A Piece of Tenggiri
New warehouse gallery, Sekeping Tenggiri, upped the ante in Malaysian art philanthropy. Built as a gallery/guesthouse with the private art collection of Ng Sek San displayed for viewing by appointment, this retreat in the city houses a sizeable and important collection of contemporary Malaysian art.
Increasingly, art collectors in Malaysia are opening their doors to researchers and art enthusiasts. By housing their collection in viewing spaces that are accessible to the arts community at large, they create a greater visibility for and awareness of works of art that have previously been stored away. Sharing is after all, caring.
ARTERI speaks to landscape architect, who is forced to answer our questions in one long and sleepless night.
ARTERI: First thing’s first, how did this idea of a gallery/guesthouse come about?
The idea for a warehouse gallery came before the guesthouse, as we were running out of storage space for our art collection. When the warehouse was completed, I suddenly realise I don’t actually have any income to pay the regular mortgage! The guesthouse could hopefully become a cashcow. It is located in 2 terrace hourses on Jalan Tenggiri, the older part of Bangsar near News Straits Times (NST) office. I have converted one and a half of those two hours into a storage gallery to house our permanent art collection. The other quarter with the garden is turned into the guesthouse!
ARTERI: Can you tell us a bit about the design concept behind this project?
It is a four years itch for me. I am like an ant. I cannot stop building. Every four years I have to renovate or build something for myself. Unfortunately this one is the most difficult project I have undertaken in my entire 24 year career as an architect. I have lost many nights of sleep over it and have gone part vegetarian and started to pray again after turning into a socialist/atheist for many years. I was actually having a great time until the project was almost 90% complete. Then, the local city council authorities (DBKL) decided to come over and whacked me with a demolition order, which was swiftly followed by a battalion of 60 demolition workers, police, the entire planning department and a huge bulldozer. It was all rather dramatic, to say the least. I felt like a Hindraf activist protecting my temple! To to cut the long story short, a four month project was dragged on 12 months long. With this kind of drama, I really did not have the time for design concept!
ARTERI: But you pulled through! That’s good news, at least. What are the rates like for a night’s stay? Also what type of facilities are offered in your guesthouse?
Guesthouse rates range between RM 180 to RM 240, depending on the size of the room. Facilities are really basic. The rooms give the feeling of being in a squatter house, evoking the threat of demolition by the authorities to boot. The walls are not painted and all the doors are recycled. They are at least ffity years old. We do however have clean linens and some very sexy bathrooms. There’s also a little splash pool in the garden beside a small organic vegetable farm. The highlight? You’ll be staying next to fantastic original Malaysian artworks in the gallery next to the rooms!!!
We’re still working on the breakfast menu but we might not provide any since we doubt that we can ever match the delicious breakfast served at the nearby Baba Low Cafe, which is about half a minute walk away from the guesthouse. The warehouse gallery is called 48 Tenggiri, but it’s actually located on No. 46 Jalan Tenggiri. The guesthouse occupies unit 48 Jalan Tenggiri in the old part of Bangsar.
ARTERI: When did you start collecting contemporary art? And why?
I started collecting in 1994 at the same time as I started my landscape consultancy in KL. My addiction to art was influenced by my ex-boss from Christchurch, New Zealand, who gave me a painting as my farewell gift in 1990. Subsequently, I bought a burnett paper print from NZ in 1994 to inspire us in our company’s logo design.
I then began to set aside 10% of our company profit to collect Malaysian contemporary art. I was hoping to be influenced by visual artists in Malaysia, especially 3D installation artists, for our landscape design. My first Malaysia acquisition is Bayu Utomo Rajidkin’s ‘Afghan’, a white bandaged baby floating in a very dark bacground. It was RM 4000 then and it took me five days to decide on the purchase after much research done comparing it with many other artworks in KL galleries at that time. It was very exciting but slow process back. But I could afford it because there was very little competition from other collectors. The only other collector that I remember hanging out for a long time contemplating on purchasing artworks back then was Pakha.
ARTERI: You’ve a great collection of Southeast Asian art too, what made you branch out your collection?
I like the progressive idea of Southeast Asia as an entity. This offers us another view of our shared cultural heritage beyond the artificially constructed political boundaries that demarcate one country from another. I travel a lot in this region and I feel a sense of belonging to all the land masses nearby, including Thailand, Indonesia, Borneo, Cambodia, the Philippine, etc.
Whilst politicians have attempted to bring cultures together in the form ASEAN exchanges in the past, this has unfortunately fizzled out. Not surprising, given it was a forced attempt. However, if you pay close attention to what’s been happening in recent years, we have more evidence of sustainable crossovers and dialogues in the form of Southeast Asia art. The subjects and issues addressed by artists are immediate, contextual and relevant to this region. I can identify with that. So the collection naturally follows.
ARTERI: What’s your favourite work/works in your own collection?
I really don’t know. I love everything. They all have their own charm and speak to me differently at different times.
ARTERI: How would you advise young collectors who interested in starting a collection? Any personal tips or strategies?
Just collection what you like and not what you think will appreciate in value. At least if they don’t appreciate in value, you’ll still enoy it being part of your life.
ARTERI: We are also aware of your interest in creative projects that explore the intersection between art and politics. Often you have also supported projects that are non-commercial in nature. The Emergency Festival comes to mind. Does playing the role of an arts patron supplement or perhaps increase your understanding of contemporary art beyond that of an art collector? If so, in what ways?
Often I tell my staff that we are not only in the business of landscape architecture. We are also in the business of selling ideas and dreams. We are the magicians that make dreams come true for others. For that, our clients have to pay us a fortune! In order to obtain really creative ideas, we often borrow from visual artists. There are a number of our permanent public landscapes that have their origin from some artists’ earlier works. For that we are eternally grateful. Our ‘art patronage’ is just a way of giving back to the community and saying thank you. I like to see it as a very horizontal and equal relationship and to be honest, I need them more than they need me!!! Patronage for me is a very misunderstood term.
ARTERI: Where is contemporary art in Malaysia and Southeast Asia heading? What do you see in the crystal ball?
I think contemporary art is heading towards very exciting times! This whole region have come out of very turbulent pasts – revolutions, wars, and major conflicts. The various countries in Southeast Asia and Asia in general are more stable now and are poised for some major economic growth. Art is generally a laggard industry. The money will definitely flow into it. We will need lots of art to fill up the walls of mansions for the new and old rich and the new museums mushrooming from every nook and corner.
Of greater importance is the recent realisation that contemporary art is able to authentically encapsulate the soul and identity of the various communities that make up our region. Whilst I love to see artists play, please be reminded that they have very heavy responsibilities on their shoulders too!
Sekeping Tenggiri, opening this November 2009, is located at 48 Jalan Tenggiri, Bangsar. For more images of the guesthouse/gallery, click here.