Collector's Eye: Yan Du

The Hong Kong- and London-based collector talks about glowing mushrooms and her dream of feeding specialty dumplings to Yayoi Kusama and Leonora Carrington

Yan Du pictured with a work by Sonia Gomes (hanging) and sculpture by Martin Creed Photo: Kenny X. Li

Yan Du pictured with a work by Sonia Gomes (hanging) and sculpture by Martin Creed Photo: Kenny X. Li

Born near Beijing in mainland China, the art collector and patron Yan Du now lives between Hong Kong and London. Yan started collecting around 13 years ago and since then has amassed a collection of over 300 works of art from the 1920s to the present day, with a concentration on the work of female artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keefe, Lee Krasner, Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama, Roni Horn, Shirin Neshat, Issy Wood and Lee Bul.

Rather than any preconceived agenda, it was after giving birth to her first daughter that she found herself becoming more drawn to female artists, such as Bourgeois. "I experienced their work on a different level," she says. "It's not about feminism per se, it's about our identity, an emotive experience."

But after a decade of collecting, Yan decided she wanted to "do something more meaningful—collecting is a hobby, not a dream". So, in 2019 she launched the non-profit Asymmetry Art Foundation, with the chief aim of promoting understanding of and research into contemporary art from China and the Pan-Asian region, knowledge of which is still relatively scant in the West.

The foundation has just selected Weitian Liu as the recipient of the first fully-funded, four-year Asymmetry PhD scholarship at Goldsmiths in London. Meanwhile, Hang Li started her Curatorial Writing Fellowship at Chisenhale in March 2021. The Curator for Asymmetry's Whitechapel Curatorial Fellowship will be announced in June.

What was the first work you bought?

It was a painting by the Belgian painter Raoul de Keyser that I bought when I was visiting New York about ten years ago. A friend took me around some galleries, and when I saw this work, I bought it right there and then. It was my first significant purchase from a gallery so it has a special place in my heart.

What is your most recent buy?

I’ve made several acquisitions recently—some of my favourites include an Eva Hesse sculpture, a Sanya Kantarovsky painting, as well as a kinetic installation, Can’t Help Myself (2016), by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu that I saw at the Venice Biennale in 2019.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Can't Help Myself, pictured at the Venice Biennale in 2019 Photo courtesy of The Artists and Yan Du Collection

Where do you keep your works?

Mostly in Hong Kong, though at my home in London too. I like to live with as much of my collection as possible, in order to really feel the works, so I regularly rotate the hang to create new juxtapositions and relationships.

I also have several large-scale installations that definitely can’t fit in my home! I acquire these works, mainly by East Asian artists, with the aim of lending them to museums outside of Asia. I’d love to have the opportunity to do this one day soon and give these amazing contemporary artists more international visibility.

If your house was on fire, which work would you save?

It depends on what is hanging at the time and how successful my curation above is!

If money were no object, what would be your dream purchase?

A Frida Kahlo self-portrait would be a dream to have—Kahlo’s oeuvre is small, which makes opportunities for collecting her work all the more rare. Though if money really were no object, I would buy the Glenstone Museum in Maryland including the entire contents of its collection.

What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?

I have Man Ray’s Violon d’Ingres (1924) photograph hanging in my guest bathroom.

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I would love a dinner party full of eccentric artists—Yayoi Kusama, Leonora Carrington, Tracey Emin and Vincent Van Gogh.

What would you serve at the dinner party?

My speciality dumplings.

What’s the best collecting advice you have been given?

My husband told me, if after having slept on something, I am still thinking about it in the morning, then I should buy it.

Which work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?

A great Cecily Brown.

If you could take one work from your collection into quarantine for company, what would you choose?

I love my Trevor Yeung, Night Mushroom Colon, which is a mixed media work comprised of electrical converters and nightlights of mushroom forms. It emits such a special quality of light, both in the day and at night—it is inherently calming and very easy to live with!

What have you missed most during lockdown?

My home and friends in London!


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