HO RUI AN, Screen Green, 2015, performance lecture and green screen installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Para Site, Hong Kong.

Two of a Kind

John Chia and Cheryl Loh

Also available in:  Chinese

Art collectors from Singapore are a rare breed. Rarer yet are those who are young, articulate and collect thought-driven contemporary art. Of this ilk are John Chia and Cheryl Loh, a Singaporean couple in their early forties known only to the art scene’s inner circuit as they are infrequently seen at gallery openings. On the occasions when they do appear, they are happy to not stand out; Chia usually sports a humble outfit, wearing Bata shoes and a Swatch watch, and Loh exudes a girl-next-door glow. Over a 20-year process, the pair have skillfully detached socializing from collecting.

This introversion seems to have worked in their favor. Their collection today comprises around 300 contemporary works encompassing installation, video, performance and conceptual art from all over Asia. The artists behind these works include Tang Da Wu, Ho Rui An, Jeremy Sharma, Chun Kai Feng, Cheo Chai Hiang, Suzann Victor, Green Zeng, FX Harsono, Dow Wasiksiri, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Qiu Zhijie and teamLab. Acquired over the last six years or so, the majority of these works, together with their collections of vintage maps of Southeast Asia and Japanese Ukiyo-e prints from the Edo, Meiji and postwar Shinhanga periods, are stored in a unit above a shophouse built in 1939 on Joo Chiat Road—a colorful heritage town in the eastern area of Singapore. Upon entering the shophouse, one sees Angki Purbandono’s lightbox print, Kitchen Knife (2013), and Jason Lim’s performance photo, Duet with Light (2012), that line the dark, narrow flight of steps leading up to the living area, which is filled wall-to-wall with canvases, drawings, ceramics, maps and installations. Here, Heman Chong’s aluminum placard This Pavilion is Strictly for Community Bonding Activities Only (2015), a replica of the signage found in communal areas in Singapore’s public housing estates, asserts itself among its neighbors, including an ink painting by Chua Ek Kay completed two years before his death in 2008. Other notable works were Zai Kuning’s creature-like, hand-knotted rattan installation, a photo collage of archival images from Yee I-Lann’s “Picturing Power” series (2013) and a smattering of ceramic works by Iskandar Jalil and Jason Lim. 

Although an oncologist and a psychiatrist, respectively, Chia and Loh are neither diagnostic nor prescriptive in their decisions when collecting. Through art, they inhabit a universe opposite to their professional lives, and are enthused by work that stirs multiple questions and discussions with no answers, and art that perpetuate the “uncomfortable state of having no internal resolution.” Singaporean conceptual artist Cheo Chai Hiang calls the duo “thinking art collectors.” Once my conversation with them began, it was easy to understand why. Discussions on art inadvertently drifted into topics such as cave paintings at Altamira, Confucianism, Marx’s social theory and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, before finding its way back to Lee Wen’s 2008 revisions of historically important performance works by Yves Klein. Chia also enjoys spirited debates around the rather cryptic question, “Is a lecture on art the same as art?” inspired by Ho Rui An’s video installation Screen Green (2015), in which changes in society and the individual over successive generations are seen through the color green in Singapore’s landscape.

The lot of contemporary art and the knowledge that comes with it marks a huge evolution for the couple, who started their journey with realistically rendered paintings of the Singapore River that they bought in the touristy area of Clarke Quay in 1998. A while later, long conversations with gallerists eventually led to the acquisition of works by ink painters such as Chua Ek Kay and Hong Ling. However, it was only during their stints in Houston and London in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when they spent much of their time visiting collections and museums, that the duo honed their interest in cutting-edge, contemporary art and permanently changed the course of their collecting.

Chia and Loh are quick to admit they had not planned to build a collection of works predominantly from Singapore and Southeast Asia. The collection naturally veered that way as they began to engage with works that resonated with their own realities and pushed the boundary on their thinking about art. When asked to unravel some of these realities in Singapore, Chia explained that social regulation in the country is probably inevitable, given that there are “five million people on this small little rock.” For example, the crushing density means that people need to drive in the same direction and navigate within very narrow margins to avoid bumping into someone else. The tremendous fear that the country has no strategic advantage and is hence vulnerable has also been drilled into its citizens, so much so that most people are willing to make a trade-off for freedom just to live in the city. 

This affects the art, Loh said. “No matter what one sees from the outside, artists from Singapore work under certain censorship and financial constraints, which come from living in a very expensive country and having a government that is very willing to fund you, but with conditions—all funding has conditions. You need government funding, you need curators, you need gallerists and the system to back you so that it is a viable career.” Chia added: “As an artist, how do you do this? Are you not complicit? There are real social trade-offs to be made.” 

The couple added that this is a reality not just for artists, but for all Singaporeans. However, in their view, looking to systems of human rights and democracy in Western society does not necessarily engender progressive art either. “A Singaporean straddles the economic and social ideals of Western democracy, and Singapore’s more socially driven system. If an artist can articulate some of these contradictions, tensions and dilemmas, sometimes it will come out nicely,” Loh continued. 

The couple steered clear of answering my question of who their favorite artists are, but it became evident as the conversation continued that they enjoy work that embraces this “Singaporean-ness in art.” They follow artists who have considered issues of censorship, freedom and the state in thorough yet nuanced ways. This includes Lee Wen, Cheo Chai Hiang, Tang Da Wu, Jason Lim and Chua Ek Kay. “These artists have not let the limitations of the cultural landscape hold back their imagination. Their artistic eyes see beyond the difficulties. They can be angry and not be controlled by anger; they still celebrate human experiences.” To the collectors, this is a sign of maturity and one reason for these artists’ longevity.  

In the corner of the couple’s living room sat a tiny projector. Chia showed me Cheo Chai Hiang’s iconic conceptual work 5’ x 5’ Singapore River (1972)—a projection of a blank screen with half of the image on the wall and the other half on the floor. “This is the Singapore River,” he announced enthusiastically. “We like it because it is radical and challenges all notions of figuration, abstraction and conceptual art. And, it is older than us!” For a couple whose collecting roots go back to Singapore’s most pictured river, they have come full circle—this time, rich with conceptual possessions, and with fewer answers and more questions.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 85 a year or USD 160 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the November/December 2017 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 15. 

Singapore-based art collectors John Chia and Cheryl Loh took Patricia Chen on a walk-through of their art cove, where a portion of their 300-plus collection is kept. The couple spoke about why they collect works by artists who express a “Singapore-ness” in their creations. Check out the video produced by Chen during the interview she conducted for ArtAsiaPacific.