The journey to Woodlands is a long one.
From the East Coast of Singapore, it’s a solid forty-five-minute drive over two expressways laden with heavy vehicles that appear to be living out their Formula One fantasies. Google Maps cuts in and out, fanning fears of exits at the wrong junctions and an unceremoniously late arrival at Primz Gallery, the private initiative of collectors Linda Neo and Albert Lim. Their exhibition rooms – where we are headed to – are located in the Primz Bizhub, a maze-like series of buildings that house stark and somewhat sterile warehouse spaces. It’s miles away from any of the known art clusters in Singapore, but in spite of its supreme ‘ulu-ness’ has been creating quite a buzz in the local arts scene.
Thankfully, we land at the destination unscathed (if slightly frazzled) and are warmly welcomed by the collectors themselves, together with Tan Siuli, former Head of Collections and Senior Curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Siuli has curated Albert and Linda’s latest private exhibition Flesh and Spirit and the trio are meeting our team in person to tell us more about the show.
Entering the Collector’s Den
The art here is the main draw, but we’ll be honest – for our young interns, the chance to get up close and personal with collectors as well-known and established as Albert and Linda was just as juicy a proposition.
If they were expecting Downton Abbey – levels of primness and propriety though, they were soon to be disappointed. The couple are often spotted out and about at art events, being well-known faces in the community, cutting a youthful and stylish swathe wherever they turn up. And today is no different. Linda is clad in a funky white-on-white shorts and top combo, and Albert is casual chic in a t-shirt and subtly patterned pair of Bermuda shorts.
The couple are warm, affable and most refreshingly, frank.
Art shows in the climate of COVID-19 have raised many key questions about the intrinsic value of art. In circumstances where jobs are lost, lives are in peril and social systems upended, where is the space for something like an art exhibition? When asked if they were concerned that they might come across as showy in mounting an exhibition at a time when people are experiencing economic difficulties, Linda is vehement in her response that she completely disagrees with such a view.
“Some people say we shouldn’t be spending, but this is the time that the commercial retail market needs our support, so why are we cutting back?”
She continues, “If I had bought another Birkin or Kelly and flashed it around, or a diamond ring, then yes, I would feel guilty. But for these kinds of works, I think they tell a story. Our art ecosystem is growing, and people and galleries out there need help. In fact, we’ve made a concerted effort to go out and support the galleries now.”
It’s easy enough to talk about the importance of art institutions as offering ‘public goods’ when they are funded by public authorities—the government’s duty to support different industrial sectors in times of crisis is perhaps more clearly delineated. Private collections however are a different animal altogether. Beholden to no discernible public mission these lone rangers are free to spend their money as they please. What then motivates the private collector to hold art exhibitions in unusual times such as these?
For Albert and Linda, it’s the need to reach out to the wider community in times of crisis, with artworks that prompt thought and reflection on pandemic times. The couple muses that “homes are more difficult to open up due to COVID-19.”
As collectors with a non-commercial physical space, they were in a unique position to showcase their private collection effectively in the pandemic environment.
What’s so special about this private show?
The first thing that strikes you in Primz Gallery, is the warmth that fills the room, due as much to the light emanating from the neon-red crucifixes of Noberto Roldan’s Crusade, as to the exuberance with which the collecting couple introduces their exhibition Flesh and Spirit. Albert and Linda mounted this show with the intention of engaging with audiences “to formulate their own views about how humanity might negotiate the realms of the flesh and spirit, through a diversity of (regional) artistic perspectives.”
From a slightly different perspective, Albert calls like it is, “This is my personal story. You may not agree with me, but this is my story, so I’m telling it.”
The couple acknowledges, however, that things are not always clear-cut – there is still a need to be sensitive to and respectful of the community around them even though they may not be bound by institutional rules on what they can and can’t display.
They always endeavour to be respectful to their audience, which is sometimes composed of children, and as Linda elaborates, “It doesn’t mean that just because we have a private collection, that we just don’t care.”
There is an intimacy in Flesh and Spirit that is not to be found in a commercial gallery or major institution. For one, the space is small and tightly curated. The room which is themed around the notion of Flesh throbs with raw and visceral imagery.
There is not much room at Primz to sit and linger or ponder over a specific work in the way that one might do at a major museum, but that being said, echoes of institutional influence can still be seen in the nature of the works displayed.
The larger room of Flesh offers multiple entry points to the concerns of the human condition, and Genevieve Chua’s 2012 work Ultrasound #1 is one example that displays the dichotomies of the beauty and ugliness of life:
A yellow outline of an ultrasound scan motif frames sonar scans of Bedok Reservoir, a destination du jour for suicides in Singapore. Water, the gentlest cradle for new life is also, in this context, the bringer of death and destruction. The conflation of these two binaries, life and death, leads to dark places but also urges the viewing audience to consider just how precious life is, especially in a time of crisis.
Where the red room of Flesh overpowers, the dazzling white of the room of Spirit brightens, lifts, and even enlightens.
Immersiveness is another factor of note in this exhibition, whether in terms of thematic curation, physical execution, or educational access to the public. Over the last six years, Albert and Linda have kept their shows open to a steady stream of art students, docents, and aspiring collectors, amongst others.
The primacy of education and access in art presentations is something that is echoed by curator Siuli as well. She observes that “you can’t just cater to people who are already converted, you need to win over more people and to convince them – for me, it’s always about education. A lot of people don’t have that confidence, they don’t know how to approach art, especially contemporary art. There are many different ways that you can try to give them that entry point…whether it’s making the museum or gallery atmosphere less intimidating or encouraging people to simply see as much as they can before they make up their minds.”
The couple walks the talk about education, with Albert himself holding a Master’s degree in Asian Art Histories. That being said, instinct still rules as he exclaims at the end of our discussion that “the best textbooks are your eyes!”
Agreeing, Linda notes that many new collectors are impeccably “groomed” or “hothoused” by art consultants to focus on specific buying strategies.
She explains, “If you use your eyes and you are hungry and passionate enough to find out more about the works and to look for them, then you can carve a collection of your own, rather than buying a collection that has been pooled (together) for you, by a consultant. I think it’s so much more exciting to drill (down into the details) and go hunting for your own artwork.”
In terms of tips for new collectors, Linda continues to speak frankly given her finance background.
“Buy what you like,” she advises, “but say, if you want to buy 5 paintings, at least do your research. You might like them all, but at least 2 of the works – if you need money – you should be able to sell and obtain liquidity. It’s just like portfolio management, in a way.”
She explains that since there is no commercial selling motive in the shows that she and her husband put together, the couple have the luxury of digging deeper. Formal curation is employed and archival processes come to the fore. The couple invest in curatorial commentary and documentation of all kinds in respect of their modern and contemporary art collection, whether written or in digital or online formats on their newly-revamped website.
Our visit ends with a launch back into the scarily busy roads of Woodlands and we end up waiting for an hour to make a U-turn that will eventually lead us back to central Singapore. The trip back to Katong sees yet more speeding lorries and an unfortunate (inexplicable?) diversion to Changi Airport before we finally make it to our next destination.
Without mixing too many metaphors, it’s a car journey that mimics that of many aspiring art enthusiasts – one of fear and trepidation, followed by brave attempts to conquer and a final triumphant romp home, confident in all new knowledge acquired. All we can say is thank goodness for artistic GPS guides like those offered by the likes of Albert and Linda. Their important work creates signposts and roadmaps for all fellow art lovers, and is something we look forward to seeing more of in the local and regional scene.
Flesh and Spirit is open to the public by appointment. Contact Primz Gallery to book a slot to view the show here.