Asian art is one of the most vibrant and exciting aspects of global art production today. We spoke to Viv Lawes, Unit Leader for the 15-week intensive course Asian Art and its Markets, about her interest in the field, how she came to specialize in Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, and how being an active professional in the art world benefits her students. Read our interview to learn more about Viv and the Asian Art and its Markets course.
Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?
For as long as I can remember I have drawn and painted. Throughout my academic studies I continued to do so – and actually got my first break in the art world when I trudged the streets of London, fresh out of university, showing my portrait drawings to the dealers in the commercial galleries. I was eventually commissioned by a dealer to draw his portrait. He then put me in touch with some of his contacts at the National Maritime Museum in London and, eventually, after working voluntarily at the museum for six months, I landed my first job as a junior curator. It went from there.
Since then I have worked in all sectors in the art world: museums, auction houses, commercial galleries, arts journalism and academia. I have now focused my activities and divide my time between lecturing in higher education, curating Southeast Asian modern and contemporary exhibitions in the UK and writing the accompanying catalogues, and advising on market strategy as a consultant to an Asian art gallery in Singapore.
When did you become interested in Asian art?
After teaching myself how to paint using inks on silk back in the early 1990s I became fascinated at how particular materials and techniques were associated with different world cultures. In the West the classic technique, at least up until the 20th century, was to apply paint to canvas, whereas the equivalent in China was to apply paint to silk. The two fabrics behave differently and therefore the appearance of the paint is different, but they are both essentially just pigments on fabric.
I wanted to explore the differences in terms of art history so when I took my MA in Fine and Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s Institute in 1997, I decided to research the history of trade between Britain and China through the Chinese painted silks that were imported by the Honourable East India Company in the 18th century. There was next to no research on the topic, so I was free to do something really original that was informed by my technical knowledge and a historian’s approach to archival sources.
"To really understand art, you need to be able to see how all the elements in the art world fit together."
How does being an active professional in the art world as well as a Unit Leader and lecturer benefit those who come to study at Sotheby's Institute of Art?
I think it’s extremely important to have an active involvement in the commercial world when you are teaching a course that takes account of markets as well as the history of art and taste. To really understand art, you need to be able to see how all the elements in the art world fit together.
The artworks themselves are couched within the political and economic history of the location in which they were made, as well as forming a part of a larger visual and theoretical culture and representing the particular ideas of the artist who created them. However, both the artist and the works themselves are subject to the power of patronage, the taste-making activities of institutions and the marketing capacities of private dealers and auction houses. After all, a work of art usually has little intrinsic value and yet it can be worth millions simply as a result of the combination of these factors.
You need three sectors to be operating for an artwork to become widely known and therefore valued on a national or international scale: the institutions of display (galleries and museums), a commercial market, and finally academia to provide critical analysis through study.
How did you come to specialize in Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art?
As an art market journalist at The Art Newspaper a few years ago I had my own column entitled ‘Regional Markets’. Each month I looked at a particular country’s local market, focusing on regional auction houses. I wanted to see what sectors of the market they represented that were particular to their own geographical locations. I looked for dominant trends, specific tastes and the demographics of the market. In the course of this I wrote about the market in Indonesia. I wanted to see whether there were any ‘home grown’ auction houses and how a country that was little more than ten years into the democratic process, following the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1998, was able to assert its own identity.
I interviewed representatives of four Indonesian auction houses, one of which was Larasati – the first to be founded immediately following the 1998 revolution. This led to me being invited to become a consultant for the company’s gallery in Singapore, One East Asia. Since 2011 I have organised, in cooperation with my colleagues in Singapore and Jakarta, many exhibitions of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art in London. I have also contributed to numerous academic books and catalogues.
I have to admit to being totally absorbed by the subject; I am full of awe at how artists are able to explore subjects as diverse as national and personal identity, the nature of culture, the confluence of tradition and contemporaneity, the phenomenon of hybridity through colonialism, and the issues of Western and Chinese-style practices interacting with those located in Southeast Asia, through the visual medium. It all comes back to a deep and life-long obsession with art and its processes.
Do you have any other specialist skills that will help students studying on the Asian Art Semester Course?
For many years I have worked with students for whom English is their second language. I help them to structure their arguments and translate their ideas into the essay form that is the accepted standard in the Western academic system. This is a skill that needs to be learned and my background as a journalist as well as an academic enables me to bring years of writing experience to bear on what is often the most daunting part of the academic process.