First published in Vault magazine, April 2015
Clinton Ng might not play favourites with his art collection but he can’t conceal his enthusiasm for the pieces that light him up. When I quiz Ng about why A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Vik Muniz’s freewheeling riff on the Manet masterpiece, currently takes centre stage in his Sydney apartment, his response is the mark of someone with unswerving faith in art’s transformative potential: “It just gives and gives and gives.”
But Ng, who has spent the last decade cultivating a 400-strong collection that includes everything from photographs and video works by Thomas Ruff, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rosemary Laing and Shaun Gladwell to sculpture and paintings by Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Hirschorn, Ahmed Alsoudani, Hiromi Tango and Sam Jinks, knows that a collector’s trajectory isn’t down to passion alone. By religiously attending art fairs and combing the internet with missionary zeal, the busy gastroenterologist – who sits on the board of Art Month Sydney and whose own policy of giving has sparked loans to institutions such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the University of Queensland and the Ian Potter Centre – hopes to capture the breadth, depth and virtuosity of the present moment in contemporary art.
How did you first discover collecting and what prompted you to invest in your first piece?
I was bored shitless doing my PhD on irritable bowel syndrome and I found myself surfing the net for art and visiting galleries to remain sane. I’ve been drawn to art from a young age and have always loved drawings, crafts and comics as well as books with beautiful illustrations. My parents actively encouraged this.
I view collecting in terms of a relationship and like any relationship the connection is important, whether it’s on an emotional, intellectual or some other level. The work has to have something significant to say and must say something I can relate to. I’m also strategic. The last thing any collector wants is to find out that a piece that they have paid good money for is worthless in a monetary or cultural sense. I always ask myself if the work will stand the test of time and I buy to encourage artists to make and show more.
The first piece you acquired was Study for Red Centre, by John Coburn, over ten years ago. What are the highlights of your collection and how has your focus evolved?
I’ve always collected contemporary works that reflect the experience of life today – with all its complexity, uncertainty, harshness, joy and beauty. There are also a number or artists that I’ve collected from early days, such as Daniel Boyd, Ben Quilty and Ben Zavros that I’ll continue to collect. I was touched that Daniel’s parents thanked me for donating his work to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, when I was fortunate enough to meet them at the Bulgari Awards last year. It gives me great joy to see artists careers take off. I also have a really soft spot for Patricia Piccinini. Her creations are so grotesque, cute and cuddly on one hand and mutated on the other – you’re never quite sure how to respond or whether you love them or not.
Lately, I’ve also developed an interest in the Post Internet Art (PIA) movement. The PIA movement began five years ago and spans contemporary art made in response to the Internet, Sharing art and ‘liking’ art – much like sharing what we eat, dress or do – is now such a natural part of life. Post-Internet artists often sample stock photographs, corporate branding and logos and screen imagery in response to the Internet and social media. In many ways, I consider myself a Post-Internet collector. Although I travel to fairs, Biennales and shows, the internet helps facilitate my collecting – whether by allowing me to seek out art, research artists or connect with galleries. The Internet allows me to view works on the other side of the world and if there’s an artist on my wish list whose practice I’m familiar with and whose gallery I respect, I have the confidence to buy.
Although art fairs are sometimes criticised for their emphasis on market forces rather than the art itself, you regularly visit fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong. What is about fairs that excite you and which do you count amongst your favorites?
The fairs allow me to see, experience and research art in an efficient manner. I gather information, build relationships, buy or plan future purchases. These events frequently broaden my perspective. My favorite fair is Basel. I put up with the long flight, a week of appalling hotels and food just to attend. Hong Kong is much closer, has great world-class hotels, restaurants, parties, infrastructure and, over the next few years, cultural institutions worth visiting.
You also have an art space in Sydney where you’ve held an exhibition called Migration with Berlin gallerist Matthias Arndt. What do you enjoy about making the transition from collector to curator?
My collection has grown beyond the rooms in my residence in Sydney. CASSydney (Contemporary Art Space Sydney) is a building in Barangaroo Sydney, which housed an ESSO laboratory in its previous life. I hope to develop CASSydney to house and show some of my collection in the future. In some sense, most good collectors are their own curators. It’s natural for themes and threads of ideas to materialise.
Although you’ve previously embraced Chinese contemporary art, your sights have shifted to Indonesia. What is it about Indonesian contemporary art that you find compelling?
I started understanding more about Indonesian art during the Migration exhibition curated by Matthias Arndt. The Indonesian market is up-and-coming and the works are very accessible. I think that although a lot of Chinese contemporary artists produce fabulous work, the market is a little inflated. Indonesia is one of the world’s most populated nations and there’s a huge middle class, so the art scene is really interesting. Because of the country’s tumultuous history, a lot of the works incorporate layers of political commentary, slogans or dry humour, which is relevant to modern societies such as Australia as well as places like Malaysia, where I was brought up. I’ve collected works by Eko Nugroho and Entang Wiharso, who showed at the Indonesian Pavilian at the Venice Biennale. They’re both incredibly impressive.
What are your ambitions as a collector?
I want to learn and engage through art. I’d love to play a bigger role in terms of being an advocate but I think that being a collector has been a most interesting journey. I meet people from various walks of life that I might not otherwise meet, who share my passions. It’s most rewarding.
A large part of the joy of collecting is also the pleasure of sharing the work. I always tell an artist I acquire that I am happy to loan the work back when they have their survey. It might be clichéd, but at the end of the day I am only a custodian. I have the work for a short time and one day I may have the chance to leave it for future generations to enjoy.