Wiyu Wahono is one of Indonesia’s most cutting-edge and experimental collectors.
He started collecting art in the late 1990s when he returned to Indonesia after living in Germany for 20 years. Aiming to build a collection that reflects the zeitgeist, or spirit of the time, Wahono acquires works across all media from bioart to light art, sound art, performance art, scanography and audio visual installations. His collection has been exhibited in venues around the world including the Lichenstein National Museum, Ars Electronica Festival in Austria, Asia Society Museum in New York and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.
Pak Wiyu, you have shared in previous interviews that your collection aims to capture what you call the zeitgeist. Can you elaborate on how this shapes your decisions?
Yes, I believe a good artwork is one that is a good reflection of an era. In the future, people will describe the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century as an era with its own special conditions and characteristics unlike the eras before. Artworks that are aligned to this spirit of the times, or zeitgeist, will be defined retrospectively as being good.
For example, in the earlier 20th century, artists had to follow certain rules and dogmas. They were put into a straightjacket of having to be medium specific. So if an artist wanted to create a 2-dimensional artwork, then it had to be a painting, and if they chose to make a 3-dimensional artwork, then it had to be a sculpture. Today, everything can be art. We are living in a very interesting time when art doesn’t have clear definitions or boundaries anymore. So medium specific artworks are a key focus in my collection. As a collector, I find it exciting to celebrate this artistic freedom.
How did you discover 0˚ by Deni Ramdani?
0˚ by Deni Ramdani won the prestigious Bandung Contemporary Art Prize in 2017, organised by ArtSociates Lawangwangi in Indonesia. I have been a juror for the prize since its inception more than a decade ago, so that’s how I discovered this amazing work.
This artwork is interesting in terms of its medium. First of all, over a pile of soil hangs a transparent plastic bag filled with living fish. The dripping water creates a sense of anxiety that the water will dry out and the fish will soon die. But what the viewer cannot see is that the plastic bag is constantly being filled with water, and the holes are not at the bottom of the plastic bag but at the side instead. So, the water will never dry out.
Thematically, the work is also metaphor for the unprecedented urbanisation in the last decade. Globally, people are leaving the countryside and moving into the cities and the number of mega cities, which are cities with more than 10 million population, is increasing steadily. Yet a lot of serious urban problems remain unsolved. Urbanisation, in my personal opinion, will most likely be perceived as a significant spirit of the time. So this why I collected this work.
Were there any unforeseen complications with the installation of the work?
The installation itself was not actually very complicated: we just had to build a hangar on the ceiling to hang the bag from. The maintenance of the artwork is the real challenge. Besides the fact that the space has to have a drainage point, the fish cannot survive in the plastic bag for a long time, and the bag is too heavy to carry up and down. So the bag is actually empty most of the time. Only when visitors come do I fill the bag with water and the fishes, and after they leave, I have to empty the bag again. (laughs) But then again every new media artwork has its own challenges of maintenance, technical obsolescence, and repair. So, every artwork is unique in that sense.
What about the second work by Ernesto Klar?
This artwork is called Relational Light by Ernesto Klar, a Venezuelan-American artist. As a juror for a few art prizes, I frequently search the internet for artworks that have won national awards and that’s how I found this work. This artwork is very interesting because of its interactivity. When you move your hand towards the light, it avoids your touch. While I love this work, as a collector, I’m aware that I cannot display too many interactive artworks in my collection or I might risk a so-called festivalism, where people do not appreciate the art, but instead play around with it. This is something that I have to be aware of.
For this work, the installation was the challenge as there are many hidden components. Besides the multimedia projector that produces the light, we also had to install a fogging machine in the room to create the impression of a light curtain. There is also an invisible infrared light and infrared camera in the room, that have to be adjusted precisely to track the location of one’s movements and create a real impression of touching the light without even half a second of delay. The artist actually came here to install it in the dark room and it took him almost 2 weeks.
What is the importance of site-specific, installation pieces such as this one in an art collection that professes to be contemporary?
In my personal opinion, a contemporary art collector has to include an installation work in their collection for several reasons. The first reason is the medium specificity of the artwork. The second one is the short lifespan of the artwork: because installation works often cannot be moved after they have first been exhibited in a festival or biennale, but instead have to be destroyed or taken apart completely. This creates a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out), which drives a lot of art tourism that we have witnessed in this era. Furthermore, installation art gives a distinct feeling of experiencing an artwork from the inside, as
compared to looking at a sculpture from the outside. This creates a certain sensory experience.
Historically speaking, installation art emerged in the 1990s and was actually created by artists who were challenging the buying and selling of art, so it is a kind of the zeitgeist of our time.
In today’s competition between art and mass culture, installation art gives us a fully immersive experience of say, being in a room with projections, smoke, sound, and smell, that is unlike any other. You cannot get this experience by going shopping, watching television or watching a football game.
How important is having an emotional connection to a work, or meeting the artist, for you when it comes to collecting artworks?
For me, having an emotional connection is not important. I think it was perhaps more important at the beginning of the last century, when artists tried to convey emotion through the canvas – the Expressionist artists were pioneers in this field. But in contemporary art, it is more about an intellectual challenge, where art is not just about what we see and feel, but the context, message, and what the artist wants to tell the viewers. The rest is secondary. Therefore, I enjoy contemporary art more from that angle than feeling sad or excited when seeing an artwork.
It’s also not important at all for me to meet an artist before purchasing an artwork. I always focus on the question of zeitgeist: whether this artwork will be perceived as being significant in the future and whether it will strengthen my collection. I don’t need to see the artist’s biodata because even if the artist only produced one strong artwork, it’s fine with me. Often times people will try to meet an artist and find out whether the artist is intellectual enough, good enough, or if they have a personality fit for being successful in the future. But successful often means that the price will grow. To me collecting art is not about making money. It has to do with preserving our culture. If you focus on building a strong collection and capturing the zeitgeist, or preserving new media art that will be gone in the future if people like me do not collect it, then the commercial value and the future of the artist’s success is not important at all.
What impression would you like to leave people who have a chance to see your collection?
I want people to leave my collection with the message that art is not about the commercial value. The artworks that I collect cannot be sold anymore. Just build a strong collection based on your understanding about contemporary art and have the collection reflect or mirror your personality. To me, that is actually the most fantastic part about contemporary art. It’s why I love to see private collections more than museum collections. While museum collections have great artworks of course, they don’t have a colour or personality, or reflect who the collector is. But if you go and visit a private collection, you can see a collector’s personality shine through their art.
What advice might you have for those who are thinking of starting to collect art?
First of all, if you’re thinking of starting a collection, I would recommend not to think too much - just buy your first piece and you will fall in love with it. You will have the art piece hanging in your room, or in your office, and when you look at the artwork more and more, the fire starts burning. You'll grow a passion for buying and collecting more.
I would also recommend buying art theory books to learn and understand systematically about contemporary art. What happened in the late 1960s and in the 1970s with postmodernism, that caused it to emerge? What was the reason people turned away from medium specificity? Why were identity politics movements so important for the formation of contemporary art? And so on. After understanding these topics, you will begin to feel a "vibration" of an artwork’s contemporary context the moment you walk into an exhibition space.