The influential Hong Kong collector speaks about his artistic practice, his multifaceted persona, his collecting philosophy and the artist’s “spirit”.

William Lim has a relationship with art that spans artistic creativity, architectural practice and collecting. In conversation with Art Radar he reveals how the different aspects of his life collide and merge, the depths of his photographic practice and his collecting, as well as what it means to be an artist today.

William Lim, William Lim, 'Ithaca, 2011-10-20, EDT 10:17', photograph. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Ithaca, 2011-10-20, EDT 10:17’, photograph. Image courtesy the artist.

Mostly known in the art world for his influential presence as an important collector of contemporary art, William Lim extends his relationship to art through a unique photographic practice that originated in the 1970s when he was a student of architecture at Cornell University.

The furniture showroom Andante in Hong Kong is holding a solo exhibition of his photographic work entitled “Before | During | After” until 30 November 2016, which includes images shot during his student years and in the past decade, when Lim has uncovered the ‘beauty’ of technological advances in digital photography. Inspired by the spirit of the ancient literati, Lim’s photographs embody the spirit of the artist, weaving light, time and space to create stills of ‘invisible’ life. Lim’s art penetrates a living space, merging art and architecture, beyond the traditional white cube walls.

Art Radar spoke to the artist, architect and collector to find out more about his photographic practice, his latest solo exhibition and his art of collecting, as well as how he conjugates the different aspects of his persona as an artist, architect and collector.

William Lim, 2016. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, 2016. Image courtesy the artist.

You have a multifaceted ‘identity’ in the world of arts: you are an architect, an artist AND an art collector and patron as well. How would you say you conjugate all three aspects of your ‘art persona’? Are these diverse aspects linked together by a common thread, for example, does your architectural practice influence your artistic practice and viceversa, and do your architecture and art influence your art collecting?

Yes, I think they definitely are very much related. In terms of architecture I deal with space and light, very practical issues. When I deal with my artwork I am still dealing with space and light, but maybe I don’t need to be totally practical. Art allows me to be more creative and free. I think that also in my collecting there is a connection in the way I think and I see things, so the art I collect is also related to space and time, as well as to some kind of architectural elements.

You have been photographing since 1977 when you were a student at Cornell University, as you share in your statement about your latest exhibition “Before | During | After”. Your exhibition ‘documents’ the transformation of your photographic practice. Could you tell us a bit more about the gradual progress you went through with your camera lens from 1977 to the present day? What are the major transformations in the way you view and capture images?

Actually I was interested in photography when I was young and I followed it all the time. I studied photography as a minor subject in university while I was doing architecture, so I was doing a lot of photography at the time. The exhibition shows nine works that I did when I was a student. When I graduated and I started working, I kind of took the backseat with photography until around 10 to 15 years ago, that is until when photography and the camera process became a lot simpler, when we had digital photography and you didn’t have to go through a lot of process to do photography anymore.

So when I would travel I would bring a camera, or even now, I bring my cell phone, and take photographs. Therefore, for the last 10 years I started doing a lot of photography again as a result of the technology.

William Lim, 'Serengeti, 2016-08-15, EAT 15:38', photograph. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Serengeti, 2016-08-15, EAT 15:38’, photograph. Image courtesy the artist.

“Before, during and after” in Chinese can also be read as “in front of, in the middle and behind” or “foreground, middleground, background”. How does this translate in the artworks on show in the exhibition?

I always look at my work as a process and it shows even with my architecture, it’s really like a very long process that you go through, so I don’t really see the end product as the finishing point. Sometimes it could be a midpoint of a production that can continue after you have finished something and that is how I look at my photography. I also see it as a journey, as a continuation of something, some idea. So that’s why I came up with the English title “Before | During | After”. I think a lot of it has to do with ‘before’ being the work I did in the 1970s as a student, and then it kind of continues to the last ten years of ‘during’. Most of the work in the exhibition was selected from among 50,000 photographs and I chose some 20-something photographs. Then maybe people can imagine the process of continuing on (‘after’).

But then when I translate the title into Chinese, it takes on a double meaning: it means before, during and after, but also ‘in front of’, ‘in the middle’ and ‘at the back’, which again has a lot to do with photography and with space. So in a way, the exhibition is about time and also about space.

And the very interesting thing about digital photography is that it actually records for every photograph the time and date it was taken. I was using this as information for the visitors, so when they look at the photograph, they can tell when it was taken and the time it was taken. Some works are taken at late night after midnight, so you see darkness and you see stars, you see various things. I thought that was a very important part of my work, to be able to relate them to time.

And a lot of the works are shown in pairs, and I like that kind of contrast and comparison with two images. The place and time could be totally different, and the subject matter could be totally different. Perhaps this is why I find it extremely interesting and maybe it has to do with myself, that I am also not just about one thing, but I am an artist, an architect, a collector, I do different things.

Maybe that is how I look at things, not as one absolute, but as a dialogue among different things. That’s what I hope this exhibition is about and I hope that it will bring people to think about different situations and different circumstances. They are free to interpret what they see in my photographs.

 William Lim, 'Hong Kong, 2011-09-12, HKT 23:21 / Beijing, 2008-11-13, CST 07:38', photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Hong Kong, 2011-09-12, HKT 23:21 / Beijing, 2008-11-13, CST 07:38’, photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

What are your favourite subjects to capture on film? What attracts you the most when you take out your camera? And is there any particular meaning you want to convey through your images?

When I was sorting through the photographs, there are a lot that I’ve taken during the last 11 years, I’ve tralleved a lot, I’ve been to many places, to historic monuments and things like that, but at the end of my research I actually picked out images that are not specific about anything and maybe that is the most interesting part to me. That although these are travelling photographs, they are not about any specific place. They could be various places, anywhere, some are blurry, they are more about the mood. But I find one thing that is very important: the sense of light that comes through in almost all of the works. Light is not literally visible, but it makes all the images so different with the manipulation of light. So if you ask me what the subject matter is, I would say light.

Would you say there is an element of abstraction in your images?

My photographs are kind of literal, but they convey more of a feeling rather than something totally visual. To me it is the invisible in the photograph that is probably more important and in that sense, you could say it is abstraction.

Do you digitally manipulate your photos or do you just take them as the end product?

They are not manipulated, they are just straight off. I think sometimes I just adjust the lighting a little bit, but other than that they are just the way they were originally taken.

William Lim, 'Hong Kong, 2012-01-23, HKT 14:52 / Mt. St. Michel, 2011-06-30, CEST 21:49', photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Hong Kong, 2012-01-23, HKT 14:52 / Mt. St. Michel, 2011-06-30, CEST 21:49’, photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

You also mention in your statement that the exhibition is thought out not to accommodate a ‘white cube’ but rather to create the dimension of space, much like architecture and design do. Could you expand on this and how you achieve this with your works in dialogue with the exhibition space and its furniture?

Instead of being in a white cube space of a gallery, the exhibition is in a furniture showroom, so there is another element in the space that I have to deal with, which is all the furniture and all the accessories. And the overall layout is not a sequence like in a gallery, in the showroom you are free to walk around and experience different parts of it.

Because of my training as an architect I do relate the images to the environment and to the furniture layout. I always feel like art should be part of life and I like to live with art objects, so what I am trying to do is to put my art into a living environment, to have the artworks become part of the living space.

Many architects are also photographers or at least do have a very good knowledge of photography. What is the connection between the two for you and your own practice? How do you combine your eye as an architect and photographer?

Definitely photography has always been a tool for architects to document things, to photograph actual things that we can always refer back to for accuracy. I think that the departure for art photography is that you don’t necessarily document things to be able to refer back to them. I think that the interesting thing about photography and reality is that you always trust what you see in photographs as the reality, but maybe the photograph can also record things that are a bit surreal and make you question about certain things. And maybe that’s how they turn into more artistic photographs, when they record things that could be more ambiguous or things that are not explained that might be subject to different interpretations. That’s how I feel I want people to experience in this photo exhibition. It’s not things that are totally explained or direct. I also want this show to have very little text, so people pretty much come through and experience the exhibition on their own and have their own opinion about it.

William Lim, "Before | During | After", 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, “Before | During | After”, 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

I would like to go back to your art of collecting for a moment: you revealed in an interview with ArtShare that you mostly like to collect young artists’ work. If I am not mistaken, you also focus solely on Hong Kong artists now. Can you tell me how your collecting strategy or focus changed over time since you started collecting? I suppose that the progression you speak of about your work as an artist (and architect) also applies to your collecting? How?

Maybe ten years ago I didn’t have a focus with my collection. I collected things that I liked, I was interested in art and when I travelled I would buy some artwork or artefact and I would build up some kind of collection that way. I think the big departure was about eight years ago. I then started to realise that it would be more interesting if I were to have more of a focus with my collection. At that time I also realised that contemporary art is talking about the way we live now, and then you get to meet the artists and talk to them, and that’s when I found contemporary art very interesting.

And especially contemporary art in Hong Kong at a time when nobody was paying really any attention to it, artists didn’t really have galleries to work with, there was really no art market here. I felt that collecting was a very good way to encourage artists, and support them by collecting their work.

That was the time that I started collecting Hong Kong artists’ work and it’s not intentional that I only collect young artists, but practicing artists were mostly young artists, even now I think a lot of them are under 40 years old. So the whole art training here has been very young and for very interesting reasons these young people produce very interesting conceptual work. For me as an artist, it’s very easy to appreciate the kind of thinking they have, so it was very easy for me to get into the world of Hong Kong contemporary art.

I guess that as I build up my collection and as the art market and industry develop, there are a lot more artists and collectors as well, more museums to look at their work. And I do feel that my direction is slightly shifting, I still pay attention to young artists, but because there are so many I also have started to become more selective. And I think to me now the focus is really to, now that I have a broad collection, I want to go and collect works that are really important to an artist. I think this aspect is something I would focus on from now on.

William Lim, 'Hangzhou, 2010-10-11, CST 07:51 / Amritsar, 2010-01-08, IST 12:30', photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Hangzhou, 2010-10-11, CST 07:51 / Amritsar, 2010-01-08, IST 12:30’, photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

To connect your collecting to your art making, I would like to know if you are or have been inspired by any artists that you collect (or don’t collect) when making your own art, whether international or Hong Kong artists – not just visually or formally, but philosophically as well.

Yes, definitely. I published a book called the No Colours, three years ago. And when we were doing the book we had many conversations with different artists and art world people, and one of the discussions was very interesting. It was with a few Hong Kong artists, there was Lee Kit and Lam Tung Pang. We started to talk about how historically in China there were no professional artists, there were only literati and art was really a way of living. The literati did art, poetry, they drank… So in a way their art, their painting, was a byproduct of the way they lived, and I thought that was very interesting.

Even in Hong Kong, before the art market set in, there were artists for whom art was really not their main profession, they had to teach, they did other things, but then art was their passion, and they produced art to pretty much satisfy themselves, because nobody was buying their art either. And I thought that that was fascinating, and I find that there are a few artists in Hong Kong that still work like that. They might not be working with galleries, they still have this ideology in their mind and then they produce art pretty much the way they like to do it. And I think that is very inspirational to the way I also practice. I think that that is very influential for me.

William Lim, "Before | During | After", 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, “Before | During | After”, 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

As an experienced collector who also sits on the board of Tate’s Asia-Pacific acquisitions, do you feel that your knowledge as a collector, and your exposure to a broad spectrum of art practices give you a greater ability to create images that have a particular relevance in today’s art world or that you can create work that you know will have an ample reception and interest? Does this even have an importance to your art practice?

I think that it’s hard to create things for the art market, to create work that would look interesting to collectors or other people. I think that might be the downfall of artists. I think artists really need to create work for themselves, which represents themselves and they believe in. And if by coincidence it’s also appreciated by others, I think it’s fantastic. But otherwise, you just keep on doing things that you enjoy creating.

For me, I collect and I see a lot of interesting things that I like very much from different artists, but I don’t feel I want to create the same thing that they are doing. You know, many people, many amateur, non-art people, always say something like: “Oh, that painting my three-year-old son can do,” but that is totally missing the sense of what art is all about.

I think you can copy something, but you can never copy the spirit that the artists had when they created that work. I think this is more important to me than making something that looks like somebody else’s. And maybe to me that [spirit] is the invisible part of art that is so fascinating. I would always make the comparison between a real Van Gogh and some imitation Van Gogh, and you can always see that the real thing has a certain spirit that the knock off doesn’t have. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but you can definitely see it. And I think that is probably why art is so interesting. It’s really getting that feeling that is invisible, coming through a piece of artwork. And I think that’s the most important thing about creating art.

William Lim, 'Okinawa, 2011-09-17, JST 19:19 / Istanbul, 2013-09-15, EEST 09:44', photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, ‘Okinawa, 2011-09-17, JST 19:19 / Istanbul, 2013-09-15, EEST 09:44’, photographic diptych. Image courtesy the artist.

What do you think a contemporary artist should be?

I think that artists should just be true to themselves and should express whatever they feel is important in their work. But I don’t think an artist should use a social situation or a political situation to benefit their own fame. That’s totally wrong. If you want to be a politician you become a politician, or if you want to be a social worker, you become a social worker.

To be an artist, you should really like art and not exploit it for the sake of fame. I think it’s wrong and uninteresting.

What do you think about the statement that all art is political?

I think art can be political, but it still has to be art. Politics could be a subject matter, but it still needs to be art. If an artist wants to be political, he could be, but that could be a different personality in him. But his art still has to come out as having an artistic spirit. If your art doesn’t have that, and it’s just about politics, then you would have to be a full time politician.

William Lim, "Before | During | After", 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

William Lim, “Before | During | After”, 4-20 November 2016, Andante at The Design Showcase, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

Finally, if you had to give advice to a young want-to-be artist, what would you say?

I would say to be really true to what they believe in. Not to be influenced too much by what is around. Art is a very long process, don’t shoot for immediate fame. Believe in the medium that you are working with, and really create art. And I think that art people will appreciate and discover you. If it’s art that is done under the influence of some other purpose then it will never become good art.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, collectors, photography, architecutre, interviews, promoting art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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