Pearl Lam

An artistic force of nature,
a disrupter a catalyst and the creator
and curator of Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong.

Here she shares her insights
and adventures in the international art world
and her groundbreaking show with Maggi Hambling.

Questions by Elsa Wickes
Photography Willow Williams

PART 1 : BEING A GALLERIST

How have you seen the role of a gallerist evolve over the years, and what challenges do you face in adapting to changing trends and preferences in the art world?

The art world is an ever-changing space, and as a result, the role of a gallerist has evolved significantly. There is a heightened emphasis on curatorial expertise. Gallerists no longer simply act as intermediaries between artists and collectors; we play a crucial role in shaping artistic discourse, and creating meaningful exhibitions, with a discerning eye for emerging talent. These allow the galleries to establish a unique curatorial voice and contribute to the broader cultural landscape. Amid an ever-evolving industry, we immerse ourselves in research, attend art fairs, visit studios, and engage with artists to identify emerging trends. Alongside this, building and nurturing relationships with collectors, institutions, artists, and the wider art community are key. These relationships are vital for the gallery’s success, as they facilitate collaborations, exhibitions, and sales, and we must navigate these relationships effectively to foster a supportive and inclusive artistic ecosystem.

The arrival of digital technologies has been another major transformation that shifted dynamics in the art world and revolutionised the art market. Digital platforms have expanded reach, making art more accessible and enabling gallerists to connect with a global audience and engage with collectors remotely. Gallerists must now navigate online sales, digital marketing, and virtual exhibitions while maintaining the integrity and personal touch of the traditional gallery experience. The ability to anticipate and adapt to shifting preferences is crucial for sustaining a successful gallery and ensuring the representation of compelling artists, in addition to keeping up with changing trends and preferences in the art world.

Do you incorporate any interactive elements or technology to enhance the viewer’s experience and understanding of abstract art, or do you prefer a more traditional approach?

I believe that technology can complement and enrich the traditional gallery experience, providing additional layers of information, interactivity, and immersive encounters and see it not as a replacement for the traditional approach but rather as a tool to enhance and expand upon it.

Technology allows us to transcend physical limitations and offer new possibilities for engagement, accessibility, and understanding. Virtual reality experiences, for example, can transport viewers to distant exhibitions or showcase large-scale installations that may not be feasible to replicate in a traditional gallery setting. These experiences can provide a unique perspective and a deeper appreciation of the artist’s intentions.

Ultimately, our goal is to create a space where both traditional and innovative approaches coexist, allowing visitors to choose the experience that resonates most with them. Whether you prefer the traditional gallery visit or are excited to explore the immersive potential of technology-enhanced encounters, we invite viewers to join us and discover how art can be brought to life through various mediums.

How do global art events like Art Basel Hong Kong influence your gallery’s choices in terms of the artists you represent and the works you showcase?

Art Basel Hong Kong and similar fairs worldwide play a crucial role for gallerists, bringing together art professionals, collectors, and enthusiasts. They allow the discovery of emerging talents and showcase interesting works of established names and the exposure to different artistic styles, techniques, and themes broadens perspectives and keeps gallerists attuned to the latest trends in contemporary art. Art Basel Hong Kong brings many to the city, and as a champion of the contemporary East Asian art scene, it’s gratifying to see attention directed towards the talent telling impactful stories and reshaping the scene through their work.

These global fairs serve as networking platforms for building relationships with artists, curators, and collectors – engaging in conversations with artists provides deeper insights into their creative vision and practice, helping assess alignment with the gallery’s curatorial direction. Additionally, these interactions offer valuable market insights, attracting a diverse range of collectors and buyers and aiding in gauging the reception and demand for different artworks. This information is pivotal for making informed decisions about artist representation and selecting works to showcase, ensuring a balance between artistic vision and commercial viability for the gallery’s sustainability.

How do global art events like Art Basel Hong Kong influence your gallery’s choices in terms of the artists you represent and how do you perceive the role of a gallerist – is it primarily transactional, or do you see it as a means of bridging connections, whether between East and West or between artists and their audience? Particularly in a world where more and more is happening online, and without any physical connection between a potential buyer and a gallery, some may question how needed a physical space outside of a museum is. the works you showcase?

The role of a gallerist is multifaceted and extends beyond transaction; we play a crucial role in bridging connections and fostering relationships between artists, collectors, curators, and the audience. While selling artworks is a significant aspect, we also serve as advocates for artists, providing platforms for exposure, understanding their creative processes, and assisting in the development of their artistic practice and work closely with them, understanding their creative processes and helping them navigate the art market. Beyond the artist-gallerist relationship, gallerists connect artists further with their audience through curated exhibitions and art fairs, bridging these connections.

The physical gallery space continues to hold relevance in the art world, even in the digital age. While online platforms have expanded the reach and accessibility of art, the physical gallery provides a unique experience that cannot be replicated in the virtual world. Audiences can engage first hand with artworks, observing textures, scale, and presence in a tangible and immersive environment. The physical space allows for serendipitous encounters and offers a sense of community. Galleries act as cultural hubs, hosting events, workshops, and talks that engage a varied audience – this physical space becomes a gathering point. Fostering connections and meaningful dialogues between artists and their audience in person is something that can’t be replicated.

With the global stage of Art Basel, how do you perceive the impact of such events on the valuation and perception of abstract and contemporary art?

Global art fairs serve as platforms that validate and recognise abstract and contemporary art. By showcasing a wide array of artworks and artists, these events contribute to the legitimisation of these genres in the art world. The participation of renowned galleries, curators, and collectors lends credibility and prestige to the artworks on display, which can positively influence their valuation and perception.

They also provide a valuable snapshot of market trends and demand for abstract and contemporary art. The artworks exhibited and sold at these fairs reflect the interests of collectors and buyers but also introduce them to new artworks and styles. This information influences the valuation of artworks within these genres, as market demand often drives prices. The exposure to a global audience and the presence of influential collectors can result in increased demand and higher valuations for these works. Art Basel’s global reach and reputation attract collectors, curators, and art professionals from various regions. This international exposure can broaden the audience, leading to increased recognition and valuation.

PART 2: PERCEPTIONS AND PRECONCEPTIONS

In your efforts to represent broader communities, how do you engage with them including how do you encourage a diverse audience to connect with the art you showcase?

The primary focus of my gallery has always been on curating exhibitions that showcase a wide range of perspectives, styles and subject matters. We are dedicated to engaging audiences from different cultural backgrounds and sharing the stories and voices of the artists we believe in. More recently, we have been exhibiting the artworks of global artists, ranging from China, Nigeria, Slovakia, the UK, the USA, and more. Through guided tours, artist talks, and live performances, we provide opportunities for audiences to gain insights into the cultural contexts and artistic processes behind the exhibited works.

These experiences help foster a connection between the viewers and the artworks. For instance, one of our artists, Mr Doodle, attracted a large following at K11 Musea and the MTR Central station. A highlight was him creating his signature doodling artworks live in front of visitors – which allowed him to be receptive to their reactions and involve them in his creative process.

With the increasing scrutiny of political themes in art, how do you navigate the presentation of politically charged works in your gallery, and what considerations do you take into account regarding potential audience reactions or perceptions?

As a gallery, we provide contextual information that helps audiences understand the artwork’s historical, social, or cultural significance. This enables a more informed and nuanced engagement with the artworks and furthering their understanding.

In the context of questioning the message behind art and artists’ political stances, how do you promote transparency within your gallery, and do you think transparency enhances or complicates the viewer’s connection with the art?

The gallery cultivates an environment that encourages open dialogue and critical thinking. We welcome a range of perspectives and an open dialogue that allows for the exploration of different viewpoints and helps viewers develop a deeper understanding of the art and its political undertones. We provide clarity and context about the artworks on display, offering a comprehensive overview of the artistic process, inspirations, and conceptual framework. Facilitating these conversations enhances the overall viewer experience and empowers viewers to delve deeper into the artworks, gaining a more profound understanding of the artist’s intentions whilst making their connection with artworks more meaningful and authentic.

Have you noticed any recent shifts in the preferences of abstract art collectors? What emerging trends or styles within abstract art are gaining traction, and how do you stay attuned to these changes?

Collectors are drawn to the simplicity, precision, and contemplative qualities of these artworks. I’ve also noticed that expressive and gestural abstract art, characterised by bold brushstrokes, energetic marks, and emotional intensity, continues to resonate with collectors. These artworks capture the visceral and spontaneous aspects of an artist’s process, evoking a sense of dynamism and raw emotion.

When it comes to staying attuned to ever-changing trends, watching emerging artists and trends at art fairs and biennials is always a great tool, as well as through conversations with artists and regular studio visits. Art fairs, such as Art Basel, and international biennials offer an opportunity for collectors to see a concentrated selection of contemporary art and witness emerging trends first-hand.

Beyond the gallery space, do you undertake any educational initiatives or collaborations to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of abstract art within your community?

I have harboured a deep passion for amplifying the voices and communities that are often overlooked and underrepresented. This passion led me to establish the China Art Foundation in 2008, with the sole purpose of showcasing the rich history, culture, and traditions of China to a global audience. I wanted to ensure that the growing global interest in contemporary Chinese art would have a sustainable future and foster a mutual understanding between the West and China, facilitating a dialogue that encompassed both historical and contemporary art and culture.

2020 was the first solo exhibition in Russia by the renowned contemporary Chinese artist, Zhang Huan at the State Hermitage, In the Ashes of History. The exhibition took place within the grand Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace. The China Art Foundation has also provided support for two major MIT publications, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art by Gao Minglu, and Contemporary Art In Asia, edited by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio.

In 2011, the China Art Foundation also organised an event at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – an artists’ talk between Huang Yong Ping and Frank Stella. The China Art Foundation has always strived to bridge cultural gaps and enhance appreciation for Chinese art and heritage.

You have previously spoken about the influence of Western domination in the art world, and in particular, how do you believe events such as Art Basel’s expansion to Hong Kong impact the global discourse on artistic expression and cultural diversity within the abstract art movement?

Historically, the art world has been dominated by Western-centric perspectives, often overlooking the diverse artistic practices and cultural voices from non-Western regions. Expansions like this have a significant impact on promoting a more inclusive art world discourse, creating a platform that allows artists who may have been overlooked and underrepresented – to challenge a persistent Western-centric narrative. Increasing the visibility of artists from various cultural backgrounds facilitates a more inclusive dialogue.

Art Basel is often associated with established art paradigms. How do you navigate the inclusion of abstract pieces, that challenge or break away from the conventional canon?

Navigating the inclusion of abstract pieces that challenge or break away from the conventional canon within the context of art fairs like Art Basel requires a careful curatorial approach. Galleries strive to strike a balance between representing established art paradigms and embracing innovative, boundary-pushing abstract works. This ensures that even within the context of an established art fair, there is space for artworks that challenge the conventional canon and allow for the exploration of new ideas, aesthetics, and cultural perspectives.

Art Basel serves as a global platform. How do you think the inclusion of artists like Hambling, who defy traditional norms in abstract art, influences the broader art scene and challenges existing hierarchies?

Artists like Maggi Hambling bring fresh perspectives and unconventional approaches to abstract art. Her presence at global fairs has a significant influence on the broader art scene and challenges existing hierarchies. Hambling’s artworks disrupt and defy the traditional norms and expand the boundaries of the medium; their inclusion questions the notion of what is considered ‘valid’ within the art world. It encourages a revaluation of artistic hierarchies and opens up new possibilities whilst fostering a more dynamic art scene, where artists challenging conventions can have their voices heard and contribute to the ongoing evolution of abstract art. It also promotes a broader understanding of perspectives and advocates for more inclusivity.

In your podcast you mentioned how you view art as being a form of “soft power” and within that, there could be an east vs west dynamic how does being based in a multicultural city with such a unique and complicated history like Hong Kong impact that?

Being based in a multicultural city like Hong Kong impacts the understanding of art as a form of soft power and the dynamics of the East vs. West discourse. Hong Kong serves as a cultural crossroads, influenced by both Eastern and Western traditions, and it has a long history of cultural exchange. Hong Kong’s multicultural environment allows for exploration and blending of influences, bridging this gap.

The unique, complicated history of Hong Kong plays a role in shaping the understanding of these dynamics within the art world. Hong Kong’s history as a former British colony and its subsequent return to Chinese sovereignty has created a complex cultural context that reflects both Eastern and Western influences. It prompts discussions on identity, cultural heritage, and the impact of colonial legacies, further enriching the discourse on East vs. West dynamics within the art world. The city’s vibrant art scene attracts many, facilitating the exchange of ideas and enabling Hong Kong to position itself as a platform for artistic dialogue and a site of cultural significance, enhancing its soft power through the promotion of its ranging perspectives.

How does the launch of Hong Kong Art Basel impact the “soft power” of art that you’ve previously spoken about?

The launch of Art Basel Hong Kong has had a significant impact on the ‘soft power’ of art. ‘Soft power’ refers to a city’s ability to influence others through non-coercive means, such as culture, ideas, and values. Art Basel Hong Kong is one of the most renowned international art fairs and has elevated the status of Hong Kong as a global art hub, strengthening its soft power on the international stage. This not only enhanced the city’s reputation as a cultural destination but has also facilitated cross-cultural exchange as Hong Kong’s unique identity, values, and perspectives are projected. By attracting renowned artists, collectors, and art enthusiasts from around the world, the fair continues to showcase the vibrancy and diversity of Hong Kong’s art scene, encouraging a deeper understanding and appreciation of its culture beyond political and economic dimensions.  

In the realm of abstract art, where interpretation is often subjective, how do you guide collectors and patrons in understanding the value of contemporary abstract pieces, both in terms of artistic merit and investment potential?

I believe a multifaceted approach is the best way – it’s important for them to personally engage with the artwork and formulate their interpretations. Offering historical and contextual information about the artworks, the artists and insights into their creative process further enrich an understanding of this value.

Factors such as the artist’s reputation, exhibition history, critical acclaim, and market demand can also impact investment potential. In essence, comprehending the value of contemporary abstract pieces necessitates a delicate balance of subjective interpretation, well-informed research, and a keen understanding of the dynamics within the art market.

Art and monetary value can be complex companions. How, as a gallerist, do you engage with the broader conversation surrounding the commodification of art?

Gallerists can showcase important voices and narratives, promoting a wide range of mediums and perspectives. By championing emerging artists alongside established ones, gallerists can contribute to the discovery and development of new talent, while also offering collectors and patrons a diverse selection of artworks from artists at different stages of their careers.

Also, by recognising the dual nature of art – its intrinsic value in marketability and cultural significance and establishing fair and sustainable pricing that considers the artist’s career stage, market demand and nature of the work. By embracing this duality, gallerists foster an environment that appreciates the merit of the works they represent while acknowledging the importance of sustaining a viable art market.

PART 3: MAGGI HAMBLING

In curating a collection featuring Maggi Hambling’s work, how do you see her contributions disrupting traditional artistic canons, particularly within the realm of contemporary and also abstract art?

Our exhibition curator, David Chan utilises his expertise and curatorial vision to meticulously choose Hambling’s artworks for the gallery exhibition. Hambling holds a distinct position as an artist who has consistently embraced a rebellious spirit throughout her career, making her one of the most renowned artists in the British art scene. This spirit is evident in her tributes to influential intellectual figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, a prominent advocate for women’s rights in the 18th century, as well as her memorial sculptures honouring individuals like the 19th-century author Oscar Wilde and the 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten.

Maggi Hambling is not an abstract artist but some of her subjects are abstract. Grounded in her own life experiences, Hambling’s work remains a reflection of and draws inspiration from people, places, and her identity as a pioneering artist with a queer perspective. She perceives painting as an intimate and physical encounter, believing that regardless of the time invested in a painting, it should culminate in a single moment, akin to the profound physicality of love.

 Can you elaborate on your curatorial thoughts when exhibiting Maggi Hambling’s work? Are there specific themes or narratives you wish to highlight or through the arrangement of her pieces in your space?

Hambling has maintained a lasting fascination with the concept of nighttime, following her initial exploration of painting the night sky from her bedroom window at the age of fourteen. This was something we wanted to platform in her exhibition, as she once again delved into the realm of the night as her subject sixty years later. The night exists in a state that is both tangible and mythical, where the boundaries between dreams and reality intertwine.

The show will feature two never-before-seen series of paintings. One series, created in 2023, includes works titled Sexy, Sexy Dream, and About to Kiss. These paintings explore the allure and intimacy witnessed by the silent night and shifting clouds.

The other series comprises Hambling’s Night Sky and Night Cloud paintings from 2021, which present a universal theme connecting the East and West, as well as the North and South. These paintings depict shimmering clouds that appear, beautiful and transient, serving as omens of peace and serenity above our tumultuous world.

Hambling attributes a poem by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, titled The Night, as being very resonant with all the series of work that will be presented.

Beyond the visual charisma, how do you believe Maggi Hambling’s works / connect with broader cultural conversations or movements, and how does your gallery aim to facilitate those discussions?

Hambling’s work delves into significant issues such as representation, gender, and sexuality – a resonant connection for many, especially among younger generations. Continually pushing boundaries, she fearlessly embraces and explores her queer perspective throughout her influential career.

Maggi’s exhibition, The Night, at our Hong Kong gallery, signifies her first solo showcase in Asia since her notable museum retrospectives in Beijing and Guangzhou in 2019. The exhibition provides visitors with an opportunity to engage with recent artworks created by Maggi during a pivotal and challenging period in her life.

The art historical canon has been the subject of fierce debate due to its Western perspective and exclusionary nature. How do you communicate the significance of Maggi Hambling’s art in this context, both to seasoned art enthusiasts and those new to unconventional artistic expressions

By acknowledging the limitations and biases of this, we can emphasise Hambling’s contributions as a way of challenging and expanding on this existing narrative. Her work disrupts traditional conventions and offer a fresh perspective, with their bold brushwork, expressive gestures, and exploration of emotion. This will contextualise Hambling’s work within a broader historical framework, enhance understanding and appreciation for Hambling’s art and invite a varied audience into this discourse. In doing so, we actively contribute to the ongoing dialogue on the importance of inclusivity and a more comprehensive interpretation of art history.

During an episode of your podcast, you mentioned the deep-rooted connection between Chinese abstract art and calligraphy. How does that manifest in contemporary pieces, and light of this, how does Maggi Hambling’s unique choice of materials like indigo and mascara contribute to the cross-cultural dialogue within this world ?

Much like calligraphy captures the soul of words, Chinese abstract art seeks to convey the essence of an artist’s emotions and experiences.
 
Her artworks in the exhibition resonate with both Chinese and Japanese paintings, showcasing a technique reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy. This connection traces back to her days as an art student, regularly immersing herself in Chinese ink drawings at The British Museum. Starting each day with ink drawing has become a crucial part of her daily creative ritual. The influence of these practices is most evident in a new, large triptych on display at her solo exhibition, and also in a new painting from her celebrated Wall of Water series, which will be showcased at our booth at Art Basel Hong Kong.
At Beauty Papers we believe Hambling has redefined the territories and rituals of beauty and sensuality, as a woman and gallerist how do you view her impact on these worlds?

To me, Hambling’s art redefines conventional notions of beauty by embracing rawness and individuality. She captures the essence of her subjects, celebrating their inner beauty and vulnerability. Hambling’s work encourages viewers to embrace their unique beauty and challenges societal standards that limit our understanding of what is considered beautiful. I believe in creating spaces that celebrate diverse expressions, and I am certainly inspired by her ability to stimulate self-acceptance and redefine these concepts. Her influence encourages us to celebrate the complexity and diversity of the human experience, painting a more empowering vision of beauty and sensuality in both the art world and society at large.

 

Her impact also extends beyond the art world, inspiring many to embrace their authentic selves and question societal expectations. Through the exhibition of her work, we can shed visibility on a more inclusive understanding of beauty and s

As a self-proclaimed disruptor, how important do you think it is for contemporary art to redefine territories and be defiant?

I believe it is vital. It provides artists with a space to explore unconventional materials, techniques, and concepts, pushing the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable or traditional.

 

Some of her work subjects are abstracted, deeply rooted in a rebellious spirit, and boast a rich history of breaking free from representational constraints, offering a more open and subjective interpretation of the world.

 

This defiance catalyses societal change, prompting us to address pressing social and cultural issues, amplify the voices of marginalised communities, and disrupt the ‘norm’. Art’s unique ability to evoke emotions and challenge perceptions makes it a potent tool. Its disruptive nature invites us to question, reflect, and engage with the world in new and transformative ways.

These unique works of art are on show at Pearl Lam Galleries Hong Kong
from 27th March until 16th May during Art Basel Hong Kong.

For enquiries please visit Pearl Lam Galleries

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