Inside the Art Collection William and Lavina Lim Are Donating to M+

The world’s greatest collection of contemporary Hong Kong art is available for viewing – but you need an invitation. That’s because most of it is on display in the private Wong Chuk Hang studio of William and Lavina Lim, who have spent the past decade building what they call the Living Collection, which contains hundreds of works with a special focus on artists from Hong Kong.

Soon, though, a large chunk of that work will be permanently housed at M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture, which is expected to finally open its doors next autumn. Last month, the Lims announced they would donate 90 artworks by 53 international artists to the museum, including works by 26 Hong Kong artists. The collection of local works is particularly comprehensive since the Lims have been on the front lines of the artistic awakening that has taken place over the past decade. “The Living Collection is widely regarded as the most significant private collection of Hong Kong art from the last two decades,” says M+ chief curator Doryun Chong, who describes it as a record of the “unique evolutionary trajectory of Hong Kong art in the 21st century.”

William Lim says the donation represents “15 to 20 percent” of the overall collection. “These are all in my studio and I have been conducting tours of my studio by private appointment over the past few years,” he says. “I made a map for people to use as an easy reference and they can go around by themselves and look at the works. M+ was invited to the studio and pretty much picked from that list of what they wanted.”

You have likely heard of the Lims before. Lavina is an interior designer and William is an architect who has designed for many hotels, offices and residential buildings around Hong Kong, including H Queen’s, the Central art tower. Aside from being a collector, William also an artist in his own right, is responsible for fascinating bamboo installations that have been exhibited around the world. And his entire brood shares the gift of creativity: eldest son Kevin is both a chef and architect and younger son Vincent is an architect and furniture designer. 

Four years ago, the Zolima CityMag team was treated to dinner at the Lims’ studio. This time around, we asked William to highlight some of the pieces that are being donated to M+. He chose three pairs of works that relate to each other conceptually but also physically, thanks to the way the Lims have placed them throughout their studio.  “I don’t see works as being in an isolated context,” he explains. “They actually relate to a certain space or another work and create a dialogue.” This isn’t a collection of art shoehorned into someone’s living room: visiting the Lims’ studio is an exploration, a chance to wander and think, not dissimilar to the experience of going to a museum.

William and Lavina Lim in their studio – Photo by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

First up is a duo from beyond Hong Kong’s borders. Both are made of metal but one is light, the other heavy – and not the one you expect. “Untitled Sculpture W6-2″ is an intricate metallic structure by Korean artist Lee Bul. Lim bought it in New York—it was one of the first pieces he and Lavina collected—before he started focusing on Hong Kong artists. “The use of material is very interesting,” he says. “I think Lee Bul is exploring these organic forms but in a very architectonic way – when I was a student I would make models like that. She uses metal and some wood, but she makes it look very light, almost like a mobile structure.” 

Sitting on a table nearby is “AD 2000, Rusty for Another 2000 Years,” a collection of metal bottles by Chinese artist Zheng Guogu. “I was fascinated when I first saw it,” says Lim. “A lot of Hong Kong artists wouldn’t use a medium like that – making a sculpture out of steel. It’s a good counterbalance to the works you would see by Hong Kong artists or even by Lee Bul. You expect it to be light because it’s just a bottle, but it’s solid steel. When you try to lift it, it’s very heavy.”

Lim encourages visitors to find out for themselves. “I feel that art should not be something put behind a case – it should be something you actually interact with and have fun with. A lot of visitors to my studio try to lift these metal bottles and that’s part of the interesting thing about this work, it’s what you don’t expect from it.” It’s one of the reasons why Lim calls it the Living Collection: these are not passive objects entombed in glass, they are dynamic, sometimes surprising things that share our space. Walking around the studio, there are no security guards, nobody to tell you to step away from the art – and that’s just the way Lim likes it.

The next pair of works focuses on another unassuming subject: books. Hong Kong artist Annie Wan’s “The Tides of Time” encases a volume in cement. Singapore-based artist Heman Chong produced a painting based on the cover of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude every year for seven years. 

“Annie’s work is probably one of the most poetic works in my collection, dealing with history that is being erased,” says Lim. After covering every page in the book with cement, she burned away the paper. “It’s a very simple work that is very easy to understand. It doesn’t need much explanation and that’s the kind of work that really appeals to me.”

By contrast, Chong’s work is based on years of collaboration with Lim. “The premise is that the cover will be done in black and white, monochrome,” he says. “He has been exploring different expressions of this book cover. What’s probably more important is the time essence of the work. We’re producing one of these every year and it’s a continuation.” That also reflects the book itself, which follows several generations of a Colombian family, exploring the relationship between the past, present and future. As Chong reworks the cover every year, its appearance shifts and transforms despite using the same template and the same palette of colours – different in appearance but not in form.

Lim’s final two picks are by Hong Kong artists Tsang Kin-wah and Samson Young. Tsang’s work, “Pretty $hit – Pi$$ Pretty (green on white),” is a floral patterned print that, upon closer inspection, consists of slurs in English and Chinese. “Tsang Kin-wah is one of my favourite Hong Kong artists,” says Lim. “His work has a lot of different dimensions to read from. This one looks like a Victorian wallpaper, it’s very pretty in a way, but if you look closer it has a lot of vulgar language.” Lim says the work also hints at the influence of Chinese porcelain patterns on Victorian decor, recalling the East-West cultural connections that have been taking place for centuries. And he particularly likes how the work evokes “the hidden emotion behind a calm and pretty surface” – a common theme in Tsang’s practice, which explores the anger, conflict and trauma that lurks beneath the surface of a seemingly orderly society.

The foul language stands in contrast to the “almost biblical” tone of Young’s work, Why have you forsaken me?, which consists of a video and an illuminated text display. Lim first encountered it at the Venice Biennale. “You would see the video and then when you looked outside across the canal you would see the words,” he says. “I actually asked [Young’s] gallery if I could buy these works and they said they are not for sale, they were just a prop for his exhibition. They were going to throw them away. But I convinced them to allow me to collect these works.” He installed the video in his studio and the text on a ceiling beam, giving visitors a similar experience to the one he had in Venice. “You watch the video and see the words somewhere in the distance,” he says.

What ties all of these works together—and indeed the very experience of wandering through the studio—is surprise. There’s always more than meets the eye. A lot of that comes from the way Lim has curated the spatial relationship between the works in the collection, drawing parallels between seemingly disparate pieces of art. It remains to be seen how that will translate to the collection’s new home at M+. Doryun Chong says the museum is still trying to decide how best to exhibit them and more details will be announced closer to the institution’s opening date. 

“I hope there is a certain consciousness about how these works will be shown,” says Lim. “My thinking is that I don’t see works as being in an isolated context, they actually relate to a certain space or another work and create a dialogue. I hope part of the spirit of my studio will become part of the collection from this period. 

A view of the Lims’ studio

In the meantime, the collection will continue to evolve. He recently acquired a new piece by Hong Kong artist Stephen Wong Chun-hei. “We have some of his older works which are small paintings. All of a sudden he did this massive work this time and I think it’s so relevant to my collection,” he says. “We want to focus on important milestone works by Hong Kong artists and this is a milestone piece.”

Donating a large chunk of works to M+ clears space in the Lims’ studio for more art. “The idea of supporting young artists is still very important,” he says. “Institutions are not going to buy artists that are doing their first couple of exhibitions. In the past, I have collected important artists’ works from their graduation shows. That’s a way to encourage them to develop further. That’s still the way we would collect Hong Kong artists.” 

He is also planning to expand his focus beyond Hong Kong. “Even international artists – I see some that have good relevance to our culture here. If I see anything interesting I really like, I would consider collecting that. It’s a more open experimentation going forward.” With a bit more breathing room, the Living Collection continues to evolve.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Heman Chong is a local artist. In fact, he is based in Singapore. We regret the error.

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