Interview: Pearl Lam

Stylishly individual China art pioneer Pearl Lam picks up where she left off in the mid-2000s. Her new gallery in Pedder Building, Central promises to be at the forefront of cutting-edge art and design

May 15 marked a homecoming for art and style visionary Pearl Lam. The energetic, exuberant and endearingly eccentric proponent of eclectic contemporary art and design opens a gallery in PedderBuilding on the eve of Art HK 2012. She vows to “rock the art scene” with a dynamic program that showcases international, Asian and local artists.

The timing is by design: Lam, whose first business venture three decades ago was an eponymous fashion boutique, held her inaugural pop-up contemporary art show in Hong Kong in 1993, but in the early 2000s frustrated by the lack of a receptive audience here she redirected her efforts to Shanghai. She opened three gallery spaces there with a fourth dedicated to design now in the works. She closed her Hong Kong office-cum-gallery (then called Contrasts) in 2008 having staged no exhibitions there for three years.

The success of the annual Hong Kong international art fair has prompted her return. “I wouldn’t say that Hong Kong has become a world art capital but it’s definitely a developing art market now,” says Lam. “Thanks to Art HK all my international collectors come to town in May and it’s important that we have a presence here again.”

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Tsang Kin-wah, Untitled - Hong Kong (red on white), 122cm by 122cm, silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 2007

“Many people still think of art as an investment, a way to make money. But that’s a good thing – they may start out that way but they will soon become passionate and addicted.”

Attracted by the “high ceilings”, she secured a 340-square-meter space on the sixth floor of PedderBuilding, Central last year but timed her opening exhibition to coincide with the fifth edition of Art HK. Our face-to-face has been sandwiched into her always jam-packed schedule. It is eight years since I traveled to Shanghai for one of her events and time has not mellowed her philosophy or drive. Pushing boundaries and promoting cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary art and design has long been her goal. “Yes, I’m still running around like a chicken with no head,” acknowledges the irrepressible Lam, who presently sports a loud purple bob along with her trademark verve.

Showing the abstract

Pearl Lam Galleries’ debut exhibition showcases eight leading Chinese abstract artists of different generations: Li Xiaojing, Qin Yufen, Qiu Zhenshong, Zhu Jinshi, Yan Binghui, Su Xiaobai, Zhang Jianjun and Li Huasheng. It is curated by Chinese contemporary art scholar Gao Minglu. The catalogue includes a dialogue with Paul Moorhouse of the National Portrait Gallery in London on the differences between Chinese and Western abstract art.

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Zhu Jinshi, White Calligraphy, 1984, oil on canvas, 126cm by 84cm

Lam joins the likes of Gagosian, Ben Brown, Simon Lee and Hong Kong’s own Hanart TZ in the historic Pedder Street building, which has become a mini art hub over the past year. “I wanted to be in central Central,” she says simply of the locale. A bigger space would have been preferable; to compensate Lam will open a separate viewing room where VIPs can view the talents she represents – 14 Chinese artists including He Xiangyu, and Andre Dubreuil, Patrice Butler and Hong Kong’s Peter Ting among 13 international designers.

“Art has no passport,” she remarks when asked if she is focusing on Chinese talent. Her July show is a solo matter by local artist Tsang Kin-wah – “We Hong Kong people should be proud of our own artists” – and after that the Asian-international split promises to be 50-50.

 

Content not architecture

Like everyone involved in the local arts scene, Lam stresses that the government must be more supportive if Hong Kong is to acquire art capital status rivalling that of London or New York. The back and forth over financing for the West Kowloon Cultural District leaves her cold. “Money should be spent on content before buildings,” she declares. “Worrying about the architecture is encouraging people to be superficial. It shows a total misunderstanding of the art world and art. They are building a shell, and we don’t want a shell, we want culture. Hong Kong will only become a cultural center if we enlist the help of advisors who understand art.”

Lam urges the government to fund a local museum comparable to the Pompidou or Tate with an important, quality permanent collection that can inspire a new generation of local artists.

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Qiu Zhenzhong, Work 0161, 2001, ink on Xuan paper, 68cm by 68cm

“Worrying about the architecture is encouraging people to be superficial. It shows a total misunderstanding of the art world and art. They are building a shell, and we don’t want a shell, we want culture."

Fostering collectors

A perennial globetrotter and go-getter, Lam currently flits between Hong Kong, China, London and Singapore, where she will open a gallery in the Gilman Barracks next year. The pioneer focused on Shanghai in the early years of its rise as an important contemporary art center. “I believed there was a need to cultivate Chinese collectors,” she explains. “In Hong Kong at that time there was no interest even in a simple design show. But Art HK has transformed all that. We are playing catch-up here now, with art all of a sudden becoming very fashionable."

“Friends who never before showed any interest in art are now wanting to go to China to buy art; it’s quite shocking,” she smiles, before adding: “Of course many of these people still think of art as an investment, a way to make money. But still that’s a good thing – they may start out that way but they will soon become passionate and addicted.”

Very much like Lam herself. Would she call herself a collector? “Collector is such a big word,” she cautions. “I’m a shopaholic, that’s all.” She does not dispute that she was ahead of her time, though. “As always,” she answers, with a chuckle.

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Su Xiaobai, Capital T, 2005, oil, lacquer on linen and wooden plate, 202cm by 89cm

‘Abstract’ in China: 1983-2012,
Pearl Lam Galleries, 6/F, PedderBuilding,

12 Pedder Street
, Central. May 15 - July 15.
See www.pearllam.com.

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