by Iona Whittaker 爱安阿
translated by Lu Wanwan 路弯弯
Dr. Michael I. Jacobs, a practicing dermatologist and Associate Professor at the Weill Medical College at Cornell University in New York, is also an avid art collector. A fortuitous encounter with the photojournalist Dimitri Kessel opened the floodgates on a world of photography and artistry in Paris, firmly establishing Jacobs’ engagement with the field. Positions on photography acquisition committees at the Whitney Museum and MoMA ensued. An impromptu visit to Beijing in 2010 with the International Center of Photography (ICP) triggered an intense interest in the work of video artists in the region—a field which remains relatively outside the focus for contemporary collecting, not least due to issues of presentation and preservation. This has proved no deterrent to Dr. I. Jacobs, who has amassed a collection of some 43 Chinese video pieces, the first of which was Cheng Ran’s “Rock Dove” (2009). In 2014, the exhibition “Now You See” at Whitebox Art Center was the first in New York to survey the work of young video artists from China.
(Editors: Dr. Jacobs has a minor shareholding in Ran Dian’s publisher, China Art Times Limited.)
Iona Whittaker: The lead-in for your collection was photography. Who were the first artists whose work you acquired?
Dr. Michael I. Jacobs: It started with Nan Goldin, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Thomas Struth and a few other artists.
IW: Where did this attraction to photography come from, originally?
MIJ: I studied a little art history at university—modern, ancient and Japanese art. Then I studied photography—making it, learning which end of the camera to look through when you take a picture [grins]—with one of my patients who was a former Life Magazine photographer. His name was Dimitri Kessel; he was originally from Russia, [then] 86 years old and retired in Paris. He invited me there, so I went back and forth to Paris 25 times in five years. The hook was that he was the art photographer for Life and was personal friends with Matisse and Giacometti. It was more about learning about the life of the artists and what was going on. He became like a grandfather. Through him I met David Douglas Duncan and many other former Life photographers. David became friends with Picasso, so I learned about life during the heyday of photojournalist photographers traveling all over the world—the poker games, the parties, the bars, the artists. It was fun. Dimitri passed away in 1995. A few months later, one of my patients invited me to interview for the photography acquisition committee of the Whitney Museum, to which he was connected (the committee was only 2 years old and he knew I liked photography). I decided to do it and started to learn the new language of art photography. That’s how it all began.
IW: When did you start acquiring things?
MIJ: I started pretty fast, in 1996 and 1997. Photography was invented in circa 1850, and there weren’t dedicated photography auctions until probably the 1980s, so it took 130 years. Video was invented in the 1960s. My prediction is that in the next 20 years, video will be recognized much more as an art form, just as photography was—it took a long time.
IW: With video, I suppose it’s partly an issue with display. Do you display the works you have collected?
MIJ: I do, in my office. I have art photography on the walls and a video by Hiraki Sawa (he gave me a monitor and DVD player to play it on). My next small project in my clinic is to have some Chinese videos from my show in my office to play on loops, so that my patients can see what I’ve been doing.
IW: You have a captive audience…
MIJ: Well, it’s also dangerous because if it’s a short video and I’m running late they say to me “Oh, I saw this ten times, you’re really late!”—that’s the danger of putting it in an office where time is of the essence!
IW: Speaking of time, many people remark on the length of video works and the demands they make on fraught viewers at biennials, for example, where a number of very long pieces might be on display. How do you feel about this?
MIJ: My personal taste is for videos on the shorter side. I’ve bought works that last 30 seconds (say, by Eko Nugroho of Indonesia—beautiful black and white animations) to those that run the same length as a feature movie, 90 minutes. But for my personal collection, the vast majority is under 10 minutes long. If the video has something to say that’s very important, then an extra 15 minutes is great; but if it gets the message across within 10 minutes and the other 15 minutes are superfluous, then I would wonder why the artist doesn’t edit better.
IW: But even before meeting Dimitri and the time spent in Paris, why do you think you were drawn to photographic imagery rather than, say, paintings?
MIJ: As a young collector, I made the decision to collect photography just from the point of view of financial self-interest. I decided to start with photography and see where that led me, because it was more affordable than it is now. I was a founding member of the Getty photography committee and I was on the MoMA committee. Having learnt how to look at images, moving images to me came naturally. I somehow have the ability to recognize a great video after looking at it for maybe 30 seconds or a minute. It’s something about how my brain processes images. Because I’m professor in dermatology at Cornell, I look at images all the time—rashes and spots—under the microscope, and somehow my brain works in a visual way. The motion, somehow, is, even easier for me than looking at single images. I went to China and started looking at the video artists’ work, and could tell right away. I must own maybe 140 artist videos from around the world. Once I decide to collect an artist, I buy in depth. I have courage in my convictions.
IW: You first went to China in 2010. What precipitated that?
MIJ: That trip was kind of an accident. I was invited one Tuesday night by one of my friends—Artur Walther, a board member at the International Center of Photography—to join a trip leaving that Saturday. I thought about it and realized that these opportunities don’t present themselves very often, and decided that whatever it cost me, I would go. We visited photographic artists in Beijing, and I went exploring on my own. I started knocking on doors and introduced myself to some professors and artists who turned out to be very gracious.
IW: After that, you decided to return. Do have any particular stories from your studio visits?
MIJ: The first artists I met were Cheng Ran and Li Ming; I had already bought their work from Leo Xu, who was showing it at James Cohan. Li Ming got very emotional when I met him at his studio, and I didn’t know what was going on. I asked the translator, who told me Li was so appreciative that, at a time when video wasn’t really popular in China, a collector from New York came over and bought the beginnings of his video work and wanted to help support it. I realized then that what I was about to embark on was going to be a journey, becoming personally involved in the artists’ careers and their lives and becoming friends with these artists who I thought were world-class and just needed help—both financially and in terms of international support. It was really fun. I asked to go to their studios and started looking at their work in depth, and what I bought was only scratching the surface of what they could do. It was just amazing.
IW: Do you commission works?
MIJ: No, I’ve never commissioned an art piece.
IW: How did the exhibition “Now You See” come about?
MIJ: I didn’t collect to put on a show, I just collected to be a collector and work in museums on the acquisition committees. But a lot of the art people in China—the art students and teachers—started to know me, and one of them sent me a message on WeChat to say that there was a young lady just graduating from art school in Shanghai who was coming to New York and asked if I would show her around the art galleries. As we walked along Broome Street, we passed a dark window with lights inside—perhaps a video show. It turned out to be an exhibition of Western video art, and I complimented the man there on it. He said, “How do you know about video? No one knows about video.” I told him I was on the Whitney video committee and I collected video—international but with a China focus now, and on the spot he said we should do a show. So he came and saw some of the videos and liked what he saw. It was March and he said, “Okay, let’s make the show in June.” I said, “But that gives me 60 days; museums get a year!” He said, “It’s okay. Let’s just do it.” I enlisted the help of Dr. Miwako Tezuka, Director of the Japan Society museum and the former curator at Asia society, to choose the title.
The number of people promoting these works in the West is not many—there’s Uli Sigg, Barbara Pollack, the Rubells, DSL, Jiehong [Jiang] in Manchester, and Phil Tinari is promoting. But there’s not that many really doing these shows. “Now You See” was only the second show dedicated to Chinese video in the United States, ever—James Elaine had the first. He’s a former Hammer curator who became a big promoter of Chinese art. But there are maybe six or seven people. Now that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to have a show, I’d like to do more. I don’t know how that will manifest itself.
IW: Do you feel you have had to adapt your way of seeing for Chinese works, specifically?
MIJ: Yes. It was a different perspective; but for me, the major criterion for buying a video piece is poetry. If the piece is poetic, then I’m in love with it. And even though it was a different culture, it didn’t matter because the poetry of these Chinese pieces still spoke to me; they got in to my being and my subconscious, and the imagery, stories and beauty of Sun Xun’s animation, for example, was quite extraordinary. It’s the same criteria I use to buy any artwork. This generation of video artists that I’m collecting had the capability—they are actually genius artists. I was totally surprised and amazed at discovering such great talent. I personally think Cheng Ran will be the next Yang Fudong. I don’t sense competition among them—I feel respect and a helpfulness which I find really great.
IW: And how do these works fit with the rest of your collection?
MIJ: I collect everything from Ryan Trecartin who makes super sophisticated, wild videos to younger names like Alex Da Corte; everything I collect has a spark. It’s extremely creative and original work, and cutting edge. I find amazing video art all over the world now, for example by Korakrit Arunanondchai (Thailand), Chim↑Pom collective (Japan) and Tromarama (Indonesia). And the Chinese videos certainly share the caliber of everything that I’m doing.
IW: Do you have an awareness of bringing these works to the US?
MIJ: At the time, I didn’t know what would happen with it. I was showing it behind the scenes to some American curators—that was really my goal. But the ability to have a show I think—and not only in the US but in New York which is the hub of the art world internationally—to put it in that context elevates the stature of Chinese video art.
IW: You are on a number of committees. What’s your feeling about American institutional programming in relation to Chinese or wider Asian art?
MIJ: I think the museums are in catchup mode now. The Guggenheim just got a grant and has a new curator of Chinese art, Thomas Berghuis. I know that MoMa, the Whitney—all the museums in the United States in addition to those who have done it all the time like Asia Society and the Chinese Museum in San Francisco—are paying attention and actively working on it. I feel personally that I would like to be helping part of that equation. I’m looking at painting, video and sculpture now; I’m slowly getting into sculpture—I’m watching that.
IW: Generally speaking, how would you describe what these video Chinese works have given you in terms of how you see things?
MIJ: It’s opened my eyes to something beyond the realm of the pure Western art world to thousands of years of Chinese history being reinterpreted both on a modern and contemporary level, and an ancient level in their art—whether they realize it or not. These artists have a beautiful culture that they bring into their work. Everything flows and is re-calibrated and—maybe subconsciously—put back together.