TEXT: Selina Ting
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and the Petch Osathanugrah Collection
Original Text published on COBO Social on 18 May 2018. Courtesy of COBO Social
When you get lost in the meanderings of the mind, quality becomes a concept that is subject to dispute. Moreover, talking about quality is particularly difficult when it comes to Southeast Asian contemporary art. Some art critics and historians propose that we should use a different gauge for contemporary art that is generally developed alongside socio-political change. However, the Thai collector Petch Osathanugrah is among those who are willing to get back to a less sociological view of art and rely on intuition and the senses.
“My background is very visual,” he explains. “At 16, I wanted to become a visual artist. So, I have very good eyes, and I also work with good consultants who are honest. They don’t really care about the content or the context. They will tell you: ‘This is bad, this is good’.”
As a person who has traversed many different fields, Petch Osathanugrah is perhaps Thailand’s most multifaceted personality. Based in Bangkok, he is a former pop artist and recording artist. He is also chairman of Shiseido (Thailand) and the President of Bangkok University, one of the largest private universities in Thailand, as well as CEO of Osotspa, a 126-year-old consumer product company.
He has been collecting contemporary art for over 30 years, and today keeps his art world commitments to the minimum, compared to the past, limiting himself to visiting Art Basel and Art Basel Hong Kong. “I don’t have time for other art fairs or to travel to see galleries anymore. In the beginning, I used to collect Western artists by going to galleries in Los Angeles and New York and visiting their studios. The habit of buying through galleries and never through auction has stuck with me.”
Joining a few other Southeast Asian collectors who have decided to open their collections to the public, he is planning his own private museum, Sansab, in inner Bangkok. This will house works by Thai contemporary artists alongside the art world’s big names, such as Damien Hirst and Yoshitomo Nara.
“My collection is very international. I consider Thai contemporary art to be an integral part of international art and I include work that has either international recognition or the potential for it. Thai art, except for maybe two or three artists, doesn’t have a big influence on the world. The other artists seem to be mainly at galleries that are focused on Asian or Southeast Asian art.” At his upcoming museum he will present both the permanent collection – a selection of pieces from his own stables – and temporary shows.
Do you have an overarching theme for your collection?
Yes, I do. I think the main theme of the collection is the human condition and spirituality. Something that is timeless, and so not limited to one region or country. For example, I don’t regard pop art as timeless. It speaks about a very limited image of American consumerist culture in just one period of time. Twenty years from now, it could be strong still, but it might not be as cool. I try to avoid that in my collecting process. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy or like pop art, but I have to make choices. I don’t have an unlimited budget or unlimited space. I like many different kinds of art, but if I want to have this museum, I need to make good choices, discipline myself and stay focused. I’d rather have only 100 pieces that can have a dialogue between them, than 500 or 1000 with no focus.
I try to build my collection around the theme of the human condition and spirituality in order to have this dialogue, as I don’t want to have an encyclopaedic collection like MoMa, which collects by period or year. I don’t want to be forced into a corner, and I cannot compete with big public museums, like the Singapore Art Museum. But conceptually, contemporary art has no boundaries. Thai artists could have an impact inside it, and international art could also be influential to Asia and Thai artists. So, I just want to have a dialogue between them.
Is the evolution of Thai contemporary art taken into account in this dialogue with the international arena in your collection and museum?
I consider the late Montien Boonma, who passed away 12 years ago, to be the core of my collection. To me, he is probably the first artist to have a really big impact on the contemporary art scene, both locally and internationally. I would say that before Montien Boonma, Thai contemporary art didn’t really exist. Artists were influenced and inspired by Western modern art rather than contemporary art. Also, Montien Boonma was influenced by modern art, but the work is strong enough to stand on its own and it is at an international level. Back when contemporary art started in Thailand, there was no contemporary thinking. So, for a contemporary art museum that’s based in Thailand, I think it makes sense to connect to the international art history arena, or else you’d have to go back in time and collect some modern Thai art, and the work is not strong enough.
Do you use the socio-political context as a measurement when it comes to judging the quality of the art you collect?
Not really. I don’t care about the social or political context and don’t actually look at it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t understand it, I do. But what I hope is that an art historian or curator will look at it afterwards. If you look first in terms of the social and political, you tend to go after the content and context within art and forget that art is actually visual. You try to analyse things that don’t really matter, such as whether he painted this picture because of Tiananmen Square or a political uprising. You are just trying to connect things because as a curator and art historian you are trained to think like that, but it is actually not very deep in the long term. When we walk into the Tate Modern and the National Gallery in London, we just look. We don’t care when they painted this and why. A bad picture is a bad picture, whether it is about this king or that government. Who cares? It doesn’t mean that it’s not important, but it’s not the responsibility of a collector. That is my focus.
I have read a few books on the history of modern art and the art of the 1980s. It doesn’t matter to me the reason why these artists were chosen to be in this book or that museum. I was interested in the work because it was visually strong and could transcend both time and location. Sometimes, I travel to see paintings and when I see the work in person, it will move me, before I grasp it at an intellectual level. In general, I try to disregard thinking. I tell you, the few times I have used my head and the thinking brain to analyse and choose, I have always made mistakes. It is all in the eyes. They do not make mistakes. The heart doesn’t make mistakes, but the brain always does.
So would you define your way of collecting to be quite instinctive?
Instinct is part of it, but my eyes are trained to be like those of an artist. I have my own taste and I appreciate most types of art, but what I decide to collect must be timeless and have a strong or relevant dialogue with the core of my collection. Spirituality is a big part of it. You have to understand what spirituality is and most curators don’t. It is not about having the face of Buddha or Christ on the canvas. It connects to emptiness. If you look at Zen paintings, you see very little because it is trying to point to something beyond time and the human mind, and that’s the spiritual. However, if I select artworks that are all empty, the museum would probably be very boring [laughs], so I have to balance things out. Today, I have a well-balanced collection, which is definitely not something categorised by region.
Do you have a definition of beauty?
I think art is about aesthetics rather than beauty. Though I like the word beautiful, sometimes it can be very shallow, and sometimes there are more aesthetics in ugliness. Like Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990), the decomposing cow’s head that is surrounded by flies. I think that is a very spiritual work because it reminds you that, ultimately, you have to die and rot. It arouses a certain emotion without having to think whether it is beautiful or not. In fact, it is not beautiful, it’s ugly, even as a concept. However, that piece would probably move me enough to stay and observe. To be still and look is a form of meditation for me. So I’m looking for artworks that could make a viewer stop and look and not think; not immediately. Emotion, intellect, description and interpretation should come later. You look and there is no thought, but you are captured.
That is actually a perfect description of what I am trying to achieve with my collection. In my museum, I am trying to build a temple. When you go to a temple, you can see the same room again and again. It is the same Buddha statue again and again. You want to come back because it makes you still and you enter another dimension, a timeless dimension.
You have been collecting for a long time and following the artists’ development. What are your observations of the Thai contemporary art scene over the last three to five years?
There have been new art galleries coming up lately, which is good for the art scene, but I don’t see any new strong collectors in the scene. Moreover, I don’t think the Thai government understands the value of art and culture. We are going to have two or three biennials this year. Only one is by the government, the Ministry of Culture, and it will apparently be more focused on sculptures. But the two main ones are supported by the private sector. These are the big Bangkok Art Biennale, as well as another competing Bangkok Biennial that is curated, and run by a group of artists against the big biennial. They will have a positive impact on the Bangkok art scene, but whether it is going to be long-lasting, I don’t know. It is more of a case of “wait and see” for me.