HONG KONG – Avid collector and founder of CL3 Architects, William Lim was a vocal supporter of Hong Kong contemporary art long before the city emerged as a major destination on the international art circuit. We spoke with the architect about his eclectic collection of important Hong Kong artworks, which will be showcased as part of Sotheby’s upcoming dual exhibition titled Next Destination: Hong Kong from 26 February to 10 March. The exhibition comprises two sections presented in conversation: the first, a selection of important works by Hong Kong artists from William Lim’s Living Collection, which will be for display only. The other is a group selling exhibition of Hong Kong contemporary artworks. Both sections complement each other to reflect the spectacular spirit of the city's contemporary art scene.
You have a lot of titles – architect, designer, collector – but how would you describe your own career?
Of course my profession is architecture but design and art are very closely related – the way that I collect and the way that I look at art inform the way that I design. So, in many ways, art is an important part of my life and career. My collections have a lot to do with my profession.
When did you first become interested in art?
Actually, ever since I was a kid I liked buying things while travelling. The first piece of art that I bought was when I was probably twelve years old in London. I went to Hyde Park and picked up this very trashy, touristy type of painting. But it was a huge piece, metre by metre – I still have it. I don’t really show it on the wall; it’s kind of embarrassing.
So when did you get serious about collecting art?
I actually started collecting in China at local galleries when I travelled and all that, but then I realised that it was too broad and I had no focus. As you can tell [Lim points around his office at shelves heaving with antiques], I think it’s fascinating to see what people were producing thousands of years ago. When you look at the work, it informs us about the way they lived and the things they believed at that time. That’s the power of art.
At what point did you started to focus on Hong Kong art?
By chance, I came across some contemporary artists in 2006. With contemporary art, you get to talk to the artist. You get to know how the artist was thinking, what prompted them to do something, and that’s really fascinating. There weren’t that many exhibitions in Hong Kong at the time, around 2007 and 2008.
What lessons have you learned along the way as a collector?
At the beginning I felt like I needed to have a few works from each artist so I covered the general, overall landscape of Hong Kong. After a while, I became more focused on specific artists. It’s not just about having a piece here or there – to really understand an artist you need to collect over a period of time during the course of their career. For Hong Kong it is easy because a lot of them are really young and you can follow them early.
FROM WILLIAM LIM’S LIVING COLLECTION: YEUNG TONG LUNG, WONG CHUK HANG – INDUSTRIAL BUILDING AND A PORTRAIT, 2015, OIL ON CANVAS
What are some of the highlights of your collection?
A lot of those works are very hard to show because some are more installation types, and some are very important works by the artists. There’s a work by Pak Sheung-Chuen, which he showed at the Venice Biennale. The work is an installation piece that’s made out of these rocks and, so in a way, it’s not something you can really put in your living room.
Why do you think Hong Kong has shot onto the international art circuit in recent years?
I think it definitely helps a lot when you have something important like Art Basel Hong Kong.
Next year we will see the opening of Tai Kwun in the Central Police Station and soon to follow will be M+, the new museum in the West Kowloon Arts District, and the reopening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Plus new art fairs are opening like Art Central last year. Things like that, which have very nice restaurants and atmosphere, show that art can be about a lifestyle and it’s not just an elitist thing.
FROM WILLIAM LIM’S LIVING COLLECTION: WILSON SHIEH THE TWENTY-EIGHT HONG KONG GOVERNORS (DETAIL) 2010, COLOUR PENCIL ON WATERCOLOUR PAPER
How would you describe the artwork coming out of Hong Kong right now?
Hong Kong art is different. The scale can be smaller, it’s intimate, and it is a very personal experience with the art. There are a lot of installation, video and performance pieces. It’s more the spirit of the artist that you’re collecting and not so much a physical piece.
What do you think the art communicates about society today?
A lot of the work is about an almost passive look at our helplessness; about the way we are living nowadays. I think it might not be only happening to Hong Kong. When you look at the world, we all have a feeling like that. I don’t think that Hong Kong art is in your face. The message is subtle and that’s the strength of the work. It’s not saying that anything is black or white. A lot of the artists are leaving you to interpret the situation.
Which types of media are Hong Kong artists experimenting with?
There is definitely a very experimental mentality with a lot of artists. Take someone like Samson Young. He is exploring sound and visual art and performance, and he just won the BMW Art Journey Award in 2015. Sound is definitely one area that’s getting more and more important. You also have artists like Trevor Yeung who is not bound by one medium. He’s exploring very minute aspects of life and it’s so interesting.
By looking around your office, it seems like you have an eye for eclectic styles. What’s your personal approach to collecting?
The way I think of art is that it is part of everyday life. It’s not about one thing, or about a white cube space with one painting – that’s not what art should be. It should be something you interact with on a daily basis. It can be a plastic toy with artistic value to it. Looking around [my office], some people can’t even tell which is art and which is just a found object. To me, it’s all art.
Kate Springer is a Hong Kong-based culture and travel writer.
Hero image: From William Lim’s Living Collection: Chow Chunfai, Mong Kok S Y C Street 2004, oil on canvas.