For the past sixteen years, Clinton Ng has been recognized as one of Australia’s leading gastroenterologists. He is usually found consulting in one of Sydney’s several hospitals. So it is somehow hard to imagine him sweeping dust off an Eko Nugroho sculpture in his off-duty hours at home, which was the scene I came across when I met him in late November of last year.
The work by Indonesian artist Nugroho is Kepala&Tubuhku Telah Berbunga Untukmu (2009), which Ng purchased in 2013 from Arario Gallery in Seoul; his translation is “I Sprout Flowers for You.” It is a life-size sculpture of a man on all fours leaning over a skull, which is in turn connected to tubes and a leafy diadem sprouting from the man’s head. “I think he is perhaps smoking a bong,” Ng said with a mischievous touch of humor. This Nugroho piece is just one in Ng’s 400-piece collection of contemporary art, which features more than 150 artists. He keeps these works partly in his modest-sized Sydney apartment and the rest is stored in a secure building he owns in the city.
Ng was born in Malaysia and is of Malaysian-Chinese descent. He moved to Australia at age 16 to pursue medicine, eventually receiving his PhD at the University of Sydney in 2001, studying gastrointestinal motility, in particular irritable bowel syndrome. It was during his doctoral study that Ng’s personal journey as an art collector began. “I was bored and wasn’t enjoying the process,” he said of his studies. “So I started looking at art online and visiting galleries. It kept me sane.” His early purchases were works by Australian artists, such as Shaun Gladwell, Ricky Swallow and sculptor James Angus. But as confidence in his own judgment grew, his focus shifted to international art. Now his art collection consists of media ranging from painting to photography, and 40 percent of the artists are based in the United States and Europe.
At his apartment, Ng insisted on a tour, beginning with a figurative oil painting by Adrian Ghenie from his “Pie Fight” series, Pie Fight Interior 9 (2012), hung by the front door. The hang throughout the apartment was salon-like and clustered, featuring work by many familiar names: Olafur Eliasson, Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt, Elmgreen & Dragset, Ahmed Alsoudani, Huma Bhabha, Jonas Wood. A dazzling work by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz dominated the living room: Pictures from Magazines 2 (2012), an audacious pastiche of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882),made from thousands of pictures torn from magazines.
In the master bedroom were two key photo works—the erotically charged Wolfgang Tillmans photograph Dan (2008) and Alex Prager’s Crowd #2 (Emma) (2012), a large, carefully contrived image of a woman lost within a mass of people, previously loaned to the National Gallery of Victoria for Prager’s Australia debut in 2014. “[Prager] is in demand and not easy to acquire after being acquired by MoMA New York,” Ng said of the piece, which he bought in 2013 after researching her career and work in great detail. “And Tillmans has a show at Tate Modern this year, so I think his prominence will steadily increase. I like the surreal quality of the work and also the classical references to Greek sculpture. This will be loaned to the Art Gallery of South Australia in March for inclusion in a Rodin show,” he told me.
Also in the bedroom was a small, sculptural piece by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo comprised of stainless-steel crates and concrete balls, crafted from sweepings from the artist’s studio floor. The work, which acknowledges that Murillo’s parents were factory workers, was juxtaposed against a delicate signature kimono piece by Chiharu Shiota. “Murillo is the bad boy of the art world right now,” Ng said, referencing the infamous incident last year when the artist flushed his UK passport down an airplane toilet midflight to Sydney, as an act of protest against the privileges of Western culture. Murillo was due to have a work installed at the 2016 Biennale of Sydney but was instead detained on arrival and deported to Singapore. The work Meandering – Black Wall (Unfinished) (2016), which was to feature lengths of black canvas sandwiched between a pile of autopsy tables, was naturally a no-show. This left Ng, who had sponsored the work, bitterly disappointed.
Ng’s collecting philosophy may seem intuitive but it is underscored by diligent and extensive research. He collects “hot” artists, or ones that he knows he will be able to gift or loan to Australian museums later. Ng is on the board of trustees at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Foundation; he makes a point to circulate his collection to the public and through loans to local and overseas galleries. So far, around 100 works from his collection have been donated or loaned to institutions.
Ng is also known to buy major pieces from jpegs that he sees online or over the phone. For example, when the David Kordansky gallery in Los Angeles called him with news of a Tauba Auerbach sculpture, he snapped up the piece without hesitation. The work, a cumbersomely sized but intricately designed sculpture, The New Ambidextrous Universe V (2014), now lives in his storage unit. “Tauba is a very in-demand artist who has been on my radar for quite a while now. When the gallery offered me the sculpture, I jumped at it,” he said.
Work that proves too large for his apartment or that he feels is being wasted in storage will eventually become generous gifts to institutions, such as a massive Thomas Hirschhorn sculpture covered head to toe in glinting copper nails, now at AGNSW. However, some pieces find their place in the cramped apartment regardless of size, such as a large Xu Zhen collage on canvas, Sleeping Life Away (2011). The work was too tall when stood upright, and was thus laid on its side, as delivered. “It is a beautiful piece,” Ng said with a melancholic sigh, as we stood in the narrow corridor where the work sat, still ensconced in bubble wrap. “When you reach the point when you are not concerned about how you are going to accommodate the work, I think you know you are addicted.” Also swaddled protectively in bubble wrap was a large work by African-American artist Rashid Johnson, Color Men (2016), which will be loaned to the AGNSW for a figurative group show this year. Ng delicately peeled back a corner of the wrap and peered in: the two-dimensional work is made of dozens of small colored tiles painted with black wax, forming abstracted Basquiat-like heads.
Recent health issues have caused Ng to reassess his life and work priorities, and he casually discussed a more concrete future in the arts with me. “I have specialized in gastroenterology for over 15 years and I’m not certain that this is my real passion,” he said. “In the future I will perhaps start an art advisory as I would love to help others collect. I have plans to develop my art storage space into a private gallery. I will have works on view and perhaps have certain open days,” he said. For Ng, sharing art is all part of a collector’s responsibility: “I think works should be seen.”
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