“I’ve become Ulysses. I can’t make my way back!” Chen Bo-Wen invokes the tragic plight of Homer’s hero with a swelling laugh, as he recounts his treacherous yet rewarding adventures in collecting. Born, raised and educated in Taiwan, Chen is a medical doctor by profession and runs his own family clinic. His early encounters with contemporary art stemmed from sheer curiosity. Taipei’s cultural offerings flourished in the 1990s with exhibitions, especially of European modern masters, and it was during the same time in the mid-1990s that Chen began frequenting galleries and museums.
His initial forays into acquiring art were marred by mercenary gallerists and dealers, who spoke of artworks as mere commodities and investment opportunities. The lack of professionalism he encountered was so discouraging that, at one point, he even considered giving up. “The most expensive tuition I’ve paid,” he says, again with a chuckle, referring to the less-than-sanguine transactions he has suffered. “You must find a good dealer. This dealer has to know the markets, but more importantly, it should be someone whose views and philosophies on art align with yours.“ Chen also turned to education, attending lectures by the likes of artists Yan Ye-Cheng and Wu Mali, at classes organized by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum between 1998 and 2001. He concluded that the best way to protect himself from scams and frauds was to gain knowledge on the art, the artists and the history.
Due to finite funds, as well as nationalist sentiments, Chen envisioned spending 80 percent of his collecting budget on Taiwanese contemporary art. “To me, there is an unspeakable satisfaction in seeing works by Taiwanese artists. As a Taiwanese myself, I am able to identify all the nuances and appreciate all the subtleties.” The artists in his collection make up a textbook roster of who’s who in the Taiwanese contemporary art scene: from Charwei Tsai and Kuo I-Chen to Chen Chieh-jen and Tsui Kuang-yu. “I hope to build a collection representative of the best that’s being produced today in Taiwan.” One would be remiss not to sense his hope for more fellow collectors to do the same.
It was in 2008, according to Chen, that he made the transition from buying to collecting. “Call it a midlife crisis,” says the 52-year-old, “or maybe all those art history lessons and gallery hops began to ferment? I decided that ‘collecting’ would be my final stab at contributing to society.” That same year he also met trusted adviser Andre Lee, currently director of Taipei’s Mind Set Art Center, with whom he still regularly consults. Chen continues, “I don’t have an unlimited budget, so if I am to make this a lifelong pursuit, I have to be strict and disciplined. Works, genres and artists I like can be many, and if I were still just ‘buying,’ I could freely acquire. Now that I’m building a collection, I have to be systematic.” While his regional purview slowly expanded, the ideas and issues he searched for in art sharpened. “I‘ve always gravitated toward some sort of existential struggle. Equally compelling for me is when artists tackle the oppressions and injustices that arise from our increasingly globalized world and its supposed progress. Very left-wing, I suppose.” With Lee’s help, Chen moved beyond his national borders and ventured into the rest of Asia, adjusting his budget to an equal split between local and international works. His acquisitions in the latter category include photography and video works by Shilpa Gupta, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Geng Jianyi and Yang Fudong.
Chen’s collection received an unexpected boost in 2012, when independent curators Meiya Cheng and Pauline J. Yao invited him to sponsor the exhibition Trading Futures” at the Taipei Contemporary Art Center (TCAC). Though there is a general dearth of collectors financing contemporary art projects in Taiwan, Chen has been a regular supporter of TCAC since its 2010 inception. But for this show, there was a catch: the works to be displayed had not yet been chosen or commissioned. At “Taipei Contemporary Art Center: A Case Study,” a 2013 roundtable conversation organized by New York-based Asia Art Archive in America, co-curator Cheng explained: “The funds were used to produce the entire show and provide commissions for the new work that was being made. I informed [Chen] that we could not guarantee that all of the artists would produce work . . . However, since none of the works were to be sold separately, the final exhibit in its entirety would go to [him]. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you the money, you produce the show.’” Chen’s infectious laughter surges back as he recalls earnest warnings from friends and family. Their fears were partially realized, when some artists reneged on their commissions. Those who didn’t, however, produced thoughtful works and even gained a friend in their exhibition patron. Ten works by artists such as Heman Chong, Lee Kit and Koki Tanaka became new additions to the collection. Most agree now that those 30,000 euros (approximately USD 34,000)—a good third of Chen’s yearly budget—weren’t spent in vain after all.
One work that made for an interesting experiment, Open Sesame (2012), is an agreement with Chinese artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The work comprises one pneumatic machine gun, one sniper rifle and one military-grade tripod stand. The artists have a longtime infatuation with guns, but firearms are prohibited in China and so they left the items in Chen’s custody. The agreement stipulates that these be returned to their owners, the artists, if the bans are ever lifted. What the collector ultimately purchased is the contractual obligation as concept, with but a few sheets of paper to show for it: the contract proper, as well as a mischievous letter from Sun and Peng to “Dr. Chen,” as he is often affectionately addressed, which includes silly comments such as “If we want to shoot off a few rounds, we can use Skype to instruct you on how to fire them (but I suggest you don’t wear clothes that are too clean).” The indeterminate and open-ended nature of Open Sesame brought endless amusement, but the political irony bubbling beneath a Chinese couple’s decision to leave objects of violence in the care of a Taiwanese citizen didn’t escape him either.
Over time, and because of anecdotes such as these, Chen has come to be known as a daring collector with a bent for new media and conceptual works. His thought process, however, has never wavered. “I’m just looking for works that reflect innovation in ways we can observe, think and react. I want to see the neglected and the unseen made apparent through an artist’s own language. I’m not so interested in repeating something until it becomes flawless and perfect. It must be a new idea that adds to the dialogue.” A patron of contemporary art, he consistently supports nonprofit spaces such as TCAC and the Cube and is duly loved and respected by the community. “I now have a group of friends whose interests in art are similar to mine. We go to exhibitions and pore over monographs and catalogs together. I didn’t have that before. It’s nice.” Twenty years in and counting, Chen’s odyssey is just beginning.
By Denise Chu
This article was originally published on ArtAsiaPacific on Mar/Apr 2015. This article cannot be edited nor shared to third parties without permission from ArtAsiaPacific.