Swiss banking giant UBS shows off its art collection in Hong Kong
By Elaine W. Ng
On September 14, Swiss banking giant UBS held an intimate gathering to unveil their new rehang of its corporate collection in the bank’s Hong Kong headquarters. On display is an impressive selection centered on abstraction, Pop art and photography, installed mainly on the 52nd floor of the International Finance Centre in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district, where its client conference rooms are located. The reception area sets the tone of the UBS collection, with two large abstract works. Visitors are met by a massive optical grid in metal, with painted Plexiglas "fins" in orange stripes along with various color patterns behind this that appear and dissolve as the viewer moves past the work, by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, noted for his kinetic and op-art works. The elegantly austere work was originally commissioned by the bank’s offices in Zurich in 1975. In the opposite corner hangs Liberation No. 3 (2013), a large-scale colorful, abstract work painted in oil by Beijing-based artist Liu Wei, in his trademark style of a cityscape made up of vertical lines.
Elsewhere, in more intimate locations—such as the 27 conference rooms, spread across 2,200 square meters of floor space—there are more understated abstract works, such as Mono-ha artist Lee Ufan’s single brushstroke on paper and a metaphysical landscape by local painter Wucius Wong, which was purchased by the bank in Hong Kong in 1987.
Also on view are many rarely seen—unless one is a UBS client—gems, such as Interior with Hydraulic Table (1991), a study on vellum by Roy Lichtenstein for one of his “Interior” series paintings, displaying the Pop-artist’s meticulous draftsmanship along with his struggle to draw the gestural contours of the abstract painting, evident in the repeatedly erased lines, which hangs in the anonymous living room. UBS curator Stephen McCourbrey described the Lichtenstein as “a perfect piece of corporate meeting room art. A picture of a room with pictures, a table and chairs in a room with a picture, table and chairs.” Another highlight is the entire portfolio of the first edition of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup I, comprised of ten silkscreen prints created in 1968. Cans ranging from “Chicken Noodle” to “Onion (Made with Beef Stock)” and “Green Pea” appear together along one long corridor. McCourbrey referred to it as a “key influential work that gives context to the rest of the group.” More recent examples of Pop art from the Asia region include a painting by the Luo Brothers, a three-sibling group from Guangxi. Their lacquer painting Welcome to the Worldwide Famous Brands (2004) is from their best known series, which mocks Chinese mass consumerism though an eye-catching composition of kitschy icons (such as Big Mac hamburgers and a series of goldfish, the latter of which is considered to be auspicious in Chinese culture) in lurid colors. Nearby hangs Delhi-based artist-designer team Thukral & Tagra’s three saccharine-colored, mixed-media prints, entitled Attractively Awful a, b, c (2009), which is dotted with imagery of aspirational goods from India, both past and present. In another small room is a drawing on paper featuring the eclectic fashion sensibility of the late Canto-pop star Anita Mui by Hong Kong gongbi painter Wilson Shieh.
Elsewhere, photography makes a big impact. As expected, German artist Andreas Gursky’s large format photography is on display, as well as Massimo Vitali’s larger-than-life snapshot of a tourist-filled street near the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence from 1999. Artists who push the medium by combining other practices, such as cinematography, installation and performance are a counterpoint to theses photo giants. London-based Isaac Julien’s two photographs from his nine-screen film installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010), featuring Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung, was shot over four years in the idyllic countryside of Guangxi province. Along another long corridor hang 22 color photographs “documenting” the fictional venture of Xu Zhen’s attempt to saw off a 1.86-meter slice of Mount Everest with the help of two friends. While in another conference room, Yang Fudong’s enlarged still image, Yejiang/The Nightman Cometh 2 (2011), drawn from his single-channel, allegorical black-and-white film of the same title, captures the ghostly spirit of a warrior general who roams a snowy barren landscape.
The UBS Art Collection numbers over 35,000 works—some are on view in its offices in over 50 countries or on loan to museums. Hong Kong-based clients now have something to look at aside from their financial positions.