Art consultant Alison Pickett is standing in her airy Kennedy Town studio—a tumble of books, papers, ceramics and sculptures—talking about her favourite locally designed object. Although her specialty is to find and commission monumental sculptures and art collections for blue-chip hotel, airline, private club and property developer clients, the object in question is much more humble in scale: a miniature sculpture of a tree that appears to be growing out of a white plastic electrical outlet plug.
“I was drawn to it because of the joy of simply being able to hold a piece of tactile sculpture in my hand,” she says, waving the tiny sculpture around. “It is the complete contrast and opposite of all the huge sculptures I commission for my projects.”
Pickett spotted the sculpture at Grotto, a contemporary art gallery which focuses exclusively on Hong Kong artists, and was immediately taken with the fact it was a standard Hong Kong-style plug. The artist, Lam Yau-sum, who studied fine arts at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, transforms modern industrial waste materials such as discarded electronic products, copper water pipes and wire into miniature cityscapes that demonstrate the relentlessness and resilience of nature.
Lam says he was inspired by the industrial landscape in Hong Kong, specifically the view from his own studio where plants growing from water pipes on a building defy the inhospitable environment. This resilience also intrigues Pickett, who says the sculpture reminds her of the banyan trees that sprout from joints between masonry stones on walls built to alleviate landslides in Hong Kong. She finds the contrast between the white plastic plug and natural form of the miniature especially beguiling, and confesses that she often finds herself tweaking the pliable branches into a new arrangement.
“The branches are made out of copper wire so they are very prickly, but there is something very compelling about it,” she says. “I want to hold and play with it. Luckily the branches are quite robust.”
Pickett’s penchant for surrounding herself with inspiring objets means her office desks, shelves and chairs are filled with an assortment of creative pieces. The plug’s diminutive size and robust form allows her to move it around the office, so that it starts the day on her desk and ends up near the lounge windows where the afternoon light casts a shadow of the tree on the wall. “It’s almost meditative and comforting to touch or have it near me,” she explains, placing the piece on the kitchen counter while she makes coffee.
Pickett says the sculpture also offers a timely reflection on how we live today, especially in terms of the waste our digital lives produce and our efforts to control the world around us. “I think the artist wants us to be a little uncomfortable that we are producing so much stuff, such as computer chips and boards, that is not recyclable,” she says. “For me, the Japanese bonsai style highlights the contradiction between this unending expansion and build-up of waste and our efforts to control and reduce nature.”
Pickett, who moved to Hong Kong from London in 1987, admits she has always been a voracious collector of things, not just art. “Over the years I have become a little more discerning, but if I see something even as simple as a beautifully made cup—which I really don’t need any more of—I want to live with it.”
She and her partner, the French sculptor Paul-Alexandre Michel Albert Bourieau, better known as Polo, divide their time between Hong Kong and Italy, and have an apartment on Lyndhurst Terrace and a holiday home with a sculpture garden near Carrara, Italy, where most of Pickett’s collection of art and furniture is stored.
“I like to have everything on display so the house is literally bursting at the seams,” she laughs. “We don’t have space in Hong Kong so smaller pieces like the tree sculpture are perfect.”
Pickett founded her own consultancy in 1995, and because most of her projects involve enormous pieces designed to fit within dramatically different interiors and public spaces designed by leading architects such as André Fu, Kengo Kuma, Make Architects and Arquitectonica, Pickett adopts what she calls a “chameleon-like” approach. Most collections, however, revolve around a fictional narrative.
For example, The Middle House Shanghai’s collection of 768 original works of art by 23 young, emerging and established artists from seven countries reflect on the curatorial theme of “I Dream of China,” a play on the word China as both the country and Shanghai’s proximity to Jingdezhen, the centre of China’s ceramic heritage.
Pickett often starts by looking for the artists, not the artworks. “That way all the pieces are collaborative and become part of an overall collection,” she explains. “It becomes more personal and about the identity and the works of each individual artist, and not simply decoration.”
Artists are selected on their previous body of work. Pickett examines their genre, style, and medium while also considering how their works would enhance or contrast with other pieces. Each artist is provided with a detailed yet flexible curatorial brief which Pickett says “allows them each to create their own unique works but work in harmony together.”
Pickett approaches hotel projects differently to retail and corporate projects. “Developing a curatorial theme is crucial to the actual destination, but works of art will often differ drastically so considering the end-user is an important part of the equation,” she explains. “For example, hotels are about creating a personal, intimate experience with smaller artworks that evoke comfort and calm, while retail projects typically call for a monumental scale to define a sense of place and aid navigation.”
Seeing the pieces in situ is very satisfying. Pickett believes that a sculpture’s 3-dimensional nature gives it another quality, tactility, that more literal art like photography or painting does not. But it is the industrial process of making a sculpture that especially fascinates her. “It’s hard, unglamorous and dirty work most of the time because you’re usually in a foundry or dusty workshop,” she says. “If you really want to understand a sculptor, look at their hands. Even with advanced technology today, a real sculptor produces something by hand.”
This is a quality that attracted her to the tree sculpture and is a reason why she continues to follow Lam’s work. At this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, Pickett says she spotted one of his newer, larger works. “He had taken old copper piping and tubes and he then inserted filaments into large light bulbs so when you turn it on, it flickers and then you see they are roses in a giant bouquet of metal and materials we normally wouldn’t look at. It was really very beautiful.”
She believes the role of the art consultant is changing. New technology has made the background research and communications with artists in remote locations much easier, and art fairs like Art Basel bring world class artists to Hong Kong. But Pickett is sceptical about buying sculptures online because of the importance of touching the piece. She insists it remains crucial for curators to visit an artist at work in their studio.
“This is particularly important with monumental sculptures because you need to know they are capable of creating it,” she says. “Sometimes artists assume that all they need to do is just enlarge what they already make, but you can’t. Scale is very important. We need to think about how it will work in a space and the perspective that people will view it from.”
At home and in her studio, however, there are no rules. “I like to have every single thing on display,” she says. “I don’t feel overwhelmed. I love seeing it all.”