‘Collecting is for inspiration’ — Alan Chan
The Hong Kong tastemaker talks to CC Wang about his East-meets-West design philosophy — which has found its perfect expression in Christie’s new private selling exhibition, Expanding Horizons
‘The French really understand what chinoiserie is about,’ says Hong Kong tastemaker Alan Chan, referring to the imperious ‘Madame de Pompadour’ turquoise cat currently presiding over Salon 27, his collector’s atelier in Quarry Bay.
Mounted on a gilt-bronze base by the Parisian dealer and designer Lazare Duvaux (1703-1758), the Qianlong-era porcelain figure is an outstanding example of the Oriental artefacts — and European artefacts created in their image — that found favour with the European elite in the 17th and 18th centuries.
When the cat was made, its owner was none other than the influential mistress of Louis XV. Now, however, it is part of a spectacular centrepiece on Chan’s dining table — and a key artwork in Christie’s private selling exhibition, Expanding Horizons.
With his East-meets-West aesthetic, the designer, brand consultant, artist and collector was the ideal choice for the exhibition, which explores Western enthusiasm for Asian art from the 16th century to the present, creating a dialogue between exquisite pieces of decorative art and paintings by some of the stars of modern and contemporary Asian art.
As a ‘homegrown Hong Kong Chinese’— as he explains to CC Wang, Christie’s Classic Art Group representative for Asia Pacific — Chan cultivated a keen appreciation of Chinese art in the 1970s and ’80s: ‘the craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the 5,000 years of history’.
At the same time, however, he was ‘bombarded, in a nice way’ by Western culture, and while working for Western advertising agencies in the 1970s, he came to see Chinese art from a Western perspective.
It’s a perspective that informs both the ‘Oriental passion, Western harmony’ philosophy of Chan’s design company and his personal collection of art.
‘When you collect, you have a whole encyclopaedia of knowledge in your hand’ — Alan Chan
Chan began collecting art because he enjoyed it, and because he enjoyed placing art objects in his design projects for tea rooms, restaurants and five-star hotels. Gradually, he became known for integrating art and design in his projects — for positioning art as part of modern life.
At the same time, Chan recognised that his constant appraisal of art was feeding his own creativity. ‘As a designer, as a curator, I keep asking myself, how can I move on? How can I learn more?’ he says. ‘I have found that collecting is the solution. We all learn from history. When you collect, you have a whole encyclopaedia of knowledge in your hand.’
There is also a more personal dimension to Chan’s collecting. ‘It’s about collecting memories,’ he says. ‘With each and every object in my collection, I remember when and where I bought it. I forget the price, but I keep the memories.’
Chan founded his company 40 years ago, branching out into the Japanese market soon afterwards.
The company has since won more than 600 national and international advertising and design awards, including recognition from New York’s Graphis as one of the Ten Best design firms in the world in 1996, and the DFA World’s Outstanding Chinese Designer award from the Hong Kong Design Centre in 2017.
Chan is also a graphic artist, photographer and video artist, whose works include the 2010 iPhone photography series iEye-ai — kaleidoscopic patterns of 21st-century life that Chan creates from documentary pictures captured on his iPhone.
He has been honoured with retrospectives at the Ginza Graphic Gallery in Tokyo, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Shanghai Art Museum, and he has works in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich and M+ in Hong Kong, among other leading museums.
‘I place objects in a certain way to drive emotions. It’s free-flow, it comes from the heart. It’s like a performance’ — Alan Chan
As for his collection, it now amounts to more than 1,000 pieces, including works by favourite artists Sanyu (1901-1966), Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), Ju Ming (b. 1938), Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), Yuichi Inoue (1916-1985), Futura 2000 (b. 1955), Marc Quinn (b. 1964) and Damien Hirst (b. 1965).
He’s still collecting, buying from ‘flea markets, art dealers, vintage shops and auction houses’, and displaying the works at home, in his office and at his gallery spaces in Kyoto, as well as at Salon 27 in Hong Kong — all named after his birthday on 27 January.
Chan originally used Salon 27 as a gallery for the work of emerging artists and an event space for luxury brands. In 2020, however, with his 70th birthday approaching — not to mention his 50th anniversary in the design business — he reconfigured the 10th-floor, 7,000-square-foot loft space with its yukimi shoji-inspired doors and lushly planted balcony, creating an apartment-style private museum for 400 of his works.
At the entrance hangs a portrait of Chan by his close friend, the well-known Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964); for Expanding Horizons, Chan has paired it with a Louis XVI desk. ‘I like the simplicity of it, he says of the table. ‘It has a bit of a Song dynasty [960-1279] silhouette, a subtle Asian touch.’
Chan has placed three artworks in the drawing room: a beautiful Louis XVI Chinese painted-paper folding screen and paintings by the high-profile contemporary artists Liu Ye (b. 1964) and Takashi Murakami (b. 1962).
The screen is displayed in front of one of Chan’s own artworks, a light installation inspired by Chan’s memories of the Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto, while the paintings are on a wall devoted to landscapes.
‘The lines in the Liu Ye reminds me of Mondrian and Chinese windows, and the Murakami is all smiling faces and flowers,’ explains Chan.
In the music room, meanwhile — a portrait-filled gallery where guests gather for live performances — Chan has hung colourful and theatrical paintings by the Irish artist Genieve Figgis and the Chinese-French painter Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014).
‘To me they convey the same emotion,’ says Chan. ‘One is the impression of a stage, the other is about the movement of life. All that abstract vibrant colour and overlaying texture corresponds to the theatrical atmosphere of the room and sets the mood for interaction and enjoyment.’
With its mix of items from different cultures and historical periods (there’s a Ming Dynasty cloisonné enamel scroll-form table as well as the cat), the centrepiece on Chan’s dining table is differently theatrical — an eloquent expression of Chan’s approach to curating and of living with art.
‘The table is set for a fine dining experience,’ says Chan, ‘and the juxtaposition of objects and flowers is designed to create contrasts and provoke conversations.
‘The relation between a flower arrangement and its setting is extremely important to me, and varies according to themes and audiences. I place objects in a certain way to direct the eyes and drive emotions. It’s free-flow, it comes from the heart. When I set up a table, it’s like a performance.’
On the wall behind the table is a painting by Chan’s ‘idol’, the Japanese painter Yuichi Inoue, and two other works in black and white.
‘They have more in common than their colour scheme,’ says Chan. ‘The passion in Inoue’s calligraphy contrasts with the tranquility in Zao Wou-Ki’s ink painting, while Albert Watson’s iconic photographic work is a delightful union of both.’
The Inoue is the Chinese character of a boat (舟), Chan adds. ‘There are two main brushstrokes: one at the back and a horizontal one from the left to right. At the same time the ink is spilled over the entire white space, creating the dimensions of the painting.
‘What it suggests is the movement of the boat, the ripples of the water. Life’s a journey. We have to move on.’
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‘Expanding Horizons: From European Decorative to Contemporary Arts’ runs until 10 August 2021, and can also be visited via Christie’s online viewing room. Selected highlights will be available for preview at Christie’s Hong Kong Gallery until 16 July.
To help clients source, buy and sell discreetly for specific occasions or settings, Christie’s has launched a new Private Sales initiative, ‘At Your Service’. If you would like a closer look at works available for purchase, please get in touch.