feature_Coverstory_710x3501.jpg In Search Of Authenticity

Shui On Group Chairman Vincent Lo reflects on business, China's property market, the future of Hong Kong, dealing with The Donald, and the need for authenticity in tumultuous times.

A visit to Vincent Lo’s office at the Shui On Centre in Wan Chai is to take an artistic step back in time. Traditional Chinese art lines the walls. The centrepiece, located in a specially built alcove near Lo’s main office, is a large and very intricate Chinese junk carved out of solid jade. Lo himself can often be seen in traditional Mandarin collar suits, befitting his love of traditional Chinese culture. 

Nonetheless, this lover of China’s artistic tradition (don’t look for Lo among the contemporary art at the upcoming Art Basel) is trying to forge an uncharted future for his company, whose fortunes are tied to the bricks and mortar world of China’s property business. In China, he sees great potential, particularly in Shanghai and Wuhan (tier one and tier one-and-a-half cities, in his estimation). Lo has been bullish on China for years, and never fails to note the potential for vast upside. 

But China is a changeable beast, as Lo himself would admit. China’s property market has raised eyebrows in recent years, with rising debt levels and prices matched with a slower economy fuelling fears that a correction – or even a crash – is on the cards. Meanwhile, China’s biggest property players have been muscling their way into Hong Kong’s property market.
Amid this turmoil, Vincent Lo has found his own company, Shui On Land, beset by high debt levels. He has taken on a new strategy to forge a path forward, a path that, in part, banks on the good name he has built for himself since founding Shui On in the 1970s.  

In 2004, Lo was the subject of a profile in The Economist, which dubbed him “the King of Guangxi”. It was a well-earned title. In 1984, Lo famously partnered with the Communist Youth League in China to build a hotel in Shanghai, a bold move at the time. The respect and connections that project earned him would benefit him in the years that followed. 

The big stroke of fortune, one that would set Shui On and Vincent Lo apart from other developers in China at the time, was the Xintiandi (“new heaven on earth”) project in Shanghai. The idea was to take an old, traditional neighbourhood with examples of original architecture, and to refurbish the neighbourhood, keeping the original design and styling, while updating facilities and adding in modern retail and F&B outlets. 

Lo famously managed to strike up a partnership with the Shanghai city government that allowed the Xintiandi project to go ahead, nearly 20 years ago, and Xintiandi remains a cornerstone brand of Shui On Land. It has been successful enough that Lo says city governments now wish to have their own Xintiandi projects.

Find the full article in the March issue of The Peak.

NewAfeature_Artisans_710x350.jpg In Good Hands

The global artisan economy is the second largest employer in developing countries. But consumer habits, technical challenges and an array of other hurdles mean many artisans are fighting to keep their heritage alive in an ever-competitive marketplace. Now, there’s a wave of international programmes working to find innovative ways to help. 

When Elaine Ng first visited Jiao Xi Liang, a remote village in China’s Guizhou Province, it wasn’t the pastoral dreamland shown in tourist brochures. Sure, there were rolling green hills, terraced rice fields and wooden houses with pointed tile roofs, but traditional village life had long been ruptured by the realities of the modern industrial economy. “A lot of people have this very idealised vision of the village as a beautiful and tranquil place where people sit and sew,” says Ng, who runs a design studio in Hong Kong. In reality, she says, most of the villagers have left to work in factories. 
Guizhou is well known for its rich folk art traditions. More than a third of its 35 million residents are from ethnic groups including the Shui, Miao, Dong and other tribes known for their skills with batik, embroidery, woodwork and paper cutting. But as residents leave the village for better paying jobs in cities, traditional skills are no longer being passed on to the next generation. A dwindling population also means the market for artisanal goods is small and local. “Most villagers just sell to their neighbours,” says Ng. “The ecosystem is not complete.”  

Following her visit, Ng was inspired to help the local artisan economy become more sustainable. Over the past three years she has developed Un/Fold, a project run by her design studio The Fabrick Lab, which seeks to create a sustainable economic model of fabric production in Guizhou – one that supports traditional hand weaving and batik work but also connects the village artisans with a larger market. 

Since her first visit, Ng has returned to Jiao Xi Liang and helped the villagers make some of their heritage processes more efficient – setting the loom now takes a matter of hours, for example, instead of a full day. She also co-designed new products, adjusting existing proportions to suit standards of contemporary fashion and giving traditional patterns a modern twist. The prints on the new batik scarves are inspired by traditional Guizhou heritage motifs, but they are dyed three times in the indigo dye vats so that the colour slowly develops with different oxidation processes. “I wanted to give them a competitive edge,” says Ng. 

Initially working with one villager, Ng has now expanded to a group of six. Last autumn the studio launched a limited collection of lifestyle products that includes scarves, squat wooden stools and hexagonal wooden wall tiles, all of which are decorated with batik patterns normally used only for fabrics. Un/Fold is also collaborating with the upscale Shanghai furniture company Stellar Works to create custom pieces that uses artisanal fabrics and woodwork.

Prior to founding The Fabrick Lab, Ng studied for a master’s in textile futures at Central Saint Martins in London and worked as a materialologist with Nissan Design in Europe and Nikon Beijing. Her studio, which she describes as an ‘ideological lab’, brings together textiles, electronics and biomimicry for interiors and installations and often collaborates with luxury brands like Swarovski and Studioart. With Un/Fold Ng has used her industry experience to help the villagers bridge technical and communication gaps, while at the same time honouring their heritage traditions. “It’s important to understand the core value of making,” she says.   

Find the full article in the March issue of The Peak.

feature_Hauser_710x350.jpg Down to a Fine Art

In an exclusive interview with The Peak, Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth gallery talk Swiss patriotism, Celtic spirituality and hint at expansion plans for the East. 

The first order of business when I meet one of art’s most famous gallerists isn’t art, but industrial food production and Swiss patriotism. 

“We farm all our livestock, aside from the chicken, which is sourced from local farms,” Hauser & Wirth gallery’s co-founder and president Iwan Wirth announces when I meet him after a hearty lunch at Roth Bar & Grill, Hauser & Wirth Somerset’s in-house restaurant, located deep in the rolling British countryside. The restaurant is named after its architect Björn Roth (son of the Dieter Roth, the late Swiss artist known for his works made of rotting food). 

 “I really need to know where my meat comes from, as it’s being fooled around with so much these days,” continues the boyish-looking 47-year-old. “Industrial food production is poisoning you. I don’t eat on planes at all.” He pauses before adding, “though Swissair is actually pretty good.” The gallerist, whose art empire boasts five spaces in Somerset, Zurich, London and New York (there are two spaces in New York but they will soon combine into one), is clearly proud of his Swiss heritage. 
“When Swissair collapsed [in 2001 due to a cash shortage], it was a low point for our country. It was supposed to be our flagship brand, our global ambassador!” I interject, pointing out that many would consider Swiss watches to be the country’s greatest flagship brand. “Well yeah, that too,” he says. “You couldn’t imagine that Swiss watches were once considered a thing of the past. My wife [Hauser & Wirth co-president Manuela Wirth] and I keep giving each other vintage Swiss watches, though my daily [one] is this,” he says, gesturing to the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer on his wrist. “The watches from the 20s and 30s, they are divas. I used to trust my Patek Philippe from the 50s, but the hands just wouldn’t move. I missed a plane once.” 

Born in Zurich, Iwan grew up amid his architect father’s construction sites in St Gallen, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. His mother was a primary and secondary school teacher who descended from a lone line of northern Italian stone masons who moved to Switzerland at the turn of the 20th century. Iwan’s moment of epiphany came in 1976, when he visited an Alberto Giacometti exhibition with his grandmother at Kunsthaus Zurich – “I remember reading the captions. It was also my first memory of reading,” he recalls. 

An exhibition by Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor known for his Dadaist-inspired kinetic sculptures, and a Henry Moore show at a community outreach centre also made strong impressions on a young Iwan. “[The Moore show] was my first time seeing a reclining nude. It was very powerful for me,” he says. The Wirth family’s extensive collection of Giacometti books and prints underscore an unlikely encounter – Iwan’s father had struck up a friendship with the formidable Swiss sculptor as a Swiss Army officer in the late 1960s. “My father used to tell me how much a Giacometti cost back in the day, but he didn’t buy any!” he chuckles. 

This highbrow early visual stimuli provided fodder for Iwan’s first exhibition of his own art. “I was inspired by Moore and Giacometti to make some sculptures of my own,” says the gallerist. “Then I used my father’s copy machine to make some posters and hung them around the village.” 

While Iwan’s artistic career was nipped in the bud shortly after – “that dream died when I was 10. I knew I didn’t have it in me” – he rechannelled his energy into his opening his first gallery only six years later.

Find the full article in the March issue of The Peak.

feature_Art Forgery_710x350.jpg Seeing With Science

Few fields meld science and the arts as beautifully as art forensics. We delve into the ultra-specialist arena to discover the tools and techniques being used to bring expensive forgeries to light.

When master forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was arrested, his first thought wasn’t of remorse, but regret. “I was in prison not for the painting, [but] for the wrong signature. I regret the wrong signature,” he said. A haughty statement for someone who was about to be sent to prison, but then you would expect nothing less from one of the world’s greatest counterfeiters. In this line of work, a good forger combines a knowledge of art history with technical dexterity; an excellent forger can bypass stylistic and provenance examinations; at the top of the ladder however, are the few who not only possess the technical dexterity to fool art specialists and the nous to reuse old canvases to convince historians, but also an extreme sensitivity to pigment and paint composition. Beltracchi, the 66-year-old forger who managed to fool experts for four decades and was ultimately convicted of forging 14 works of art that sold for a combined total of US$45 million, was firmly in the latter group. And the adversary that led to his downfall? High-tech forensics tools – and the experts who wield them. 

Art experts have used tools like white light, UV and infrared light for decades, but when it comes to getting down to the nuts and bolts of material analysis, art forensics experts typically have three types of technologies at their disposal: X-ray Fluorescence (XRF), Raman and Fourier-Transform Infrared (FTIR). 

One of the most common and relatively low-cost techniques used in art forensics, XRF has the ability to identify the presence of elements in major and minor amounts. Take the colour yellow as an example: while an examination with the naked eye might suggest that the yellow on the Mona Lisa and the yellow on a Jackson Pollock abstract look about the same, XRF will most likely reveal that they are made of very different chemical components. Historically, pigments were often toxic, with the likes of orpiment, vermilion and white lead among those commonly used by artists. It wasn’t until the 19th century that these toxic paints were supplanted by safer substitutes. Thus, while a classical European oil painting might contain orpiment, its contemporary counterpart will contain yellow ochre or cadmium yellow. 

Beltracchi understood this – he knew to use paint from a tube labelled ‘zinc white’ instead of titanium white, which only came into usage during the latter half of the 1910s, to forge Heinrich Campendonk’s 1914 work, Red Picture with Horses. What the usually resourceful forger failed to take into account, however, was an age-old industry tradition, exposing him immediately to the sharp eye of art forensics experts. “Paint manufacturers sometimes add undisclosed ingredients to boost the colour or opacity of their paint,” explains James Martin, founder of Orion Analytical and recently-appointed Senior Vice President, Director of Scientific Research at Sotheby's. “The white paint that Beltracchi used was labelled zinc white, but also contained a small amount of titanium white, which was historically incorrect for many forgeries he painted.” 

Find the full article in the March issue of The Peak.

March 2017 Issue