The software company’s new chief business officer has plans to bring NFTs into M+, with the belief that art is for all
Hidden among the fine art galleries in Wong Chuk Hang is Alan Lau’s “cave of wonders”, where— albeit somewhat random in curation—one can find some of the contemporary art world’s most sought-after and bizarre pieces in his personal collection: an ice vinyl disc by Japanese artist Lyota Yagi that melts and changes in sound as it’s being played to highlight the passing of time; 5,000-year-old neolithic urns painted—or vandalised, depending on one’s take—with colourful industrial paint by Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei; Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, which requires Lau to use his forehead to balance three stacked-up oranges as part of a performance piece that mocks the disconnection between sculptures and everyday life.
His passion for art extends beyond his treasure trove. He serves as the vice-chairman of M+; he is one of the brains behind the visual culture museum’s Yayoi Kusama show that opened last month, which is the biggest exhibition of the artist’s work in Asia outside Japan. Outside Hong Kong, he is the co-chair of both the Asia Pacific Acquisition Committee of London’s Tate Modern and the Asia Art Circle of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In other words, Lau is in charge of determining what is displayed in the exhibition halls of three of the world’s major art institutions.
These roles would have been intimidating for even experienced art collectors and advisors. But when Tatler met Lau in October this year, he says—in a composed tone, while sipping his iced black coffee in the afternoon sun—that he attends to his art duties during his spare time, when he’s not working at his full-time job, landed in July this year, as the chief business officer of Animoca Brands, the Hong Kong-based game software and venture capital company founded by Web3 mogul Yat Siu.
On top of his 16-year experience of collecting art, his involvement in the technology scene might just give him the edge as a visionary in fostering art development today, when digital art, art tech and NFTs are flourishing alongside more traditional media in the art market, major cultural venues and even industries like fashion. He is a firm believer that art is more than just an image or object. “It’s a concept,” he says. Aside from having aesthetic and technical skills, an artist, he believes, should have a story to tell.
He takes the first NFT he purchased from Sotheby’s in December 2021 as an example: a piece of The Fungible by anonymous digital artist Pak. The artwork is made up of many digital cubes, which buyers could purchase during a 48-hour window in April 2021. With every purchase, the cubes would be pieced together gradually to form a complete picture. When the sale ended, almost 23,600 pieces were sold. The project was meant to bring people around the world together to participate in art and push the boundary of what NFTs as a medium could accomplish. “Pak is a very pioneering artist because their art is not just an image. It was economics. It was game theory. It’s very intellectual and completely philosophical,” he comments.
Above Alan Lau
He subsequently bought from a few PFP (profile picture) projects, including those by Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist known for blurring the line between supposedly high and popular culture; and Ian Cheng, an American digital artist who experiments with AI and algorithms that turn consumer behaviour data into artistic images. He is also a fan of AI software such as MidJourney. “Basically, you can type in ‘a person sitting in a coffee shop drinking coffee in a red sweater’, and then [the algorithm] will generate that image for you,” Lau explains. While Cheng wouldn’t have known what Lau, the buyer, had for breakfast or coffee, Cheng’s app tracks Lau’s online and crypto wallet behaviours to generate artworks that seem to correspond to his life.
In a way, Lau’s selection—reminiscent of his personal collection in the Wong Chuk Hang studio—consists of works that provoke thoughts on social phenomena, push artistic boundaries and reflect the evolution of the art world. “Technology has always been a core story of what art wants to tell, whether you call it TV, videos, digital art or NFTs,” he says. “When you have new tools such as NFTs, artists who are creative will find new ways to use them. [The current] art tech is just one of the many stops along this lineage.”
Above Alan Lau
With Animoca Brands, the chief business officer further taps into the market and rights possibilities that Web3 can bring to industries such as music, entertainment, sport, gaming—and art. Lau takes care of the blockchain company’s investments, partnerships and portfolios, which add up to 380 companies. Five of them focus on art, including LiveArtX, a community set up by people working in auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Together with Animoca Brands, LiveArtX supports artists and collectors from the traditional art world looking to move in a more Web3-oriented direction. “Web3 is the next iteration of the internet, and NFTs are a core part of an anchor for building digital property rights” through the authenticity proofing properties of the blockchain, he says.
Lau brings this belief into his work for museums. When acquiring pieces, he strives to bring in digital strategies. He advocated research into digital art at the Guggenheim and promoted conversations about NFTs, and what they mean for the museum. In M+, apart from paintings and sculptures, one can now see Cheng and other digital artists’ work thanks to Lau. For the next steps, the M+ vice-chairman is aiming to introduce NFTs to the museum, which, he adds, “they are considering. I’m trying to bridge the very traditional world of the big museums, where they say the art that they collect has got to be good for the next hundred years, and the frontier of the latest, unproven trends—this [effort] is quite interesting but schizophrenic at the same time.”
That is not to say he doesn’t believe in physical art. The very first art that, in his words, got him “going down the rabbit hole” of collecting was King of Kowloon Tsang Tsou-choi’s calligraphy. Art entered Lau’s life when he had a new office in 2006 and was looking to decorate it. “I wanted something that’s very Hong Kong,” he recalls, describing Tsang’s work. This acquisition piqued his curiosity about art, especially when he had been working in management consultancy and fintech all his life. “It’s fascinating to see things through the eyes of artists, because they bring in history, politics and everything into their practice and the way they look at the world. It’s like reading or watching a movie. Suddenly, the world opens up.”
In 2009, he attended the Venice Biennale, where he met Tim Li, then chairman of independent art institution Para Site. Back then, Para Site was struggling with its budget and was looking to raise more than the HK$500,000 a year it was earning. Li was looking for someone with a finance and business background to join the board; Lau, who had never been involved with an NGO, thought it would be fun to give it a try. Today, Lau is proud to have raised more than HK$10 million annually for the last five years, and to promote the cultural exchange of artists between Hong Kong and the rest of the world— an effort that he continued by joining the Tate in 2010, M+ in 2014 and the Guggenheim in 2019.
Above Alan Lau
He makes it his mission to facilitate cross-cultural dialogues and champion representation of Asian artists. “With Asia being one of the five continents, it’s important to display not just European or American art but to have a global view and for people to see the world through works from different regions,” he says. He points out, for example, that the Tate doesn’t show Asian works in the “Asia corner” but displays them next to western art. Works from the period of Japan’s Gutai movement, for example, are placed in the same space as American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock’s paintings. He says, “That creates a very interesting dialogue of how artists in different places were doing similar explorations.”
And Lau has more dialogues he hopes to bring to the table. He is pleased to see “a fantastic reaction” from M+ visitors since it opened. “But what more should we do? How do we adapt to changes? How should our programme evolve to cater to the needs of the whole city?” he asks.
For a start, he believes that art shouldn’t be exclusive to major institutions or established artist names. He was inspired by the intimate, small-scale performances by independent artists in the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood before the pandemic. “I want to see more [underground] artists in the spotlight and a wider local community getting involved,” he says. “It just brings the art scene home.”
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