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Frieze Week London 2023

Collector Yan Du Makes Space for a Global Conversation

The China-born, London-based collector is a passionate about fostering dialogue between the work of her home country and the world through the Asymmetry Foundation


BY Zoé Whitley AND Yan Du in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 15 OCT 23

Zoé Whitley Let’s start at the beginning. Who was the artist who marked the start of your collection?

Yan Du I would say Louise Bourgeois. She is my muse and I started to collect her when I was pregnant. Before that point, I collected more spontaneously and impulsively – works by male artists, works by women, whatever grabbed my attention. My love of Bourgeois really blossomed because of a trip to New York, where I visited her studio. I read about her and watched the documentary The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine [2008] and was so touched by her story. It’s not just the artworks, it’s the whole person and her multiple identities that I became fascinated with. Bourgeois combined all these different roles – artist, of course, but also mother and wife; I, too, have more than one personality and multiple roles, especially as I was about to become a mother myself. That was the moment when I realized that art is a mirror and, whether an artist is living or deceased, through their work I am able to see another reflection of myself. Then, I bought an early bronze. Even though Bourgeois is best-known for her sculptures, I really love her depictions on paper of trees, which are essentially about life and love, symbolic of the mother tree – to paraphrase the artist [in a 1979 conversation with Deborah Wye]: 'a person who exists, grows and procreates'. The work touched a chord with me; I even have one of her drawings as a small tattoo.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Grass Thorn IV, 2017. Photo: Lee Whittaker
Hu Xiaoyuan, Grass Thorn IV, 2017. Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW Your collection is something that exists in the present tense and also in the future. It continues to grow. Who are the artists that you are watching right now?

YD It’s very hard to give specific names, because there are so many that I’m looking at globally. Recently, I lent my support to the performance artist Pan Daijing, who I think is really an up-and-coming star. She will have a show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich next year. I support her projects with other institutions and she is someone I’ve been friends with for some time. In addition to emerging artists, recently I’ve been focusing on Chinese artists born in the 1970s and ’80s, like Hu Xiaoyuan and Duan Jianyu, who are very established in China but not well known by Western audiences. I’m hoping to support future shows of their work in London and elsewhere. I’m keen to encourage transnational conversations between Western and Asian cultures and to follow artists who address this, too. For example, Lotus Laurie Kang, who lives in Canada, but whose Asian background can be seen in her practice. That’s something that fascinates me: an artist’s work is not just about that individual, it’s also about cultural exchange.

Yan Du at her house in London with Snowy, August 2023. Photo: Lee Whittaker
Yan Du at her house in London with Snowy, August 2023. Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW You talked about the impact of your visit to Louise Bourgeois’s studio. I know you do a lot of studio visits. Are there any other particularly memorable ones that you’ve done?

YD Yes, I spent one month in China recently and visited more than 20 artists’ studios – painters, sculptors, video and performance artists – and each practitioner, of course, is unique. Every time I travel, I devote a lot of time to visiting artists in their studios and, often, no matter where we are, having conversations over a traditional hotpot: an intimate and familial meal that, by its very nature, is about sharing and creating. When I went to New York earlier this year, I visited around 12 artists working across all media, who belong to the Sinophone community there and who I’ve been following and collecting.

ZW What studio visit would be your dream? It could be someone alive or dead.

YD I’d like to visit Sarah Sze’s studio. I started collecting Sze’s work some years ago, but only recently met her in person. I would love to see her process. 

From left to right: Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1956; Yoichi Ohira, Mosaico a Polvere, 2001; Kazunori Hamana, Tsubo, 2022; Sheila Hicks, Entrance to the Forest, 1972 (partially visible on wall). Photo: Lee Whittaker
From left to right: Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1956; Yoichi Ohira, Mosaico a Polvere, 2001; Kazunori Hamana, Tsubo, 2022; Sheila Hicks, Entrance to the Forest, 1972 (partially visible on wall). Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW Have you seen The Waiting Room [2023], Sze’s Artangel commission in Peckham?

YD Yes, I love it. I want to see the way she channels her spirit of collecting, bringing all the elements together in a way that transforms the work from being purely sculptural to something that is a type of performative display. 

ZW What’s your most recent acquisition?

YD I bought several works on my trip to China. One of my favourites is a collaboration between the late Song Huai-Kuei, also known as Madame Song, and her husband, the late Bulgarian fibre artist Maryn Varbanov. Song is currently the subject of a survey show at M+ in Hong Kong, which celebrates her not only as a very glamorous figure but as an audacious and brave role model, who was ahead of her time in embracing a modern, international lifestyle in China. She was the first person in the People’s Republic of China to be allowed to marry a Western man! Like many of the artists I admire, she, too, has fascinating multiple identities, and I relate to the complex and spirited individual behind the creations.

Haegue Yang, The Intermediate – Weary Hairy Hug Senior, 2018, and Cecily Brown, Memento Mori 2, 2006–08. Photo: Lee Whittaker
Haegue Yang, The Intermediate – Weary Hairy Hug Senior, 2018, and Cecily Brown, Memento Mori 2, 2006–08. Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW One of the reasons why I was excited for us to do this interview is because you’ve also pivoted to being a public philanthropist with Asymmetry Art Foundation, and Chisenhale Gallery, I am proud to say, is a beneficiary of that. What prompted that shift from collecting privately to creating a broader platform for scholarship and curatorial development, especially around Sinophone art?

YD I started collecting many years ago and it grew into a real passion. I have always supported artists, but, in looking at other collectors opening private museums and various types of spaces, I knew I wanted to do something different. I’m fortunate to consider many artists and curators as true friends and, through our circles, I realized that both need support, but people tend to focus on the former. Yet, it’s the curators who are staging the shows and bringing artists’ work to our attention. So, it is my mission through Asymmetry to support curatorial programmes within institutions. Especially now that I am living in London, I want to use my voice to spread the word about the many and largely unexplored dialogues between Western and Asian art. It’s not just about Chinese, Sinophone or even Pan-Asian narratives, it’s about enabling a different perspective and bringing a new authorial position to a wider global conversation.

ZW So, in the end, your collecting and the foundation are not separate – these interests are firmly entwined. And with the foundation you are building a community.

YD Yes and no. They are very separate but operate within an expansive and entwined community. I respect all creatives and want to bring everyone together. At Asymmetry, we are a small team, so ideas and collaborations develop in a very considered and organic way, but with the intention to make the biggest impact possible within these art ecosystems.

Ilona Keserü, Slit, 1969. Photo: Lee Whittaker
Ilona Keserü, Slit, 1969. Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW I know part of your work is also supporting new scholarship and new writing. What new art books are on your shelves?

YD The artist and educator Chang Yuchen’s work at Asymmetry – she is one of our inaugural librarians-in-residence, along with the writer and curator Alvin Li – came about through a recent visit to her studio in New York; I was fascinated by Yuchen’s dictionary of coral and how she has created an entirely new language from these naturally occurring forms. I also recently received In Cascades [2023], published to accompany Kang’s exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery. The book is beautiful and I am proud to have supported it. 

Lee Whittaker image of a kettle and a bowl of lemons
Photography: Lee Whittaker

ZW Lastly, what are you most looking forward to seeing, either at Frieze London or around town during Frieze Week?

YD This is the first time since the pandemic that I will be in London for the fair. I’m very excited to see the local community and those from abroad come together. That’s why we decided to host our inaugural Asymmetry Rituals during Frieze Week: a full day and night programme of talks, panels and multi-disciplinary performances, where curators, artists and thinkers will be able to connect. We have a fantastic line-up and programme – it’s going to be a great celebration of creativity and intellectual curiosity! 

I’m also looking forward to some of the shows around town. This may be the first time that so many Chinese artists are showing during Frieze Week, including Xie Nanxing’s exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery and Liu Ye at David Zwirner. Both artists are very good friends, and I cannot wait to see their new work.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline 'Collector Yan Du Nurtures Sinophone Art '

Main Image: Yan Du at her house in London with Snowy, August 2023. Photography: Lee Whittaker

Zoé Whitley is director of the Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, and the author of Solid!, a forthcoming monograph on Barkley L. Hendricks. 

Yan Du is a collector, patron and the founder of Asymmetry Art Foundation, London, UK, a non-profit dedicated to nurturing curatorial practice about Chinese and Sinophone contemporary art. She lives in London.