchasing – paying and owning. But a work like One Day of the Artist’s Life really goes beyond the traditional process. It requires you to think about what you are going to do with the artist during the 24 hours, and you lived that 24 hours, and it becomes the end-product itself. We published a book documenting the day.
ST: How did you spend the 24 hours together?
WL: We spent the 24 hours in my studio. I set up a rule for myself that I decided to paint a picture of Tozer every hour, so finally I painted 24 pictures of him and he also created small objects inspired by the environment and two paintings as part of his process of getting into the mental frame…
ST: So you both proposed something to each other and reacted to each other’s ideas. Did you know him personally before the work?
WL: I knew his work but not personally. That was actually the first piece I bought from Tozer. It was before his participation in the Venice Biennial in 2009. I was at the moment of getting into HK contemporary art. It was in fact quite experimental for what I would have normally collected at that time. I was then also trying to develop my artistic practices. So, spending 24 hours of exchange with a conceptual artist was very interesting for me. That’s why I did my own paintings of him during the 24 hours.
ST: Given the highly materialistic environment in HK, do you think there are other HK collectors who are ready to go as far as you do?
WL: I think it’s challenging but people would start collecting this kind of conceptual work, perhaps not in large scale. Let’s say, works from these artists are very conceptual but still have a material form that can be easily appreciated. Also, space in HK is very limited, which is another challenge, meaning, you have to accept that there are works that you collect but not necessarily shown. I think the question with collecting conceptual art is not limited to HK. My experience as a member of the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee of Tate Museum tells me that there are works judged too conceptual to be accepted even in museums by the advisory committees, because these works are not tangible enough.
ST: Public collections are different from private collections. For private collections, you don’t have the pressure of being responsible for the audience.
WL: Unfortunately in HK, the public museums still don’t have a system of collecting local contemporary art. In the past years and decades, a lot of works were destroyed because there wasn’t a way to keep them and maintain them. So, many interesting works are lost or dispersed and difficult to find. Personally, I think it’s important to pay attention to these works if nobody is doing that. The interesting thing about collecting contemporary art is also to support the artists. Without the collectors’ support, it would be very difficult for them to produce new works. When I visited some international collections, like the Dia Foundation in New York, I was really amazed by what they have done – their devotion, the time and engagement with art and artists. Such things are very touching to me.
ST: Another aspect that I want to ask is that, you have a multi-cultural background, you studied and worked in the States, then you come back to work in HK and China. How do you see the trend that, while the city is very international, some local artists are going back to traditional cultural elements…
WL: I think that all artistic creations are rooted in life and its specific cultural context. HK artists might have a very international outlook, but what they are creating definitely reflects the HK reality and the state of mind. At the same time, artists do travel a lot and communicate with artists from different regions. I think that the cultural aspect should come in a subtle way, more in the spirit than in the appearance of the work. The most important point is that an artist doesn’t change who he is no matter where he lives and works, what he does has to be relevant to who he is. Sometimes I found HK artists timid and modest when compared to foreign artists of their generation. Maybe they have to be more assertive… but it also depends on what they are looking for as an artist. If they want bigger success and fame, then they need to change their attitude, otherwise, I still think that artists have to stay who they are.
ST: Thank you very much!