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Interview with Marc Bollansee


Interview with Marc Bollansee

The Artling interviewed art collector Marc Bollansee to find out how he started collecting and any advice he can offer to young collectors. 

For those who aren’t familiar with your collection, can you share with us how you started out collecting Southeast Asian art?

It’s very simple. I come of course from a European family and I collected European art first. For professional reasons I moved to the Far East in 1990 and got interested in Southeast Asian art. So that is the beginning of my Asian collection. Of course, having lived in Southeast Asia for about 12 years also allowed me to travel to other parts of Asia so I’ve been visiting Asia very intensively. I have met a lot of artists, gallerists and curators who have shaped my vision of the art in the region.

Did you start out with a plan to collect Southeast Asian art or was it a function of living here and being interested in the local culture?

Well, I’m not somebody who plans because I think this is not important nowadays, because you cannot plan anymore. Basically, I’m interested by good art. Whenever I see it, it can be from any country, I am interested. Of course I have some kind of criteria to determine for myself what I consider to be good art.

Would you share the criteria?

Yes, sure. I think it’s very important to share that. I think good art has to be challenging your mind, it has to be appealing to your senses, to your emotions. It has to be innovative. I would add another factor; that the right combination is made by the artist between the raw materials he selects and the forms and the shapes that he gives to his artworks. I think sometimes it is overlooked, but the material is a very important part of what I consider in art. Of course, less in paintings, but now we are seeing more mixed media, sculpture and installations where the material is really vital.

I’ve met a number of new collectors over the last few days who can enter the market at different price points, but they don’t really have any background in art collecting or art appreciation, and they are starting from scratch. What would your advice to them be?

Well, I believe that at the moment we live in a different era. We live in a time where there is a lot of money available, and for that reason, if they want to make a good investment, it is important that they do not collect cheap works or works from artists that do not want to develop their career or who are not supported by institutions or galleries. So obviously, the ones that will be picked by institutions or galleries are usually the smarter and better ones. It is not always the case, but most of the time it is like that. So you have to do your homework – study the personality of the artist, study the factors that are important, what is the potential for development? Has this artist only one idea? Is he in a blind alley? Or does he have a highway he can travel on for the rest of his life? Because his/her art practice is such that he/she has many different avenues to travel on. Those are the artists that really interest me.

That’s a very nice analogy – the highway versus the blind alley…

Yes, this is what I consider very important. If you take a Chinese artist like Zheng Fanzhi this is the perfect example of the highway. Because you look at how he starts from the social story in the hospital then moves to the masks that are talking about society in China, then goes to the portraits that are a continuation of that, but in a different way. He is now going back to nature with all the brushwork and other elements. That’s a good example of an artist who doesn’t have any trouble to develop further. His work is about human psychology, relationships and society. It’s not about the human condition so much, but it’s about the lives that we live and the emotions that we have. I think if you have such a broad subject or theme, you can develop forever.

And those sorts of themes are quite universal, across cultures…

Yes, I think in the 20th century, the human condition was probably the most important thing. Artists like Picasso or Bacon or Lucian Freud were really developing that. Even Van Gogh, those artists were all after that. And they are among the greatest of the 20th century. Now it is not so much about the individual but more about the society and the relationship between different cultures and different continents. It has moved from micro to macro.

As a collector, you can study art history, you can research an artist by talking to curators, advisors, gallerists and the artists themselves to assess the quality. People also talk about having an “eye” for a good work of art. Do you think this “eye” comes from research or do you think some people are born with an “eye”? 

I think there are different phases. I started collecting when I was 10 years old. At that point in time, it is mainly retinal. It means that you build your vision, your eye, for good art. You see things and you don’t quite understand them. Later on in life, when you’re in your 20s or 30s, you do research. You start to read books and you get to interview artists and you have a lot of contacts. That allows you to understand the motivations of the artists, the reasons why they create artworks and the genesis of their creations. My basis is very broad as I know the whole history of art. I know about 10,000 artists, so I can give you a talk about these 10,000 artists and the history of art. It means that this is a constant analysis, and that is going by layers. If you reckon that each day you learn about one new artist, well you add 360 a year. If you do that for 10 years, you know 3,600 artists. Of course, you keep refreshing that, so it is an accumulation of knowledge and there is no end to what you can learn. You have your personal preferences, but then certain things become very obvious when you accumulate the knowledge, it is crystal clear.  This is why, and I might be cocky in saying this, it takes me 5 seconds to say whether an artwork is good or not. Now, that doesn’t mean that it is great or that I know that it is great, or what it is going to become. But in 5 seconds, I can say that I am interested to further study it or not. So that is a very big help, because it allows you to weed out very quickly what you consider uninteresting.  For a new collector, of course, all this is totally impossible. Most of the people who buy and collect art, they lose a lot of money, because they have to pay their dues and they have to study and they make mistakes. In my case, I have had a lot of teachers, curators, artists who opened my eyes when I was very young. They taught me what to look for. I have visited nearly all the museums all over the world, so the training has been very intense.

 A lifetime of training in your case. Would you say there is no shortcut for new collectors?  

No, there is no shortcut. However, the answer is to have a network of people that you can rely on and you believe have good ideas. I have interviewed a few collectors this week, and you know immediately that some people understand, although they are still fairly young, but there are very few. Those people are the ones to ask for advice, because they can quickly analyze what the work is about, if it has value and if it has potential.

You have an extensive collection of Southeast Asian art which touches on some of the significant artists across the region. Is there a finite number of pieces in the collection?  

No, I wouldn’t say that. However, there is a ballpark figure – we are not warehouse collectors. We have all the works in our homes and therefore we can’t afford to go above a certain number. In fact, this is not a number, but at one stage, it is a matter of space.

Is it important to you that you keep everything so you can see it?

It is very important to live with your artworks, because they speak to you, you enjoy them. You also learn more about them when you look at them everyday, and you have a feeling for it. Your feelings might change, either in the positive or negative sense.

And that’s when you consider divesting one piece?

Exactly. That is the point. I think at the moment, collectors have to divest because they want to improve the level of their collection. Secondly, even if you don’t have unlimited financial means, you want to buy again – but in order to buy again you have to divest some. We are nearly all the same, except for the Bill Gates of this world, all of us have to act like that. So the artists or the galleries shouldn’t be angry about this. It is a very normal process and it also shows that you consider some artists are not doing well in their development. That might be an additional attraction to divest.

Would you normally divest through an auction house?

Well, I believe the best way to divest at the moment is the auction house. But of course every work is different, so you might have to go through a dealer or sell privately, because the auction house doesn’t really have a market for these. I have works like that, works that are in all the museums in the world, but funnily at auction they don’t sell that well!

At this stage, do you have anything in mind for the legacy of your collection?

Well, I have children and they are very interested by my collection. My wife is a lot younger than I am, so I don’t really worry about it.

It is in very safe hands!

So turning to some of the Singaporean artists you collect, someone like Donna Ong. Can you share– given how you explained your philosophy of collecting and how you assess good-quality art – what is it about her work that appeals to you?

I think that first of all, her work is very diverse. It is very intellectual, but also quite manual in a certain way. It involves skills, so it is a perfect example of what I call ‘great Southeast Asian art.’ Where the human touch is still very important. It is not the same in Western art, if you look at Jeff Koons, all his works are produced in factories. Here in Southeast Asia you still have the manual element that I find extremely important, and that is a plus point for Southeast Asian art.

In the case of Donna Ong, I might add that she is also active in different media, and that always appeals a lot to me. To see an artist who is able to express himself or herself in sculpture, in video, or in installation works, I think it is a very strong element. And that will encourage me to collect the artist. 

Donna Ong, Cocoon (The Garden of the Waiting Virgins), 2012, Old wooden cabinet with cut-out paper figures and vegetation, sewing machine table, old standing lamps, framed paintings


I believe you recently acquired a Jeremy Sharma work and I think this is perhaps an interesting way to ask you about abstract art in Southeast Asia. 

There has been a lot, mind you, if you look very well it has been very present in Indonesia, the Philippines, in Vietnam. But somehow it has been overlooked because the collectors were not keen to collect abstract art. It is coming back very strongly worldwide, and this is one of the reasons why a lot of artists are going back to that direction. What is important is that abstract art is not merely form now, there are a lot of elements that go into it. There might be conceptual elements, as in the case of Jeremy Sharma, there might be visual elements that are added on. There might be technical elements, the way to construct the canvas, and also the painting process that has changed. Those are elements that add to the value of the artwork. And that makes an abstract painting totally different from what it used to be. 

Jeremy Sharma, Io, 2015, Blue Pigment and Cast Polyurethane Foam, robotic milled

Can we take a look at the works by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich and Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak in your collection? They have become standout artists from Cambodia and Thailand in international terms and you collected them early on. 

Well, Sopheap is a standout artist in the sense that he is the first one to have made it to the West, because he has lived in the United States for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that he is the best artist, he happens to be the first one to break through. Now there are a lot of good artists in Cambodia, and I collect them. Sopheap is a fairly classical artist, in the sense that he takes themes that are really linked to Cambodian history, he takes raw materials that are local, he works with local craftsmen and has assistants who help him to produce the artworks. So there are many elements, because there is the historical element, the conceptual element that is related to what is happening in his country, and there is the social element because they work together as a team. I think these are values that I really love a lot. 

Sopheap Pich, The Raft, 2009, bamboo, rattan, wood, wire, metal bolts

Yes, and people can understand his work when they don’t come from Cambodia?

You see, this is a good question, because some people believe you have to be global, and so they hate people who have too regional or local a look in their artworks. I think that that is a mistake, it is good to be global but I believe it is very nice to see that the artist can still include some of the local elements in his artworks. In the case of Sopheap, you know there are many references to the history of art. If you look at an artist like the Italian Burri, he is a major artist from the 60s and 70s in Europe, there are a lot of similarities between his work and Sopheap. Although, he did not use so much rattan, he has used burlap and materials like that. The look and the use of the color is very similar. So then, also the structure that Sopheap is using also reminds us of architectural elements that are linked to the history of Cambodia, with all these beautiful monuments, the references to religion once in a while, to the war that took place. All these are local elements that go into his work.

You have a work from Pinaree Sanpitak in your collection, the Thai artist, please do share something about this artist and her work.

It is a sculpture. It is called The Mirror so it’s a very nice piece that can be hung on the wall or can be shown flat on the ground, but it’s only one of the pieces that she has done. Her sculptural work is exceptional, you have seen some examples here at the Hong Kong fair. Of course, for a collector like myself, it is difficult to go into very huge pieces. I also cannot collect her installation work but think that her strongest suit is the installation part. She also paints, so again different media which are very appealing to me. I have always liked her works, so it’s a matter of finding a piece that is suitable to the collection.

Pinaree is an artist who is an obvious choice, she is a major artist in Thailand there is no question about it. To me that is crystal clear. 

Pinaree Sanpitak, The Mirror, 2009, aluminum & mirrored glass


Let us turn to the Indonesian artists in the collection. There is a very strong contemporary movement in Indonesia, and you have these groups – the Jendela Group, the artists exhibited by Cemeti Art House, which you don’t find in some of the other Southeast Asian countries. There are strong groups of artists to collect - would you agree?

Well they were really the first ones to break through in Southeast Asia, because there is an immense variety of regions, of different mentalities, of different ethnicities and they were grouped in Yogjakarta because that’s where they all studied. This was a kind of melting pot where creation was happening, like in Berlin nowadays or Los Angeles, or some of these places. That is probably the reason why some very good art came from Indonesia at the fairly early stages of contemporary art. I consider that contemporary art only started in the early 90s in Southeast Asia. And so, from the 90s onwards you have incredible artists in Indonesia. Because of the political situation that is conducive to stimulate the minds of the artists, and also to let them react against situations that they don’t accept. After the political crisis, there came another era of more democracy, more freedom and more openness.  It was a time of introspection, personal preoccupations, matters of identity and all that became very important. It is interesting to see that there are very different eras in only 20 years time. This is helping to create new art and that is why we have so many good artists in Indonesia.

Are there any particular Indonesian works in your collection that you want to mention?

Well I believe that the Jendela Group is certainly an outstanding group, although it is very difficult for them to keep the momentum going. They have had an incredible run, I wouldn’t say that it is easy for them to develop. It is certainly difficult. There are very strong artists like Agus Suwage who had a very good creative period and then experienced a mid-career dip, but he might come back. Then there are other artists that are less known, like Titarubi, a fabulous installation artist that I find very strong. Of course you have great painters like Masriadi, you cannot deny his skills, his humor, his visual qualities. Maybe he is not so intellectual, but he has such a brilliant skill to portray some situations about society that you cannot deny that he is a great artist. 

Titarubi (b.1968), The Burning Artefact (2012). Paper, iron, wood, plexiglass


Finally, I know you collect some of the talented young Filipino painters and would like to ask you about Patricio Eustaquio.

Patricio Eustaquio is one of the leading lights among young Filipino artists and works in several media. In this painting, Reprise III and IV, she reinterprets a magnificent still life by an old master with great painterly skill and innovative elements. Eustaquio’s works deals with fragmented memory and here she magnifies details that have particularly fascinated her. The painting is executed on wooden frames that are shaped by the artist. It is one of the ways contemporary artists find to renew the classical concepts of painting. This large scale diptych is very impressive and reminds us of the artist’s fascination with design and fashion, as we are mesmerized by the great richness of crimson, velvet, shimmering white satin and brilliant high-sheen brocade in the lady’s gown.

Patricia Eustaquio (b.1977), Reprise III and IV, 2012, oil on canvas


Thank you for sharing selected works from your collection with us, Marc. As I know each work is carefully placed in your homes, it is a privilege to look inside.


Marc Bollansee is a Belgian art collector based in France. He has written a book on Southeast Asian Art which is available here


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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