Originally from the US, Jim Amberson moved to Singapore in 1998 and has been actively collecting Southeast Asian contemporary art for more than 15 years, acquiring works by Dinh Q. Lê, Sopheap Pich, Handiwirman Saputra, Teng Nee Cheong, Yee I-Lann and more.
Amberson’s interest in the region extended to him acquiring a Masters of Arts Degree from the National University of Singapore in Southeast Asian Studies and publications that include Deep S.E.A.: Contemporary Art from South East Asia and The Little Red Dot: Becoming a Red Hot for Art. Amberson is frequently invited to panels to speak on collecting Southeast Asian art, and has loaned his collection to numerous international exhibitions.
Hi Jim, thank you so much for inviting us into your home and sharing your collection with us. Can you share more about your journey as a collector and what guides you in building your works?
The works in my home reflect a part of my journey as a collector - I wouldn’t say I had a single overarching idea, I don’t think people do, nor do I think you need to have one. In my case, the ground floor of my house is very much about this idea of texture and tactility, because I thought it would be intriguing to people when they visit. They feel inclined to touch the works although they know they shouldn’t. But then when I go to the restroom and return, all of a sudden... fingerprints! (laughs)
Initially, a mantra I followed, and this in part due to Charles Saatchi, was to collect the works that make you say “Oh my god.” However increasingly I’ve realized it's less about the initial visual impact of a work, and more about how that work fits into the practice of a particular artist.
Sometimes I purchase works specifically to create a dialogue with other pieces in my collection, where I think bringing that work in is going to create something greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve tended to do this especially to bring together work by artists from Southeast Asia and those by artists who are not from the region to serve a few purposes: Firstly, it demonstrates that Southeast Asian art can hold its own in collaboration or in context with artists from other parts of the world. Secondly, it reflects that Southeast Asian art should not be seen in a bubble, and that there needs to be an opportunity for Southeast Asian art to be part of global narratives, themes and discourse.
Can you share an example of how you’ve deliberately placed works in dialogue with each other?
One of the works in my collection is by Maria Taniguchi, a Filipino artist, who was the first recipient of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award in 2015, after which she held her solo exhibition at the Rockbund Museum in Shanghai. Her works are very powerful and she’s a strong voice coming from the Philippines. The Untitled work that I have was included in an exhibition in Belgium in 2013, and is part of her ongoing Bricks series, which consists of paintings with a grid pattern upon which there are subtle gradations of a dark grey-black. In interviews, Maria talks about how creating these works was a very meditative process, and I felt it was interesting that she combines the idea of being meditative, which you usually think of being free flowing or open, with this strict pattern of the grid.
Later on, I discovered the work of an African artist from Zimbabwe, Moffat Takadiwa, at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair that coincides with Frieze in London. He works predominantly with found materials and I thought his works were very intriguing but unfortunately, they were not available. So in the end I decided to commission a work, which is the one I have now. It’s entitled English Deleted and was made in 2016, specifically with the idea of looking at Maria Taniguchi’s work and thinking about the tactility of other works in my collection. I was a bit nervous because it was first time I had purchased anything from that gallery. I sent them all this money and heard nothing for 6 months and thought, “I’m such an idiot,” but eventually it came through and I lent it for a collectors’ show at Art Stage in 2017. I felt quite exposed as the first time I saw it was the first time 33,000 other people saw it as well. One thing about being a collector is that you do take a risk, and people do judge you based upon the things that you purchase. Somebody assembling thrown away pieces from computers can definitely be seen as an unusual thing to purchase for your home.
Part of the idea of Takadiwa’s work is that in this internet age, we’re used to being able to access whatever we want, whether’s it’s shopping online or working from home. But in the case of Africa, their role in much of this is to recycle discarded computers and hardware after we’ve moved onto the latest model. So the work is an interesting commentary on post-colonialism, consumerism and where we are in the global internet revolution with this idea that everyone has access, but perhaps this access is not as equal. And having this dialogue between a meditative work by Maria Taniguchi, echoing some of the structural shapes of the rectangles and brick pattern, with the outlines of the keys in Takadiwa’s work, really created a discussion that could not happen if either work were alone.
You also own several works by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich. Could you tell us about how you met him, and came to have his works in your collection?
One of the greatest benefits and joys of collecting contemporary works is the ability to meet the artist and learn about their practice and the issues that they’re dealing with. I first encountered Sopheap Pich about 10 years ago. I was reading about what he did for the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane and was just blown away, but it was hard to track him down. It’s hard to imagine that at the time getting people’s emails was not so easy, so I reached out to him by phone and we had a conversation in which I mentioned that I saw a resonance in his work with Montien Boonma’s, the late Thai conceptual artist whose career was far too short. Sopheap immediately responded saying, “Okay, you seem to understand aspects of what I’m trying to deal with in form and space,” which started our discussions.
The first work of his that I was able to see in person was The Duel. It was lying on the floor in this abandoned warehouse space owned by the gallery that used to represent him in Hong Kong. We drove so far to get there, I actually thought I needed my passport! (laughs) I purchased that work, which is about the tension of muscles. It is an extremely complex piece to create, very technically challenging. The first time Sopheap came to my house, I was having difficulty figuring out where to put it and his first comment seeing it on the floor was, “Oh, it’s a lot bigger than I remembered.” I told him I was thinking of suspending it at the stairwell, and I don’t remember if he liked that idea or not, but that’s now where it is. I liked the idea of being able to encounter it at different levels and angles as you are going up the stairs.
The Duel is physically as well as thematically dealing with the tension and conflict within muscles and that of an individual body. Now Buddha No. 3, which is hung opposite, embodies a different type of tension. It’s a representation of an incredibly horrific period in history that took place under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The ends of each one of the loose pieces of rattan are dyed an earthen blood red, which refers to the period when the Khmer Rouge systematically executed monks and worked on destroying the underpinning of what was holding the society together. The unraveling of the Buddha is a metaphor for the unraveling of the society that took place at that time.
What is the most exciting thing about collecting contemporary art?
A few years ago, I was fortunate to have a dinner during Singapore Art Week with Yee I- Lann, a Malaysian artist, Jun, the gallery owner from ROH projects in Jakarta, and Erin Gleeson, a curator formerly from SA SA BASSAC. During dinner, I put forward my theory that every single art collector has exactly the same best work in their collection. They were looking at me going, “What do you mean?” so I responded, “The next one.” I-Lann said, “It’s exactly the same for me as an artist. I always think the next piece is the one where people figure out what I’m about and what I’m trying to do,” and Jun piped in saying it's the same for the gallerists, that they believe next exhibition is the one that puts them on a whole new mark, and Erin replied that it’s the same for the curator, in thinking the next exhibition is going to be the one where some great new insights will be uncovered. I think that is ultimately what the contemporary art world is about: this perpetual sense of optimism that we always think that something better is coming, and that we’re going to strive towards that, to learn something new and that things are going to be better.
So what would you like people to take away from seeing your collection?
For a lot of people when they see a private art collection, they think they’re going to see paintings. I do have painting, or works on paper and photography, but also sculptures, video, performance artwork. I’d like them to see the diversity of media that are modes for contemporary artists to speak. And to understand that the work produced in Southeast Asia holds its own in dialogue and discourse with work by artists from around the globe.
What advice might you have for young collectors?
It is important to study and explore as much as you can. Visit as many museums, gallery exhibitions, pop-up shows, and study as many books and films as you can. Figure out what your aesthetic is, what your interests are, what moves you, what you are intrigued by. Figuring that out is what collecting is about. Don’t go for what you think is popular, or what you think you’re going make money on. Everyone who buys art think they’re going to make money is just setting themselves up for disappointment. A creative genius did not make an artwork the same way they would a stock or a bond, which is a much more liquid and disposable instrument. Don’t put art in the same category.
When everything is gone, what will be remembered of a culture is the artworks and the architecture that they left behind, and a collector plays a key role in that by supporting the creative people in society as they’re doing that. There’re some people who say an art collection is the way a collector creates his or her own self portrait, it’s probably true.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s like everything you do in life! It’s when you fall down that you can reflect on it and learn from your mistakes, and you will definitely be making mistakes. Ultimately you will fall in love with the work and fall out of love with the work. A lot of young collectors ask me questions about what they should get and I always tell them, it’s inside yourself, you have to decide what’s interesting for you.