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An Interview with Art Advisor Jehan Chu

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An Interview with Art Advisor Jehan Chu
Mr Jehan Chu art advisor (Image courtesy of Jehan Chu)

Stalking the bustling aisles of Art Basel Hong Kong, I crossed paths with many an art consultant peddling their name cards and prattling off the latest auction results to the frantic pace of the city, a pace that often left me breathless and gasping.

Amongst them all, Jehan Chu is a different voice altogether. Speaking with him, I felt neither of these things. Instead, he took me higher, offering a sweeping panorama of the city’s intricate art landscape, his broader perspective amplified with eight years of experience in the not-profit sector and connections to curatorial circuits along which its institutions are honing their sophistication.

 

Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong
Image courtesy of Para Site

You’re in an extremely unique position for an art advisor, and it’s a balancing act that is quite commendable. Not only do you have your private consultancy Vermillion Art Collections, you have also been consistently steering and backing several non-profit, independent efforts in the arts — Para Site, Things that can happen and Design Trust. How does your work in the art market inform your work in these non-profits — or vice versa?

I started off at Sotheby’s, which gave me a very interesting and informative view of the art world from a commercial setting. I was able to see how art flows in and out of the art market, and how collectors were interacting with the secondary art market. But to be honest it wasn’t really until I left the auction house that my true art education began.

Back in 2008, Tobias Berger was the Executive Director and Curator of Para Site and was in the process of transforming this very significant and important not-for-profit space and community in Hong Kong from an artist-run organisation to a more curator-run organisation. In doing so, he was reforming the board too, bringing on people who were from the commercial and collectors’ world rather than just artists who had previously formed the majority of the board. So I was one of the commercial people. He thought it was a good idea to bring in someone from basically as commercial as it gets to have more diversity.

Long story short, being in Para Site has given me a really unique view in terms of understanding how multi-faceted the art world really is. The art market is really an important face of the art world — but not the only one. And the non-profit world, the institutional world, the academic world, and also the media world help to inform the art market — not the other way around. The non-profits — the curators who are not really actively a part of the primary or secondary — helped to deepen my appreciation of what value art really has, beyond prices, beyond the record auctions, beyond the trends that come in and out. Being in the non-profit world gave me depth, and that’s really hard to have, when the auctions revolve around a spring and a fall season and you have got to move hundreds of art works in a day.

On the other hand, the market also helped me understand what is necessary in the non-profit world. It’s not just about “art for art’s sake” — not in a holistic environment. When you scale beyond that, it’s about ecosystems, and for sure, the primary market, galleries, art fairs, advertisers, the patrons and donors, and the actual auction houses themselves, they play a large part in that. At the end of the day you need all of it for a healthy ecosystem.

 

"You 9you)" by Lee Kit for the 55th La Biennale di Venezia
Image Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District and Hong Kong Arts Development Council

Were there any particular artists that you encountered through Para Site that really shifted that perspective for you?

Lee Kit’s work is as relevant today as it was then. He has gone on from a relatively obscure position in the Hong Kong art world to one of greater relevance for Asian contemporary art in general. He won the Art Futures Award at the Hong Kong Art Fair right before it became Basel, he represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, and he’s now represented by a number of international galleries including Massimo de Carlo. He’s done great things.

To engage the idea or the canon of painting, he used these hand-painted cloths that were domestic objects like tablecloths or washcloths and then activated them through a combination of performance and documentation by taking these cloths and then using them for whatever they were supposed to be — a picnic cloth, or to wash one’s face, or to wipe the windows down. That they were the actual ongoing art objects pushed boundaries for me. I never thought that an art work could be activated, and I was kind of locked into the preciousness of the object, that it was somehow sacred. But the idea that the experience of it could take place over time — even outside of video — and just through the physicality of the medium was interesting to me. Those works are as fresh today as they were when I started collecting them back in 2008.

 

An installation view of 'Lucas Ihlein and Trevor Yeung: Sea Pearl White Cloud 海珠白雲' (2016) at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney
Image courtesy of the artists and 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney

As a result of your “crossing over” between these areas, you must have an excellent read on the pulse of the Hong Kong art scene. Besides Lee Kit, who else are the most intriguing emerging artists in Hong Kong that you are keeping an eye on right now?

The three that come to mind are Trevor Yeung, Wong Ping and Chris Huen.

Trevor Yeung shows with Blindspot Gallery. He’s doing great work involving a very personal narrative. I like to describe him as a kind of romantic and sensitive artist, almost the reincarnation of Felix Gonzales-Torres. He has a really beautiful, thoughtful use of materials. At the same time, he somehow captures this idea of light, impermanence and transition by using plant life, aquaponics and fish — things that literally will die.

Wong Ping is a video or animation artist who has recently showed at M+, Things that can happen, and at Art Basel Basel Miami with Edouard Malingue Gallery. His short animation films have a completely unique style, palette and voice which has been really well received. I think he will go far.

My favourite painter at the moment is a young artist named Chris Huen who shows with Gallery Exit and recently also Pilar Corrias. I’ve been collecting him for myself and my clients for the past couple of years. I’m so happy to see that the way that he looks at mark-making and Western paintings through the lens of his own calligraphic training has created this visual connection with people. You don’t need to know anything about him, where he's from, or what his training was to just look at his work and get into it, and then from there it’s just peeling back layers.

 

M+ Pavilion
Image courtesy of West Kowloon

One could say that Hong Kong is really maturing as an art scene, with the upcoming presence of M+, the West Kowloon Cultural District, and Tai Kwun. As we near the completion of these new buildings, how would you respond to that statement? How much has been accomplished, and what more can be done with the addition of these public spaces?

It’s funny that you asked this. Alan Lo and myself joined the board of the Global Patrons for San Francisco MOMA and we did a talk just yesterday with the museum’s curator for architecture and design, Jennifer Dunlop. We are interested in trying to create dialogues between their institution and Hong Kong. One of our guests for the dinner and talk last night was Suhanya Raffel, the new M+ Director. We were talking about where we are, and where do we go, how do we fit internationally, and what is our relationship to other larger, also re-emerging institutions like SFMOMA.

I think we all agree that we have come very, very far but there are still aspects of a healthy and holistic ecosystem that are still lacking in Hong Kong, particularly in the realm of secondary education. There are not only to be these institutions — the auction houses, the galleries, the fairs, the museums, the mid-sized institutions like Tai Kwun. But there also needs to be a culture of criticism and criticality, and the ability for the artists and the community to be not only knowledgeable but empowered to express critical thought and opinions.

I think Hong Kong is in a great place. It’s lightyears ahead of where it was when I first arrived in 2006. We have amazing institutions, but more importantly we have amazing people — curators, artists, and writers — and that’s only growing. But I think what has lagged behind is the education of both students and audiences, along with a critical culture. That’s a bit of a dormant issue that will come later. In four years time, we are going to have amazing, world-class art institutions, but I’m not sure that our audience will be ready.

 

Election Issue cover. Art by Barbara Kruger for New York Magazine
Image courtesy of Mark Peterson / Redux

Let’s talk about the world at large. Here in Singapore and I’m sure in Hong Kong too, conversations are overhead about the impending future after the US elections, and what this will mean for international relations and the economy. The shock waves are already rippling, but we can barely come to terms with own shock. How do you see our art world in Asia responding to the shifting political and economic landscape in the West?

Regardless of my own political leanings, and I think Trump is a monster...

To be honest, I don’t know if it matters to the art world. If anything, a lot of times art comes from struggle and conflict — whether it’s one’s inner conflict or outer conflict, in terms of society. These are all the grains of sand that help to form the pearls. I don’t think there’s going to be any crackdown on culture as a result of this wave of the radical right, but maybe I’m being naive. I think that artists will continue to do what artists always do, which is make art. The political situation is just simply more material for them to work with.

 

100ft Park; a non-commercial mini art space in Hong Kong
Image courtesy of 100ft Park

It’s true that artists will always be engaged with politics, and indeed it’s spaces like Para Site and Things that can happen that will really matter in times like this. In the wake of the Umbrella Revolution two years ago, how is the art world in Hong Kong organising, creating sites and stances of resistance to the politics of our times?

Artists are responding through structural means by creating spaces for dialogues. That’s basically what Things that can happen is. It’s not a space which takes sides. It was intentionally made to be a space that could foster discussion about the Umbrella Movement, and what that meant, and not just have it fade out after the demonstrations were over.

I think that art will always finds its own way — whether that’s a personal practice that isn’t very political in its engagement, or a more activist and political practice. But the change that has happened is that some of these practices have formalised themselves into spaces which are places for community. 100ft PARK is this kind of space, and there will continue to be these kinds of things popping up, alongside the Tai Kwun’s and M+’s and Para Sites.

 

 


Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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