Within Hong Kong's artistic universe there is a vast difference between the world of the highly commercial "brand" galleries like Gagosian and White Cube and that inhabited by the city’s smaller, curator-driven spaces. There is at present little middle crowd where David meets Goliath and where less mainstream art can find a market. This is what American-born long-time curator and now gallery owner Robin Peckham is planning to change. His aim is to create a gallery that is conceptually and artist driven and yet at the same time commercially successful. This week he marked off an important step in this plan when his newly launched gallery Saamlung became the youngest exhibitor accepted to the Art Futures platform of ART HK 2012. Winning one of the tightly contested spots at Art Futures gilded the already established reputation in China of the relentlessly driven founder and director of Saamlung, Pekham.
For more then 10 years the American-born gallerist and curator has been establishing himself within the Asia avant-garde art world. Before moving to Hong Kong with his curator girlfriend Venus Lau he was the director of Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing while also studying for an advanced degree in Media Art Histories from Danube University Krems. Although Saamlung is now in a kind of “soft opening” period with its first official exhibition not due to launch until February 17, Peckham has been presenting a quietly considered "pre-opening" program at the gallery since November featuring three separate Hong Kong artists who he considers reflect the current creative climate in the city.
Saamlung’s aspirations are high, yet Peckham seems quietly confident when we meet. He is deliberate with his words, avoiding hyperbole yet all the while reciting a mantra as to why an institution like Saamlung is important to the cultural integrity of the region.
ARTINFO HK spoke to him ahead of Saamlung’s grand opening group show “No One to Hear You Scream."
How did you create Saamlung?
It has been in the works for several years. We have been looking for the right space and time to get what we wanted. It started when we were living in Beijing and we wanted to offer something new in terms of the Chinese art scene and international artists in a more sustainable way then was currently on offer. So we moved to Hong Kong to work on this idea.
Why Hong Kong?
It is so difficult to work as an outsider in Beijing with the power structures. We were attracted to Hong Kong because the art fair had just launched and we felt there was a lot going on in the arts here. It took us almost 2 years to get everything together. It was only last year that we started to get everything together in terms of financiers and spaces etc.
You have mentioned before that you feel that Saamlung is different to other galleries in Hong Kong. Can you tell me how?
In Hong Kong we saw a wide margin between established international art spaces and the smaller galleries. Our mission has always been to take Hong Kong artists working in an international way and push them into the international art scene as well as establishing them in Hong Kong itself. We are working in the hope that we can provide something that is missing in Beijing and Singapore, that is, a critically serious gallery that can still put on commercial exhibitions. The galleries that really represent artists and do a good job for them commercially are rarely the same spaces where those artists want to do projects etc.
What kind of infrastructure do you need to achieve that?
It is about relationships with the artists and then knowing what kind of spaces they need and working worth them on that and not just putting their work on a wall. But it also requires a certain type of client and having a certain type of relationship with them. So that you can get them to be willing to support this kind of art.
Who is your target client?
With this space we are focusing very much on younger Hong Kong collectors. They are 30 to 45 years old, interested in supporting local art but with an international eye. But we are planning on expanding beyond that of course. A lot of my client base is still in Beijing and Shanghai and throughout the mainland. We are very much a professionals’ gallery.
You have had three preview shows in a very short space of time. How has that process been from day one?
It has been very exciting. The three exhibitions to date we had not planned to be commercial exhibitions. They are not really the style or roster of what we have planned; but they give a sense of what we want to do in a curatorial way. They have been a statement of Hong Kong art. The idea was to talk about Hong Kong art and about Chinese/Hong Kong identity.
How has the response been from the local community?
The response has been great. Especially from the artists who have really gotten behind the program. Also from the collectors who have been supporting us. We have been very impressed with the interest from the collectors we knew before to penetrate more deeply but also [our ability] to get into more of Hong Kong society.
Can you tell me a bit about your opening show?
Our pre-opening shows were very much about the city and architecture. We haven’t announced it yet but Saamlung is to have 5 research programs ongoing at any given time and these will commission essays and invite people to lecture, so we are hoping at the end of every two or three year cycle to end up with a very serious product. One of the programs that we are focussing on for the first cycle is looking at the idea that architecture can be collectively produced, the idea of architecture as medium, and how the architectural form can become seductive. So the next exhibition is the first frontal approach to these questions while also picking up where the pre-opening shows left off.
Why a group show for the grand opening?
We felt the first three exhibitions gave us some perspective about where we are going in terms of style and individual artists. So with this and our next opening in April we felt we would put together some groups who we would be working with. One of the things that we are looking to establish is to have artists that are in contact with each other from greater China as well as the U.S. and Europe who are influenced by the same things and are thinking about the same questions but haven’t really had the chance to be put in direct contact. So this exhibition is one manifestation of how that process will work. I should also point out that the opening exhibition isn’t as grand as it was initially supposed to be.
Is there any other gallery in Hong Kong that you think is doing a good job?
Everyone has their problems. As far as I can see, no one is working in the same territory as we are in terms of including high level international artists and Hong Kong artists as well as in terms of the curatorial thoroughness. I think there are local galleries that have interesting programs, but they are fundamentally limited by what they want to do with those programs. I think it is a choice. They are positioning themselves in another space altogether.
What is your grand plan or vision for ten years down the line? Do you have one?
We do. We will have to wait and see how things work out. I am hoping in the next couple of years we will be able to make an effect on how things work throughout this region. We are doing things in a way that should be shaking up how things work.