Dr John Chia and his wife Cheryl Loh have been collecting art in Singapore for over 20 years. The medical oncologist has lately shared his passion and vision for contemporary art from his region as he took part in the exhibition, “Two houses: politics and histories in the contemporary art collections of John Chia and Yeap Lam Yang”.
Dr. John Chia has shared with Larry’s List how he was attracted to art that has ‘a germ of an idea’, how he admired the curators’ expertise and why the happiest part of collecting was that his wife shared it with him.
What made you want to start collecting art? What is the main motivation behind your collecting?
I’m not entirely sure. There isn’t a moment when you wake up one day, and discover you are an art collector. But to collect art in such an intense compulsive way (as all art collectors do), I feel it must be something quite innate, entwined in your DNA… probably starting quite early in the formative years. In National Junior College, my friends were from the Art Elective Program. I used to camp overnight in school with them, as they did their art projects. A lot of their enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me, during those teenage years.
What has sustained it in later life? Well, my wife thinks it must be some compensation for some childhood lack. Like Citizen Kane and “Rosebud”!
What is your focus regarding the artists in your collection? What is special about the local artists from Singapore?
I think Singapore has some incredible artists, doing really interesting work. Jeremy Sharma, Genevieve Chua, Robert Zhao, Ho Rui An, Jimmy Ong, Jason Lim, Zai Kuning, Heman Chong, John Clang… to name a few.
Singaporean artists are very international in their visual language. They express international as well as local themes. They portray the tensions, trade-offs, disorientation, insomnia, anxieties, and contradictions, living in a congested urban landscape, full of change and competition.
Is there any particular type of art that has consistently attracted you, or anything that unites all the works you have acquired?
I like art that has within it a germ of an idea.
What were the first and the latest artwork you purchased?
The first was a decorative artwork, bought in a souvenir shop, made by a young Chinese artist, of the Singapore River. The latest artwork? Haha… I have a long list that I have “reserved” but not yet paid for. Can I count them?
How many from your 300-piece art collection are displayed at home? Where and how many are they displayed elsewhere?
Very few are displayed. The nature of contemporary art is such that a lot is digital, or installation.
What considerations guide you to make a purchase?
My wife has to agree!
Which artwork in your collection that you would like to share with the public the most, and which artwork you would never part with?
They are all my children.
How important is it for you to meet the artists who created the artwork?
Actually, it’s not important at all. At the end of the day, it is the artwork that must speak for itself. It can speak slowly, and quietly… but speak it must. Artists, on the other hand, do not need to talk too much. They should let the artwork do the talking. If you have to give a long spiel to explain, then it defeats the whole purpose of art, doesn’t it?
How important is the role of collectors in Southeast Asia in promoting art and artists?
I don’t think collectors are all that important in “promoting” the artist. Collectors “buy”. Their principal function is to provide “capital”. It would be more accurate to say they are art “buyers”.
If they buy artworks produced by living artists, then they indirectly support the art production ecosystem.
Exhibition ‘Two Houses’
What is your relationship with the other collector Yeap Lam Yang? Why do you want to make an exhibition together?
Mr. Yeap is my friend, and art mentor. He has way more years of experience than me. He has provided invaluable advice. I avoided many mistakes, just listening to him. He also provided the system of “values” to approach art, in a way that focuses on quality, on the uplifting and transcendental part of the artwork, and not on investment returns. The exhibition is a celebration of our friendship.
The exhibition explores the theme of civic life-social justice, labour politics, human rights and freedoms, and nationhood. Why did you choose these themes?
Mr. Yeap had an interesting idea, to do a show on politics; we were going to call it Vision 20/20. It was a bit tongue in cheek. Along the way, the theme became more formal.
How far have you involved in preparing for the exhibition, such as choosing the pieces and curating the show?
Bala Starr and Melanie Pocock from LASALLE’s Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore were the curators, and they did a fabulous job. It was difficult. Not everything could be selected. In the end, their aesthetic and discipline made the whole show much more coherent and relevant. I always had an idea how I would present the works, but in the end, there is a huge difference getting professionals to do it. That fine sharp edge of the curator’s knife blade, that makes all the difference in the world.
Art in Singapore
What was your happiest moment being involved in art?
Every day is happy. I guess the happiest part of this journey is that my wife shares it with me. She actually has the sharper taste. I tend to be a bit old-fashioned or get stuck in a “groove”. Often, she comes along and pulls me out and drags me to look at new things.
Can you name some emerging artists from Singapore who should be on our radar?
I mentioned quite a few in the second question.
What are you especially excited about the Singaporean art scene in the next 12 months?
I think LASALLE currently has 2 incredible shows – “Dissolving margins” and “Moving Pledges” – shown in different galleries. I’m fascinated with the 4-channel video work based on the ideas of Nietzsche by James Hong in “Dissolving margins”. Artworks by Manit Sriwanichpoom, FX Harsono, Sutee Kunavichayanont and Tay Wei Leng in “Moving Pledges” serve as powerful commentary on current socio-political issues. I’ve seen the LASALLE shows twice, but I think I will go back a third time. I’m also very excited about the Araki show at DECK.
Note: Dr. Cheryl Loh, one-half of the art collecting duo that forms the Drs. John and Cheryl Chia Collection, will be one of the speakers at the S.E.A. Focus art fair panel, “Private Collecting: Motivations, Tastes and Narratives” on January 26 at 3.30pm.
For more information: S.E.A. Focus
During Singapore Art Week held in January every year, art collectors from Singapore as well as the South East Asian region will be exhibiting part of their collections in different venues across the city, at events such as Art Stage Singapore and IMPART: Collector’s Show: Fabulous Monsters.
For more information, please click here.