For Hélène Nguyen-Ban, Art Is a Way To ‘Reunite a Fragmented Identity’

The Vietnamese-Alsatian collector and patron opens up her London townhouse, as she develops her own app to help others navigate the art world’s complex terrain

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BY Sarah McCrory AND Hélène Nguyen-Ban in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 15 OCT 22

Sarah McCrory: Hélène, I would love to start at the beginning and ask, what were the first artworks that had an impact on you?

Hélène Nguyen-Ban: At the beginning I actually had little idea how to navigate the contemporary arts scene. I started out accumulating lots of objects, artefacts and antiquities, some Western religious art, such as figures of the Madonna and Child, but mostly relating to civilisation and ancient cultures: Tang terracotta figures, Classical Chinese ceramics and also ritual African and Asian art, like Vietnamese Buddha statues, 18th century Burmese pagan disciples, or a royal Congolese ceremonial totem. 

But in terms of contemporary art, my first important discovery happened walking around in the street. It was in 2001, walking past the gallery Enrico Navarra in Paris: I was absolutely struck by the portrait of Zhang Xiaogang in the window. I was mesmerised by these faces, with their very fixed gazes concealing all emotions. It connected to my own Asian upbringing, where showing feelings, I remembered, was almost vulgar. And that was actually the beginning of my obsession with art: art as a therapy, I would say. I was lucky enough to have crossed the path of this amazing artwork, totally randomly. It was probably my karma.

Behind: Alvaro Barrington, St. Vincent GBY M, 2022. In front: Pascale Marthine Tayou, Colonne Pascale, undated
Behind: Alvaro Barrington, St. Vincent GBY M, 2022. In front: Pascale Marthine Tayou, Colonne Pascale, undated. All photographs: Anton Gottlob

SM: Could you tell me more about your upbringing and background? Because you’ve lived and worked in lots of different places since I’ve known you.

HN: I was born and raised in Africa – I have a Dogon Ashanti fertility doll that I have been carrying with me all my life – but my roots are Vietnamese-Alsatian. That’s actually the reason why I’ve intuitively been interested in works that reflected this complexity, the complexity of forming one’s self-identity – artists like Danh Vo, Thao Phan Nguyen, Mai Thu- Perret, Thu Van Tran, and so on.

Vo was born in Vietnam, for instance, and worked in Europe and Denmark, and that is an experience and a cultural map that I can relate to. His works reflect this very complex intertwining of Vietnamese and Western European cultures through both personal and collective memories, which interested me a lot when I came across them. And this pushed me to explore the multiplicity of Asian cultures, through the works of artists who from a contemporary perspective confronted their own cultural heritage.

Hélène Nguyen-Ban in her home in London, September 2022. On wall: Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 1954
Hélène Nguyen-Ban in her home in London, September 2022. On wall: Pierre Soulages, Peinture, 1954. On floor, right: Antique Shan lacquered bust of seated Buddha, XVIII Century

SM: Are there any other threads or links between the works you collect now, outside the theme of looking at identities that in some way relate to your own life and perspectives?

HN: Yes, I think so. Because collecting, as I said, has always been a way to reunite my very, very fragmented identity under one roof. In a way, my art pieces are the totems of my own upbringing. So there are themes, but I would say they appear to me a posteriori. For instance, the body – not from the angle of the aesthetic, the plasticity of the body, but more the complexity of the body, as the crossroads of social, political and emotional realities. The portrait is super-represented in the work of artists I love, from Camille Claudel, Marlene Dumas, Robert Mapplethorpe and Thomas Schütte, to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville and Sin Wai Kin. So yes, the body, definitely. And of course, the cultural heritage and the identity politics of the artists I mentioned, like Danh Vo, Huang Yong Ping, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami and Alvaro Barrington. These are all artists I have been collecting. I would say technology, and the possibilities of painting in the age of technological reproducibility has been super-interesting for me in the work of artists like Wade Guyton, or even Christopher Wool.

And lastly, surrealism, which is super-trendy at the moment but has not always been. Artists like Jean-Marie Appriou, Bendt Eyckermans and Issy Wood – a new generation of surrealists.

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2018
Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2018

SM: How do you go about adding to your collection, what’s your process of deciding on a new acquisition? Do you consult advisors or friends to steer you?

HN: Oh, absolutely not! I would say acquisitions were always, and still are always, a matter of falling in love with an artwork or an artist. I’ve never really questioned this impulse or intuition. It’s true that my process has been evolving with a little bit more knowledge over the years, but I quickly realised that actually the more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.

This also, I understood, when I was a gallerist [Nguyen-Ban was owner of VNH Gallery in Paris, from 2013-19], as I was forced to really push my boundaries and expand my parameters of curiosity. During that period of time, my personal collection also became more and more eclectic, and I realised that grasping all the complexity and the granularity of the contemporary art ecosystem is truly a full-time job.

On wall: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Advice, 2007. On floor, still wrapped: Pol Taburet, Lip Pulp, 2021
On wall: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Advice, 2007. On floor, still wrapped: Pol Taburet, Lip Pulp, 2021 

SM: Did that experience shape your thinking about Docent?

HN: Yes, the experience of being a gallerist has a lot to do with my new venture at Docent. I actually ended up creating the tool I wish I’d had at the time then. Docent is the first mobile app powered by machine learning which helps to discover contemporary art through very personalised recommendations, within a highly curated environment. Since the quest is never-ending, Docent helps any collector – from a total neophyte, like I was before, to a more seasoned one – to really navigate through this very rich world. Going on that journey was my dream at the time. I always thought when I started that it would be amazing to have such a tool. And this is what we are trying to do, to carve out a space online to discover art.

SM: When does it launch?

HN: Docent is currently growing its community of galleries, institutions and collectors by invitation-only, and will be opening to the public early 2023.

SM: That’s exciting. It’ll be in time for Frieze LA! But can I ask you a little bit about London? Because as I know, you divide your time between here and Paris mainly and I wondered how this city affects how you think about art?

HN: Yes, sure. It has a very important impact, especially because I am now spending much more time here in London than when I had the gallery. And obviously this gives me much more time to engage with the local scene, supporting local institutions, like your gallery at Goldsmiths [Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art], and Gasworks, among others. And visiting artists’ studios in London; I feel so lucky to have been able to meet amazing artists here, like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Sin Wai Kin and Issy Wood, to name a few. For me, London is the most eclectic and international city. And for that reason I think it’s a truly great place to discover your needs and collect art.

On wall: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2008
On wall: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2008

SM: On the other side of the Channel, you are the new Chair of the Board of Fluxus. Could tell me about that, and how you see the link between France and the UK, particularly in these times of international relations realigning?

HN: Very good question. I’m very happy, as you know, to have succeeded Catherine Petitgas, who is a great friend, and who has been running Fluxus for over a decade. Fluxus is a non-profitable organisation, and was created in 2010 to champion art on both sides of the Channel, and is supported by many French and UK public institutions, from the French Institute, the French Ministry of Culture, the British Council, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and so on. For me, it is even more important at this specific moment to dedicate more time to the mission of Fluxus, which is to build and expand on the existing network of partner institutions who share the same commitments and values, hopefully, tightening the links between the UK and France. It is so important to reduce the distance sadly recently created by Brexit, so fostering artistic development through this exchange will enhance a very sustainable and long-term collaboration between UK and French visual art scenes. Let’s hope.

SM: Amen! You now have many years in the art scene under your belt. What advice would you give to a new or burgeoning collector?

HN: Guess what my advice would be?

SM: Get a great app?

HN: Exactly. Download Docent. Because at Docent we believe that art is a never-ending journey of discovery and stepping out of one’s comfort zones. And as you know, for a new collector, contemporary art is still a connoisseur’s game, whether we want it or not. And finding what you like, and gaining access to artworks, is often a very hard and long process. New collectors often get totally lost in translation, and even existing collectors, by the way, can feel overwhelmed by the abundance of artists and artworks available to them. Data-led, trustworthy guidance for navigating the physical and digital space, is too rare.

SM: Do you think working on Docent and the issues it addresses has changed how you think about your own collecting?

HN: For sure, absolutely. What we are trying to do is create deep connections between artists which are not immediately visible, or which don’t manifest in the real-life situations of fairs, or galleries, or institutions – because some artists lack visibility, and also it’s hard to see and screen everything. And to be honest, I have been discovering myself lots of artists who I’d never heard about. So yes, that has opened possibilities for me, and has changed the way I discover, definitely.

On wall: Bendt Eyckermans, The Phantom, 2019
On wall: Bendt Eyckermans, The Phantom, 2019

SM: So onto a more fun question. Many people with collections struggle to answer this question, so I’ve narrowed! In this exact moment on this day, what’s your favourite work in your collection?

HN: Thanks, but it’s still a very tough question!

SM: Okay so I’ll reframe it as: is there something in your collection that’s been particularly prominent in your thoughts today, or this week?

HN: Ah, yes. That’s a very good way of framing it... Well, I’m obsessed with the sculptures of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, which I have been reuniting at my place: Claudel and Rodin were lovers, you see. But today and this weekend specifically, I’ve been really reflecting on the works of Oscar Murillo, since he just opened a new show in Venice, at the Scuola Grande della Misericordia. It brings together painting, installation, sound and digital works around his long-term project with school students, Frequencies. And at Docent we have been collaborating with him on the creation of new video works inspired by and generated from those created by schoolchildren. Using algorithmic painting techniques and neural style transfer, our team have been extracting motifs and symbols from the students’ works and have combined them with the style of Oscar’s ‘Social Cataracts’ series to generate new digital artworks.

To me, this project is so fascinating because it not only demonstrates the efficiency of the AI that we are developing, but also its limitless potential for creative innovation.

On floor: Jean-Marie Appriou, Perceval, 2020. On wall, just seen: Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2012
On floor: Jean-Marie Appriou, Perceval, 2020. On wall, just seen: Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2012

SM: Speaking of ‘limitless’, another fun question: if there were no barriers at all; of time, finances or access, what would you add to your collection?

HN: Another tough question. But I would start with my craziest dream, which is an orthodox Catholic icon of the Madonna and Child: though I also believe that some artworks can only be experienced within the space as imagined or designed by the artist, and owning within a private collection could transform or denature the true purpose of such work. What I would actually dream to live with is the living spider web installation that Tomás Saraceno did at the Palais de Tokyo for his Carte Blanche in 2018.

SM: This is a fantasy question, so in the fantasy, you can have the exhibition venue, too. I now give you that Tomás Saraceno, along with the whole Palais de Tokyo to your house, today.

HN: That would be a dream!

SM: Finally, it’s your dream dinner party. Perhaps, I don’t know, you’re having it in the Palais de Tokyo, in amongst the Tomás Saraceno. Which artists, living or dead, would join you around the table?

HN: Many. Leonardo da Vinci, first of all, because he was both an artist and a scientist, so exactly at the intersection which interests me. And Hito Steyerl, an artist who I would love to meet to discuss the complexity of the digital world and the implications of artificial intelligence for our society. Also Vera Molnár. As you know, she was a pioneer, and the first woman to use computers in their own art practice.

SM: Just three? Add one more person!

HN: David Hammons, especially because it’s very rare to find any revealing personal content or interviews with him; he is very, very, very discreet.

SM: He’s wily.

HN Yes. I would love to collect him actually, but have sadly never had access. But that would be someone I would really love to meet.

SM: It sounds like a great dinner party to me.

HN: Well, I hope so…

SM: I’ll set it up. I’m not sure I’ll can get onto da Vinci, but I’ll try the others.

Main Image, clockwise: Detail of Antique Virgin, XVIII Century. Xinyi Cheng, Joséphine, 2019. Dahn Vo, Caritas, 2018. Guillaume Valenti, Séville, 2022. Issy Wood, Opium over the holidays, 2021. Photograph: Anton Gottlob

Sarah McCrory is Director of Goldsmiths’ Centre for Contemporary Art, London, UK.

Hélène Nguyen-Ban is a collector, patron and the founder and CEO of Docent, a mobile app powered by machine learning to discover and collect contemporary art within a highly curated and personalised environment. She also serves on the International Council of Tate, the Asia-Pacific Committee at Centre Pompidou, and since 2022 is the Chair of the Board for Fluxus Art Projects. She lives in London, UK, and Paris, France.

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