Dr. Woffles Wu
Dr. Woffles Wu is a prominent plastic surgeon, painter and a prolific collector of Chinese contemporary art. In 2006, he established a private museum known as the Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Maosoleum for its many works related to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution era. Focusing on the period from 1989–2009, the 12,000 sqft warehouse houses nearly 500 pieces of art ranging from paintings, sculptures, digital media, and large-scale kinetic installations, all created by Chinese artists.
Hi Dr. Wu, thank you for inviting us into your museum. Can you tell us a little bit more about how and why you started collecting Chinese contemporary art, and why you decided to open your own museum?
I’ve always been interested in Chinese contemporary art. It started with my first exposure to it in the mid 90s, when my mother and I joined the China Club in Hong Kong. It was filled with all this amazing new art that I had never seen before, and I never realized that Chinese painters could come up with this kind of imagery. It was fascinating, and I started looking out for Chinese contemporary artworks. What I love about Chinese contemporary art is that it has so much to offer. It’s challenging and stimulating. You have to dig beneath the surface, probe, and look at the details in each picture to find the message that the artists want to put out to the rest of the world. We know for a fact that artists in China for a period didn’t have tremendous liberty, so they had to interpret their works in a very sensitive fashion. The vast majority of people who view the works see them superficially, while the more intellectual ones see that the works contain a commentary on how society is developing in China. I found this very interesting because these were people who had just come out of the Cultural Revolution, which was in itself a very peculiar historical period. I felt that it was a bridge to allow me to understand a little bit of who I am as a Chinese Singaporean, and what our relationship is to China and how people in China actually think. Is it very different from the way we think? These were some of the questions I had, and of course visually, the pieces are all very arresting - so I was fascinated and decided to concentrate on Chinese contemporary art.
However, Chinese contemporary works were very difficult to find at the time because there weren’t any established galleries selling these works, except for a few in Hong Kong and Shanghai. However, some of these artworks gradually began to appear in auctions at very low prices and I acquired them. That was when I realized: “Hey, this is my opportunity to be complete in a Chinese contemporary art collection.” I feel like we all collect art in various ways but it’s all just a mish-mash of different forms. So, I thought, here I have a limited period to focus on, 1989 to the present, and within that period the art has already morphed several times. If I have representations from each of these evolutionary periods then I would be able to put together a strong narrative, and that was when I decided to start a museum. Little did I know how difficult that would be.
It started with buying big artworks because that was the most attractive thing about Chinese contemporary art, that it’s very in your face! In fact one of the reasons why I switched to Chinese contemporary from Western contemporary is that I felt Western contemporary at the time was just going dull. There was nothing interesting, no social statements being made. It was just like Damien Hirst and David Hockney and all that kind of stuff. Although they are very collectible and expensive today, it just didn’t attract me as I much preferred that subtle sly commentary that you can extract from Chinese contemporary paintings. But once I knew I was going to open a space, I began looking at the paintings in a different light: thinking that we needed iconic pieces from certain painters, certain periods, and I started assembling that collection.
Why did you decide to create a purpose-built museum for your artworks, rather than displaying them at home?
At first, I wanted to put the works in my house, then I realized that the works that I were buying occupied the whole wall. Many of us don’t have houses that big so I said, “Okay, what’s the next best thing?” and I thought of an industrial space. I managed to find this industrial space that we’re in right now.
One of the artworks I have is the big Mao painting by Wu Mingzhong, which is 4.8 meters tall. How I bought it is a bit of a story. The artist actually painted it for a museum in Berlin but when it was finished, the museum director told him, “We just calculated, the wall that we have can’t take your painting. Could you just cut off the top 1.5 feet of your painting?” The painter was horrified and decided to withdraw his painting from the museum and so I got the work. At the time I was also wondering what to call the space, so I decided on the Maosoleum because I’m fascinated with Mao and I wanted to focus my attention on what he represents to China and to the rest of the world. So when Wu Mingzhong told me about the painting being 4.8 meters tall, I had to look around for a place that could take the height. And this space happens to be about 5 meters tall, it just about accommodates the huge, monstrous painting and everything followed suit after that.
I started off with just one unit and started to put all the artworks up. Before you knew it, the whole unit was filled. As we acquired another unit, I thought why not just get a third one and so, we expanded the space right through. Together there are actually 3 individual units but we’ve bashed the walls down and we’ve been able to make it a very huge expensive cavern where I can put my artworks.
One of the main works occupying the Maosoleum is Bridge by Xu Zhongmin that spans the entire 3 units. You also own several other artworks by him. Can you share how you met him and came to acquire his works?
Xu Zhongmin is now a very good friend of mine but when I first saw his primitive work at a gallery, it was something that I’d never seen before. It was kinetic, it had lights, and I was really fascinated because there was nothing like it in Western art. The first piece I saw (Time Wheel) was Buddhistic in nature and had some religious undertones and meaning for me so I purchased it. Then I said, “This is really nice, I’ll like to meet this artist.” Somebody arranged for me to visit him in his studio when I was in Beijing, and we just fell upon each other like long lost brothers. He speaks perfect English as he used to train and work in England, and my Chinese is not so good, so we were able to communicate fluently in English. From that conversation I was able to learn more about him and his thoughts, like why he sticks to kinetic works over other forms, and he in turn could also understand some of my artistic direction and philosophy, and so we’ve been collaborating since then.
Adam and Eve was one of the first works we collaborated on. He had done a similar
sculpture for Christian Dior, titled U-Walk, which depicts a woman's skeleton being clothed and unclothed in a beautiful dress. As the work is kinetic, it goes round and the image seems to repeat itself. So I said: “Why don’t we have a story of Adam and Eve? Because Eve comes from Adam’s rib, so we can have Adam morphing into Eve, and Eve morphing into a skeleton, and the cycle starts again like rebirth.” He thought the idea was fantastic and said he was going to make the work for his solo exhibition in China.
But he needed one more monumental piece for this exhibition, and that’s when he came up with the idea of the Bridge. It’s another mesmerizing and hypnotic work that depicts old men walking along a bridge to nowhere, and you can interpret so many things from it. But he said, “I don’t have money to make this artwork, it’s going to cost a lot,” so I made a deal with him to fund the work on condition that he would send it to me after the exhibition, and he agreed. He told me he was going to make the work 12 metres long, and I said, “Sure! Make it big! Make it good!” Little did I know how long 12 metres really was. When it came time to ship it over to Singapore, the cost was phenomenal, it was like shipping two cars! Xu Zhongmin also had to come with his team from Beijing and live in my house for a week to put the artwork together. When I finally looked at it I thought, “Oh my god, I’m a fool to buy a 12 metre installation that takes up the entire corridor of my space.” However, through the years, I've come to see it as a fantastic sculpture and a statement in itself. And once you actually get it to move and light up, when it is dark all around, it transforms into something else entirely. Xu Zhongmin and I have remained fabulous friends. Every time I’m in Beijing we’ll go out to eat or I’ll go and see his new works. He has many fascinating new works that he wants to share with me but unfortunately, I have no more space.
What advice might you have for young collectors?
I think the most important thing is if you like it, can live with it, and can afford it, buy it. Art is something you cannot measure, it’s uplifting in many ways and it brings out so many different emotions in you. Whether it’s music, visual art, film or sculpture, it does something to the human spirit and maybe that’s why I’m so into art. Every time I come to this space and I look at the artworks that I have, I feel a certain form of joy and happiness that life isn’t just about a 9 to 5 job, going to work and then going home and seeing the family. There are other interesting, stimulating and intellectual things out there.
However, try to have a theme and don’t collect too diversely unless your artistic taste really takes you in different directions, because your collection can become very disparate and disjointed. But above all, you must feel happy with what you’ve purchased even if it’s expensive and the price has bottomed out. You’ve got to feel that, “Wow I still like it on the wall, it still does something for me.”