Art Market

Hong Kong Collector Alan Lo on Learning to Buy Art and Art Basel’s Role in Accelerating the City’s Scene

Payal Uttam
Mar 10, 2015 2:10AM

For someone who grew up surrounded by ink paintings from some of the most revered names in 20th-century Chinese art history, collector Alan Lo has a surprisingly subversive streak. “I recently went through a phase where I was trying to dare myself. Like how about this work made of cardboard and duct tape?” says the Hong Kong-based restaurateur, gesturing towards a gritty Sterling Ruby collage in his dining room. “In a way, I was trying to understand the limits or boundaries of contemporary art.”

The son of Victor Lo, a major collector of modern Chinese ink paintings, the 35-year-old entrepreneur has never been interested in following tradition: “It’s hard to beat my father’s collection, so I thought, ‘Let’s look at something else.’” After graduating with an architecture degree from Princeton University in 2003, Lo returned to Hong Kong just when contemporary Chinese art was starting to take off. “There was so much interest with all the auctions, but I didn’t buy anything until 2007,” he says. He remembers being confronted with works like Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters (1994)—a performance where the artist covered himself in honey while seated on a toilet and was swarmed by flies. “Coming from the classical ways of looking at art, considering things like composition and brushstrokes, I was lost.” 

It has been a slow build, but Lo has since cultivated a collection of a diverse array of artists from across the globe. Buying selectively from China, he turned his gaze to emerging and established names from across Asia from countries including Japan, Philippines, and Korea. “I do like to mix it up a little bit. It’s interesting to see things from different generations,” he says, giving an example of drawings that he purchased by Japanese artist Kazuko Miyamoto who collaborated with Sol LeWitt in the ’70s. Now a regular on the international art fair circuit, Lo has a growing number of pieces by Western artists. 

His global approach is reflected in his eclectically decorated home in which artists from East and West jostle for wall space. In the living room, Chinese painter Liu Wei’s monumental Beyond the Sky Limits (2012), composed of hazy stripes of different hues, rests behind the sofa. On the opposite wall hangs Belgian-born Harold Ancart’s large black drawing scored with a row of thick colored lines. Meanwhile towering bookshelves groan with art tomes on American superstars such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol as well as Asian heavyweights like Yayoi Kusama and Wang Keping. And wedged between are catalogues on Asian diaspora artists living overseas, like Paul Chan, another artist in Lo’s collection. 

When asked how he selects works, Lo says oftentimes it’s about having an emotional connection: “When you are dealing with artists like Paul Chan, Martin Wong or Danh Vo for example, there’s the idea of being Asian but living abroad that relates to my personal experiences.” Last year he acquired a Danh Vo sculpture of an actual chicken skeleton which he has displayed in his living room on a pedestal with its bound feet hanging from a thread attached to the ceiling: “I bought it from Take Ninagawa. It’s a small gallery but [the owner] Nina has great taste.” He describes it as his most outlandish purchase yet. “It’s kind of grotesque but when you understand the narrative behind it, the work makes sense,” he says and goes on to explain the piece’s connotations of immigrant poverty and the chicken as a symbol of prosperity in Asia. 

While Lo is constantly acquiring experimental art, he also remains fond of painterly works by Chinese contemporary artists like Liu Xiaodong whose lush grey canvas Boys in the Bathhouse No. 5 (2000), hangs near the home’s entranceway. Another one of his favorites is Zhang Enli whose elegant work The Nylon Rope 1-6 (2014), is tucked away in the corridor leading to the bedrooms. “Artists like Zhang are a breath of fresh air,” he says. “China went through that period when it was all about symbols, but this is just a beautiful painting done by a painter. There is something romantic about that.”

Since returning to Hong Kong, Lo has also become increasingly interested in the city’s art and design scene, which he says is maturing. Not only has he built a small empire of stylish restaurants but he also sits on the board for the renowned art space Para Site and has become the chairman of the nonprofit organization Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design.

In 2012, he began acquiring work by local artists. “The first thing I ever bought was a piece of cloth by Lee Kit that was literally on the table under the dealer’s laptop,” he recalls. The meticulously painted striped cloth was a conceptual installation typical of the young artist. It now hangs on a hook in his one-year-old son’s room. On the adjacent wall are three muted cardboard paintings by Lee with faded logos of household brands Johnsons, Pears, and Always imprinted onto their surfaces.

In 2013, Lo opened an art-focused restaurant called Duddell’s. His goal was to create an alternative platform to commercial galleries and non-profit spaces in the city. “We wanted it to have meaningful, international, quality content—hence the regular curator-led exhibitions, talks, and films,” he says. “In terms of size, Hong Kong’s art community still isn’t quite like New York, London, or Paris but I think it was ready for something like this.” (During Art Basel in Hong Kong, Duddell’s will host an ICA-Offsite exhibition featuring international contemporary artists titled “Hong Kongese.”)

Since the arrival of Art Basel in Hong Kong, the terrain of the local art scene has evolved. Several international galleries have set up shop in the city and the local collector base is expanding. “It’s a unique situation in the run up to M+ [contemporary art museum due to open in 2019]. The growth was kind of stimulated by the fair and the prospect of the museum project,” he says. “Then all these other things started to fall into place.”

With the city’s annual art week round the corner, Lo says he wonders if Art Basel in Hong Kong’s new dates, which were tailored to better fit the international art world calendar, will mean an improvement in this year’s edition. He’s also curious about the new fair Art Central. “I always felt that Hong Kong needed more than just Art Basel. It will be interesting to see whether the city is looking for that second generalist fair or whether we are looking for other kinds of satellite fairs like Liste which is grungy and has an emerging, younger vibe.”

Regarding his own collection, Lo plans to continue taking risks and pushing his comfort zone. Artists Nick Mauss and Alex Prager are quick to roll off his tongue when asked what might be his next acquisitions. “And I’ve always wanted a Sugimoto photograph,” he adds. In his early days collecting Lo explains he “was trying very hard to establish a certain direction, but [now] I feel that I’m not at that point where I need to decide. For now, I’m happy to leave it open-ended.”

Payal Uttam