Inside the Ellen Lee Collection
Review by Ellen Lee

Most people cannot afford to buy art, and even if they could, most people wouldn’t want to, because they don’t see the value of it. Art has no practical use, and it’s not as entertaining as a movie. So why buy art?

One of my artist friends gave me this warning: “Once you buy your first piece, there’s no going back. It’s a black hole.” But buying art isn’t an insatiable itch for me the way that, for example, buying new clothes or stationery is. The warning I would give instead is this: once you enter the art world, there’s no going back. And once you start to develop friendships with artists (especially if you’re not an artist yourself), and you get to watch the execution of their ideas in real-time, you can’t help but want to take part, in a small way, with the processes of their mind. That’s what buying art is for me.

I wish we had different ways of engaging with art beyond these commodified relations. Now, art is created for display in a gallery (a different kind of “luxury showroom”), and engagement with the intellectual and emotional processes of art-making is reduced to sales. In this article, I would like to offer a personal insight into the subtleties of the thought processes behind the decision to buy an artwork. It’s not always about taste: quite often, the enjoyment of an artwork is inextricably linked to the bias of friendship. I hope this helps to demystify the vagueness of “taste” – which is often just a cover for wealth – and challenge the idea that an artwork can only be valued by the success of sales.

Anyway, they're just sitting in my room. I thought I should offer them a chance to be out in the world again.

1. Chye Pui Mun, “Communication”; RM500

This is the first artwork I ever bought. Pui Mun is a graduate of Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) Yogyakarta, and the “Communication” series is a way of speaking to her dead mother using child-like scribbles and red and yellow threads, which have a special significance in Buddhist culture. I met Pui Mun when we were both interning at a local gallery. At the time, all I knew about art was the names of some dead, European painters. And also that art seemed way more interesting than all my other job prospects out there! During the long hours of intern nothing-work, she told me about Jogja and enlightened me on the processes of silkscreen-printing, which I didn’t even know was a thing. These were my first lessons during a burgeoning interest in art making and the art world.

2. Jerome Kugan, “Citizen Pengkid” and “Pelangi Forever”; RM980 for both

I got these pieces at a discount, because my boss was the one commissioned to sell these artworks. She took off the sales commission for me, and told me to just transfer the money directly to Jerome. (Don’t try this with any other gallerist or art dealer – it won’t work and they will find you very rude!)

Both works are from Jerome’s Pondan Nation series, which got its debut during Urbanscapes 2018, as a small room of hilarious slogans playing around with Malaysian slang and slurs for the LGBTQ community. Other such slogans included: “Songsang Paradise”, “Sambal Sexual”, “Gender Goreng”, “Homo Baru”. I don’t know how he comes up with them. It’s easy for art to be serious, but rare for it to be as funny as this.

3. Hoo Fan Chon, “Bermimpi Demi Negara” silkscreen print; RM300

Fan Chon’s work is the only one in my “collection” that I bought from an actual gallery (The Back Room KL) instead of through a private sale with the artist.

The colours on the silkscreen print are crisp and neat. The work is Fan Chon’s version of the George Town coat of arms, part of his Buro Kaji Visual George Town series which attempts to re-imagine the visual language of the city. To be honest, I don’t know how much of my decision to buy it was because I liked his artistic concept, and how much of it was simply because it was the best-looking print job I’d ever seen.

4. Mark Morris & Cheryl Hoffman, “The Liquid Land”; RM450

I missed the exhibition where this work was originally shown, so over drinks one day Mark showed me pictures of his works on his phone. Even on the tiny screen, this one stood out immediately.

What I loved about this piece is how much it looks like mercury or some other melted metal, but in fact it’s just an apartment building reflected in the plain, dark water of a nearby lake where they were shooting. It reminded me of the work of 20th century American photographer Edward Weston. By laying claim to the real, moments of surreality in film and photography seem even more magical.

5. Alvin Lau, hand-bound artist zine; RM70

Alvin grew up and continues to work in Kuala Lumpur – specifically, in Sentul – and yet almost all of his photographs are empty of people. The odd person who does appear in them seems spectral, as if they’d appeared out of nowhere. He may be the only photographer in Kuala Lumpur who photographs Kuala Lumpur in a non-contextual way; i.e., the only non-street-photographer of Kuala Lumpur’s streets. His stark and overexposed photos lend his subjects an ethereal quality, which is what I like about them – he makes the city look interesting again.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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