Yu Deyao: An Indonesian-Chinese Collector Who Cannot Be Ignored

He is the man who bought Yue Minjun’s painting, the princess “Infanta,” for $2 million at Sotheby's auction in London in 2007. He is also the man who started building a New Contemporary Art Center with an exhibition space of 2,000 square meters at Song Village in Beijing in 2008. And he is the one who will hold a huge exhibition of Chinese art in Jakarta in 2009. Yu Deyao, a 51-year-old Indonesian-Chinese collector who may now be called one of the most important collectors of Chinese contemporary art.

Now, in his spacious living room, Yu, a multi -- millionaire in Indonesian business circles, is warmly preparing coffee for a journalist. He is introducing a visitor to the Indonesian wood carving art works that hang on the walls. He is gentle, talkative and full of life and wit.

The two-hour conversation around the long thick and wide dark-brown nanmu table is pleasant and relaxing. The discurssion ranges from his plan to use his collected cross ties to pave the floor of the New Contemporary Art Center to his direct criticism of the illuminating design of most domestic art museums and galleries; and from recalling the first piece of Chinese contemporary art he purchased to his views on collecting.
first collected piece of contemporary Chinese art to his frank talk about the several experiences that he was taken in while buying painting works, Yu shar

As a business tycoon who owns the third largest agricultural company in India, Yu jokingly calls work his collecting machine. Though he claims he has been retired for six years, he still keeps in his Apple computer the latest corporate trailer that is elaborately produced to deal with the public relation crisis in the breakout of bird flu.

In 25 years, he turned a farm of only 50 employees into a large corporation that employs over 30,000 people and operates with a coordinated service in animal husbandry, bulk feed deal, frozen food processing and other industries. The financially powerful Yu has always been resolute and liberal with money in collecting art works since late 2005 when he began to step in contemporary Chinese art collection market, and his present collection of about 500 pieces covers almost all artists of great renown in contemporary Chinese art history, including Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Wei, Xu Bing, Zhou Chunya, Feng Zhengjie, Guo Jin, and others.

Now, a few of the hallmark works in art history are exhibited here in his home at Pudong District in Shanghai: Zhou Chunya’s “Peach Flower” blossoms at the quarter-turn of the staircase; a small female nude by Shi Chong hangs on the wall of the entrance hall; Xu Bing’s long scroll of “The Heavenly Book” is on one side of the corridor and on another is Liu Wei’s paper painting triplets; oil paintings by He Duoling and Yue Minjun are kept in the study. Most of his collected works, however, are kept in a private storehouse in Beijing, he says.

“Previously I would always buy great works, works of epoch-making and historic nature,” he says. Recalling his crazy collecting experiences of “buying big shot art only” in the past two years, Yu has to confess that his “cost is extremely high.” In last year only he has spent over $10 million at auction houses and on artists for works, and such succession of lavish purchases has soon made this low-profile Indonesian businessman into a powerful collector who cannot be ignored by artists, galleries or auction houses.

“I paid a lot of tuition fees,” he says frankly, “And now, rather than paying so much money for a single painting, I would buy 100 pieces in a planned way so that I can help young artists grow and help them with various academic exhibitions. Art shouldn’t be judged in terms of market performance,” he says.

And so today, Yu has gradually begun to rationalize his ideas about collecting, indicating that his future collection will follow two major lines: one is to rediscover some underestimated old artists, and another is to seek out promising gifted young artists.

With great interest he tells us about the latest novel experience the two exhibitions of Beijing artists Zou Chao and Pan Jian have brought to him. And he reveals that he has bought over ten works from the two exhibitions. He is planning to help them with exhibitions.

He says: “For collection you should look for something interesting." He seems to have realized that, besides enjoying the pleasure of “ownership” in the process of collecting art works, the greater happiness comes from “discovery” – “you must seek out new artists though it’s of great risk; you should aim at his growth, and if he didn’t grow, it’s like you bought a wilted tree.”

He has high regard the 35-year-old artist Chen Changwei. Chen, a young artist living in Chengdu, sparked controversy in local media last November with his exhibition sculpture of a self-abusing panda, which, however, was positively affirmed by Yu’s purchase of the work. “Young artists would believe my decision to collect is a great help to them,” he says. “And this kind of work is more interesting.”

The contact with artists turns out to be Yu’s other great interest in the process of collecting contemporary art works. He makes a careful comparison between Uli Sigg and Guy and Myriam Ullens, the two great collectors of contemporary Chinese art: Sigg visits artists personally while Ullens seldom communicates with artists but basically relies upon his art advisers. Clearly Yu favors Sigg’s style more, and currently he has become a very good friend of Zhou Tiehai, Yan Peiming and other artists. He believes a friendship-styled association such as chatting and having meals together, exchanging academic and art ideas together, and asking them to recommend good artists can help collectors to learn more.

Yu never feels content with a simplistic collection job of paying money for art works only; he ambitiously applies his business management and capital operation skills to art collection career by founding art establishments such as art center and art foundation, and by way of funding large academic exhibitions. Of his own initiative he tells us about his three art projects that are currently in operation, which are:Guiding an Art Foundation, which consists of 11 business friends from Indonesia, Singapore and other places, to make long-term art investments or cooperate with artists in holding large exhibitions (Feng Zhengjie’s solo exhibition at Singapore Art Museum in January of 2008 is supported by this foundation); Yu’s Private Foundation, directed mainly at art collections and support for art exhibitions, is placed under the control of Singapore Art Museum; Yu’s Contemporary Art Museum, which now locates in Jakarta and will be moved to Bali island later, is scheduled to open formally in 2009 for the first solo exhibition of Yu’s own collections; and Song Village Art Center, featuring exhibition and introduction of Southeast Asian artists, will hold the first exhibition of Indonesian artists in the not-yet-completed exhibition hall before the end of 2008.

When coming to Feng Zhengjie’s solo exhibition in Singapore which attracted numerous artists, entrepreneurs from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and other places and even attracted political celebrities from Southeast Asian regions, Yu is flooded with numerous thoughts and feelings. “The success of that exhibition allowed us to have direct communications with many collectors and also changed the collection ideas of many Southeast Asian collectors,” he says. This seems to suggest that more and more Southeast Asian capital will follow his steps and try collecting contemporary Chinese art; and once such powerful collectors converge, most likely they will end up a dominating force in contemporary Chinese art market.

As for the price slump at Christine London auctions in February of 2008, Yu, a man of acute insight, offers his different opinions from perspective of a new-generation collector. “The world economy has slid into a slump stage; some collectors lost money in the stock markets and will be affected psychologically. Then they’re likely to avoid other expenses temporarily,” he explains. “And if a few important collectors don’t come to auctions, the price slumps.” He concludes straightly that “it’s now a good opportunity for us new collectors to step in.” Nevertheless, he also points out directly that there are indeed dirty deals behind the scenes and the values of some art works have been overestimated. He criticizes that such a situation would damage the reputation of contemporary Chinese art, and he firmly holds that prices in collection markets should be set by collectors.

Yu plans to conduct a series of exhibitions of his colleciton in the next few year, and for this he would still add one after another heavyweight new works to his collection list in a planned way. He knows clearly his long-term goal; “I will end up a collector that cannot be ignored," he says.

Quotations of Yu on art collection:

1. “Like entrepreneurs, collectors might go bankruptcy and close down business too. You need to be very cautious and must dig deep into it.”

2. “You need to find some good art advisers to help collect academic works. You can collect things of some novelty or of some deviation, such as video works.”

3. “When buying works of new artists you should examine the artist himself to see if he is only temporarily interested in art. You should follow up the young artist to give him impetus to create.”

4. “An artist is like an ordinary man who needs check-ups every year. You should carefully examine your collections to see if they are in keeping with your collection system. If you bought something wrong, sell it quickly.

5. “I hope, through me, to pass a collection tradition to my offspring. In Europe, every important family is an important collector, and art works are the best legacy left to one’s children. I would like my children to inherit my taste and interest.”

Translated by Hu Zhu



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