Indonesian collector Wiyu Wahono hopes that artists will free themselves from the “straitjacket” of medium specificity. He shares his views on the importance of knowing about art history and learning the artist’s context, which is essential if a collector is to acquire artwork that reflects the spirit of the times.
Interview : Selina Ting
Images : Courtesy of Wiyu Wahono
Part 1: The beginnings and modernism
The original story of Indonesian collector Wiyu Wahono is tied to a seminal trip he took to Venice as a young twenty-something. Following the instructions of his tour guide, he visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where he saw his first Jackson Pollock.
“It was one of the works from his early period, which was composed of monochrome and black paintings. I was confused and I didn’t like it. I compared it to the Indonesian art that I was used to, which was very colourful. At that time I asked myself, why do these paintings deserve to be in a prestigious, must-go museum?”
However, as often happens in the most romantic love stories, something happened after that rejection which changed the future collector’s mind. “I was a student, maybe 22 or 23 at that time. I saw a painting by László Moholy-Nagy, a composition. It was love at first sight. It blew me away. I bought the poster and hung it up in my small apartment.”
From there, he started going to exhibitions and learned to appreciate art. When Wiyu finished his studies in Germany, he started working as a state employee in a university. One day, during a holiday to Bali, he bought his first painting.
“It was around the end of the 80s. I didn’t consider myself to be a collector back then. I bought some paintings to decorate my apartment, but I didn’t formally collect. Then, later on in 1997, I came back to Indonesia and started my own business. It was running well and I had more money, so I thought I could finally start collecting.”
What was that first piece that you bought in Bali?
The first piece was by Teguh Ostenrik, an artist who studied art in Berlin. I knew him by name and his works had been collected by German museums. When he moved back to Indonesia, nobody understood him, as usual. I looked for him and bought my first piece around ’99 or 2000. Today, I regularly buy his artwork. He is a very intellectual artist.
Is there a particular kind of artwork you focus on?
If you come to see my collection, you will see I’m against medium specificity because I want to show the freedom that comes from using different media to make artwork.
In the era of modernism, art has to be medium specific. Medium specific means that if an artist decides to do a two-dimensional artwork, it has to be on canvas, or if you choose to make a three-dimensional artwork, it has to be a sculpture. You don’t have a chance to do other things. That’s why if you open a Western art history book, it’s only about paintings and sculptures. As I see it, artists were put into straitjackets. They couldn’t move. In the second half of the 50s, Robert Rauschenberg started making the so-called combine – a canvas with objects on top. That was against medium specificity. Claes Oldenburg produced The Store. It was three-dimensional artwork, not a sculpture.
If an artist comes to me saying he has a very nice painting, the first question I will ask is: “Why painting? Are you still sleeping? Don’t you know that the straitjacket doesn’t exist anymore?” And then, if he answers, “Oh, yeah, but my context, the idea, the message I want to convey can only be done in a painting,” then that is okay. If you give me a plausible explanation, then I will collect.
Indeed, the scene in Southeast Asia is still predominantly painting, even though there are artists doing more experimental work.
Yes, still, and so the market is full of paintings. I think this is because of a misunderstanding. Most of the collectors don’t read. If you ask people, “Why do you collect?” they say, “Because I like it.” The topic of medium specificity is not discussed publicly, only in good books.
What do you think of digital art and so-called post-internet art these days?
It is interesting to me. I was collecting a lot of video art when nobody else was doing this in Indonesia, but I don’t want to be a video collector only. I think that when you see a painting in a museum or art space, you have full control of how long you stay and see the artwork. The problem with video art is you stand there and feel like you have to see the whole thing. However, if the video is 20 minutes, you cannot stay that long. After a while, you feel like you need to go. Otherwise, you won’t have the chance to see the other things in the museum. When you move on, you feel like you don’t have any control anymore. You get frustrated because you feel you don’t understand it yet. It’s crazy.
Another interest of yours is the boundary between fine art and applied art. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Traditionally, universities had fine art departments to distinguish themselves from mass culture. You can still call both fashion design and car design art, but you can’t call them fine art because they have a function, whereas fine art has none.
This boundary dissolved in post-modernism. When Andy Warhol exhibited his ‘Brillo Box’ it was a thing that every American had at home. He was so impressed by it that he produced an artwork, according to the consumer society of that time. Arthur Danto, the most influential philosopher back then, came and asked, “Why is this Brillo box art, and the Brillo box in the 7/11 supermarket is not? Visually, they are exactly the same.” You could argue that the first was signed and produced by Andy Warhol, an artist, while the latter was produced by factory workers. However, in reply to that objection, Andy Warhol remarked that he didn’t make the Brillo boxes himself. Warhol was very smart.
Arthur Danto concluded that visually you cannot see any difference between art and non-art. He also said there are no boundaries and definitions in postmodern art. To him, what made an object become art was not visible, so you could not say something was art because it had a nice colour. So, because there is no definition, the boundary between fine art and applied art has ceased to exist nowadays. Craft can be art.
Andy Warhol’s approach to a mass-produced object is different from Marcel Duchamp’s. Duchamp’s urinal was not made by the artist. Therefore, it was the idea, as well as who chose the artwork, that represented the art. In other words, this urinal shifted to become conceptual art, in which the idea is the artwork. We know that America became industrial after the Second World War and very successful because the whole world bought from them, so all their rich guys started to collect and buy everything. The artists didn’t like the fact that only the rich could appreciate art and buy it, so they tried to find a solution. What they came up with was to make art immaterial. To make it a concept, so it was no longer an object.
Do your reflections on art history influence your way of collecting?
Yes, they shape it. I’m very systematic, not only in the way that I think, but also in the way I collect. I can tell you why I see every artwork in my collection as being contemporary, and also from which point of view. For example, I have a painting of Osama Bin Laden that is handcrafted with markers. This is contemporary art in the spirit of the times.
Another thing that shapes my collection is the fact that my parents came from China, Guangdong. I was born in Indonesia as one of the so-called TCK, third culture kids, who were multicultural and open-minded. Then, I moved to Germany and was confronted with a new culture again, which I think brought about another layer of understanding about identity into my subconsciousness. It ended up influencing my way of looking at globalisation and the importance of context in understanding an artwork.
Can you go a little deeper into why context is important in the understanding of contemporary art?
We know from art history that conceptual art couldn’t survive because it was so difficult to understand. People started talking philosophically about art. You had to be overly intellectual to understand conceptual art until today. Now, the concept is not an issue anymore in postmodernism and contemporary art. We are not talking about the idea of an artwork, but the message of the artwork. In order to understand it, you need to look at the context.
Arthur Danto wrote about a very interesting fictive exhibition, the so-called ‘Red Square’ exhibition, where all the artists submitted a red square as an artwork. It was exactly the same red square. The first artist, who was from Russia, said, “Oh, this is the Red Square in Moscow. There is the Kremlin, which dictated everything that happened in the Eastern Bloc. This is my Red Square”. Another red square was by an Israeli artist, who said: “This red square is a metaphor for the Red Sea where Moses travelled and where the sea split.” So the red square for him was a metaphor for the biblical story. The other one was French and he said, “Oh, this red square is a homage to Henri Matisse, who made the red room painting.” So, formally, all the red squares aren’t the art per se. What makes the same object become a different artwork visually is the context. I feel this is the key to reading contemporary art nowadays.
Also checkout Part II of Wiyu Wahono’s interview
Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)
Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2013, and Beijing in 2013 – 2015, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine and Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.
Instagram : @selinating