The Singaporean collector Jackson See began collecting art in the 1990s with an initial focus on Chinese contemporary art. In the past decade though, alongside Singapore’s economic and cultural development, his focus has come home to Singapore, and to the works of young Southeast Asian artists. In this interview, Jackson speaks with us about his past 25 years of collecting and his understanding of what it means to be a collector. He tells us how collectors grow side-by-side with artists and of his thoughts on the state of the Southeast Asian art market, emphasizing the need to ‘do one’s homework’.
IMAGES Courtesy: Sheldon Tay For WhiteWall China
Selina Ting [ST]: From my understanding, your collection includes works of contemporary art from China, South East Asia and the greater Asia-Pacific region. How did you start collecting art?
Jackson See [JS]: 25 years ago, my art collection began with ceramic works, which included a piece by Iskandar Jalil (b. 1940, Singapore). Back then, Chinese contemporary art was beginning to taking off, but the Chinese themselves were not really collecting anything and the majority of collectors came from overseas. Uli Sigg and I were amongst some of the earliest collectors who went to China to buy artworks. In the process of collecting, I got to know many artists of the same generation as myself such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun, etc. Now the price of all of their works is much too high, beyond what I can afford, but we still remain good friends. The relationship between us has warmed from one between artist and collector and now it feels like we are all one big family.
ST: The focus of the global art stage is beginning to shift towards Southeast Asia. When did you begin to collect works of Singaporean and other Southeast Asian artists and based on your observations, how do you think Singapore will develop in the coming five to ten years?
JS: Around 2000, I began to try and understand Singaporean art, which in turn lead me to the art of Indonesia and the Philippines. All contemporary Indonesian artists are concentrated in Jakarta, but all the big masters are on Bali because local culture runs very deep on the island. Southeast Asia is a comparatively new market, Indonesia has a long history but only in the past decade or so has it opened up to the outside world. Now people are starting to look at Malaysia and the Philippines. Although Southeast Asia’s contemporary art scene is still very young, it has been full of so much creativity from the start. The works of some young artists do take their cues from Western art, but a good artist can stand the test of time. Singaporean artists have always been very strong conceptually, but their skill is relatively average. Thailand also has many outstanding artists, but the market for their art has not yet fully opened up.
ST: Do you collect works of Western artists as well?
JS: No, I never have. If I wanted to collect Western art I would have to do a lot of homework and educate myself more about it. A work from a young Chinese artist will cost around RMB 100,000-200,000 as a standard, but in Europe this is nothing. I would much rather buy Asian artworks of the same price. As I said, good paintings are not necessarily expensive.
ST: One can see that you are very much focused on young artists, artists with which over past thirty years you have matured alongside. Can you share with us some of the observations you have made about young artists over the years?
JS: Young artists are full of potential. They start off full with passion, but the question is whether or not they can sustain this, so willpower is very important. Some artists, because they get famous, become complacent with the current situation and their artworks never reach that same level again. I think that young artists must have dreams and passion from the beginning, but maintain this after that and all the way through until the end. They can’t just keep on doing the same thing over and over again the whole time.
Being a good artist doesn’t mean that each and every one of your works is good. Some people, once they see the name Andy Warhol, buy a work without giving it a second glance. Which is why collectors have to do their homework as well, otherwise you’ll end up just buying a piece of decoration.
ST: How can you predict the future development of an artist? How can you know if a young artist who you like and support will continue to develop and mature?
JS: That’s a very good question. First and foremost you have to do your homework. You have to have a heart-to-heart talk with the artist; they need to tell you about their passions and what they plan on doing next. When you buy an artwork, you also have to understand its creator. Most importantly, you have to like the artist personally. If you like them, you will take great pains for them. You have to make sure that you collect the works from the period at which they were at their most passionate. Works like these are beautiful, pure, and untainted. Every time they create a new work, you will notice some differences, discover new traces. This is what being a collector is all about. If you only wish to buy paintings, then everyone with a bit of money can do so, but that is not what appreciating art is about. To be a collector, you have to work hard and do your homework, try and understand more, and appreciate art through understanding.
Also, you have to spend your energy supporting these artists. A good example of this is Jane Lee (b. 1963, Singapore), who made a large-scale painting on canvas for a 2008 solo show she had in Singapore. The day before the show opened, I was invited by the gallery to have a look. That painting, I stared at it for at least an hour, I couldn’t believe that this was the work of a Singaporean artist. After that I spoke to the organisers [of the show] and asked, “Can I go and meet her?” And this is how our relationship began.
I told Jane: “This painting is so big, if you allow me to add it to my collection I would very much like to have it.” And now, today, I have it. I told Jane “You are a very good Singaporean artist, let me help you, I promise to keep this painting in Singapore. ” After some time she called me up and said “There is a Biennial in Eastern Europe and they want to borrow the painting to show it there, is it ok for you if it goes?” I said, “Go! Fostering your talent is my dream.” This is how I support the artists.
We took that painting to Lithuania. Many of the people there barely even knew where Singapore was. But by seeing this painting, they were able to gain an understanding of Singapore and of Jane Lee. Since then, she has had solo-shows in Singapore and the National Gallery of Singapore has purchased some of her works for their collection and she has been the recipient of many various awards. Therefore, being a collector is to have a responsibility, a responsibility to foster artists. Still today I ask her, “If you have any new works, please let me know and I’ll buy them.” I only buy good works. Sometimes, I collect an artist’s early works as well as their newest works. To see an artist’s long-term development and growth is particularly interesting.
ST: How would you describe your relationship with galleries?
JS: I also maintain very good relationships with galleries. They know me well, and are sure to show me the newest pieces. It is vital to maintain this sort of warm and close relationship amongst yourself and the artists, museums and galleries. I am also a member of the Tate Modern’s acquisitions committee, which makes it relatively easy for me to get in contact with young artists. For those artists who have already become very well known, they remain good friends. For example Fang Lijun brought his entire family with him to Singapore last year to celebrate my birthday. We went to the Venice Biennale together, to Milan, and vacationed together on Bali. I’ve also been on holiday to Ürümqi with a few artist friends. I am an oil trader, but I also often help promote exhibitions in China, set up websites and try and establish friendship and amicable relationships.
ST: The number of high net-worth individuals in Singapore is not insignificant; it is the wealthiest city in Asia. How big do you think the potential is for the development of the art market?
JS: If you speak in terms of big-ticket works, the market in Singapore is still very small. And for Chinese art, the market for that is still in China and all the big galleries are in Hong Kong.
ST: Thank you very much!
The original text of this interview in Chinese was published in Whitewall China in Winter 2014 issue, the English version was published at CoBo Social on 23 Feb 2016.