“Living with Art: a conversation between William Zhao and Alia Al Senussi
During Art Basel Hong Kong, the Rolls-Royce Art Programme has organized a special visit to the house of the Hong Kong collector and writer William Zhao. Passionate for art since his childhood he fostered exchange between China and France during his time in Europe and after his MBA in Finance and management positions in investment banking he returned to his home town where he started collecting and writing about art. The amazing collection displayed in his house sees pieces among others by Danh Vo, Carol Rama, Joseph Beuys, Elisabeth Peyton, Lee Kit, Neïl Beloufa, Firenze Lai…
Alia Al-Senussi, based in London, works to promote the arts and serves on the boards and committees at institutions like the Tate, Serpentine, Guggenheim, ICA London, Parasol Unit and Art Dubai.
Alia Al Senussi: Was there a particular moment when you started collecting?
William Zhao: When my parents told me you are not going to be an artist. I think this was the best moment of my life.
AAS: At the beginning of your collecting journey did you have one “eureka moment”?
WZ: There is always a moment when you suddenly completely understand something. For me there were so many moments and so many artworks that made me understand that beauty is not the only thing about art.
AAS: The idea of beauty within art and what we see around us, obviously this is a home and this is where you live so you’re living with works that you want to look at that make you think about the moment, how does that work?
WZ: I think in each period of your life you need a different thing, sometimes you want peace and sometimes you want inspiration and this makes me choose and collect very different artists, and in time it also changes the way I look at them.
AAS: Do you work with people to find artworks or do you prefer to find it yourself?
WZ: Today there are so many art fairs and a few good artists unfortunately, so sometimes it’s also by chance. It’s like a journey or a love story, when you have the chance to meet something that is unique.
AAS: Do you think of artists that you want to go and find or is it more…
WZ: I think it’s really enjoyable to visit artists’ studios, to understand more and more and more how the artists work and develop the ideas; and how they reflect the society today. I really love to meet the artists to understand the way they look at art and are making art. I don’t think art fairs are the best way to experiment and buy art.
AAS: It’s like playing the devil’s advocate in a place like Hong Kong where you don’t have many private institutions, the art fair is actually playing a role…
WZ: It’s the globalization, we go to Basel every year to see the Beyeler Foundation and the Kunsthalle so I think we should love to have institutions like that here.
AAS: What I was saying is that for many western people coming to Hong Kong is like discovering a different culture. I think an art fair can play an important role in this, for example Art Dubai is an art fair but for a lot of people it’s also a way to discover the Middle East.
WZ: Yes, in Hong Kong there are a few independent art spaces like Parasite, AAA, Spring Workshop, there’s also little bit of underground happening and growing.
AAS: Going back to your collection, here I can see a mix with traditional of Chinese objects alongside with contemporary painting.
WZ: Yes, for me paintings of a thousand years ago are actually still contemporary.
AAS: Have you ever met an artist and then decided you didn’t want his work?
WZ: Oh a lot!
AAS: So the personality does influence your choice…
WZ: A lot!
AAS: Do you have a thematic for your collection?
WZ: There is no thematic, just works when you look at them you like them you feel you like the idea.
AAS: How do you perceive the practice of collecting for home as opposed to collecting for an institution?
WZ: It’s different, at home you have less responsibility, it’s just do it for yourself, it’s not educational.
AAS: Have you experienced a change in the conversations you’ve had with people in Hong Kong about the ways they’re approaching their collecting practices?
WZ: Of course, always. Some people can be really inspiring when you’re talking to them and sometimes you can understand some topics really talking to them.
AAS: Do you ever have a moment when you think “I don’t want to own this artwork anymore”?
WZ: A lot!
AAS: So how do you deal with that question, there’s such a tabu sometimes around it.
WZ: I put it in storage and I don’t see it anymore.
AAS: But what if you want to sell something.
WZ: There are some things that you just cannot sell!
AAS: I’m sure you get this question all the time: the idea of buying art as an investment as opposed to collecting art.
WZ: I think we buy art always for collecting, but now since the art has become so expensive, if there is some work you don’t really like anymore and there is someone else who wants it, you should sell it to him… This is the reason you should always buy art that you really love.