An Insider’s Take on Korean Star T.O.P’s Sotheby’s Art Curation

T.O.P. (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

​Choi Seung-Hyan, better known as T.O.P, and member of Korean all-boy band BIG BANG, might be a megastar musician and actor with a 1.3 million Instagram following, but he’s got art in his blood, literally. Korea’s most important post-war contemporary artist Kim Whanki, is a blood relative, as is Lee Insung. Hence, T.O.P’s current guest-curation collaboration with Sotheby’s Hong Kong which results in an evening auction on October 3 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, takes on deeper significance. 

#TTTOP is no ordinary auction sale. More than one year in the making it marks Sotheby’s first-ever curatorial collaboration with a young private collector – a benchmark representing the taste of Asia’s young collecting community. And to cynics who assume T.O.P simply walked into Sotheby’s larder and curated a Greatest Hits of their majestic inventory, think again. He even commissioned work for the auction. A portion of the profit of #TTTOP will be donated to the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), an established foundation that supports the development of young Asian artists – which once supported Kim Whanki. 

At exhibition’s opening #legend spoke with Sotheby’s Deputy Director, Asia, Yuki Terase, also a Specialist of Contemporary Asian Art, who worked with T.O.P on a number of specially commissioned works for the auction, about the Korean icon’s collecting clout, artistic flair and cultural influence.   

Work by Kim Whanki (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

What was T.O.P’s reaction when Sotheby’s first approached him?

He was a little surprised at the beginning, because Sotheby’s is such an established brand, but he was also very excited, and we started brainstorming almost straight away. He had a list of artists and works he wanted, so Sotheby’s International went around the world looking for available work. Having said that, a lot of them he rejected. It was a long, enjoyable process. 

Tell us about his specially commissioned works? 

T.O.P. has six specially commissioned works for this auction. At the entrance are two special works by Japanese artist Kaneuji Teppei. He’s an artist who investigates consumerism in pop culture, which is perfect in the context of this show. T.O.P has provided toy dolls of himself, and the artist has piled other cartoon characters together, like Doraemon and Charlie Brown, and sandwiched them like an avalanche. It’s part of a series by this artist called White Discharge. It’s a very ironic and cynical piece in the way T.O.P’s using himself as an icon in this context. 

Then there’s another by his best artist friend Nawa Kohei. He’s an artist who investigates the grey zone between reality and virtual reality. It’s also another very cynical yet serious piece. T.O.P asked Nawa to pixelise a figure that was already famous – T.O.P.’s Doom Dada doll, in glittering orbs of crystal glass, transforming the figurine into a bizarrely exquisite ornament.

Avalanche #1 by Kaneuji Teppei (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

And what is Taksahi Murakami’s imprint doing on this pillow? 

Murakami Takashi is a friend of T.O.P’s. So, this is a pillow from T.O.P’s bedroom which T.O.P obviously has slept on often, which he sent to Murakami who painted on it. This is not just a fan piece, it’s also another way of questioning what high art is. It’s the same kind of school as Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, or Jeff Koons’ inflatables, and questions distinctions between high and low art. So it’s not something he’s mocking or trying to make fun of, it’s a very serious and cynical piece in his eyes. Some people say this is a fun piece. But it’s been painted by Murakami. This is something he should turn into a series. This is very 21st century – it really resonates well with artists like Jeff Koons and the history and nature of art. 

Murakami pillow (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

All these pieces are Japanese. Any reason? 

It’s not intended. He’s spent a lot of time there. But, he doesn’t choose by nationality. It just happens to resonate well.  

Then there’s another one, by acclaimed young Japanese artist Tomita Naoki. It’s from Instagram. In May he was shooting a film in Germany, and he obviously is one of the biggest Asian stars in terms of followers on Instagram, and this he shot on the streets of Germany and he picked. So first on his iPhone, then his Instagram, and then seen through the prism of painter Tomita Naoki. It’s a very personal piece. It’s a stunning piece. And I like that personally commissioned part of it. 

And the last isn’t even produced yet, is that so? 

Yes. The last and sixth piece we are offering is Nawa Kohei, again, but it’s not a product, or one that’s been made. The buyer can commission Nawa to take a person as a model to turn into one of his Trans- series. The model you see here was personally commissioned by T.O.P in 2013 for his personal art collection. T.O.P will be actively involved in the process of coming up with materials, colours, and sizes. So that’s being offered in the auction. I think one of the reasons this auction is special is not just because it’s T.O.P, but for people who love art, regardless of liking or knowing who T.O.P. is, they just see this this very special combination of works and creativity. I think that’s what excites people most. 

Nawa Kohei, Trans Project (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

How would you describe T.O.P.’s artistic taste? 

He’s very original and eclectic and he doesn’t choose regarding to price or the fame, he chooses whatever appeals to his pedigree and ideally, so he loves art that’s original and art that is beautiful. So, those sound very simple and obvious terms but oftentimes people don’t follow that rule, so T.O.P is somebody who appreciates Kim Whanki, who not only happens to be one of Korea’s greatest artists but also a blood relative. And those are on a par with somebody like Tomita Naoki, who has just started off, and you know, the price point is three digits’ difference.” Technically speaking he’s a very modern artist. He studied in New York and Paris. And who is seen as the most important post-war Korean artist who happens to be T.O.P.’s great granduncle. So all his family majored in art or were art teachers.

What’s the most expensive in this auction? 

The most expensive is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Infantry. And its been given by T.O.P’s good friend and also one of the world’s biggest contemporary art collectors, Mr Yusaku Maezawa, who bought it at auction in May this year, for US$57.3 million. That’s from his collection. He didn’t want to sell it, but T.O.P is a good friend and he understands the importance of this event in Asia. It’s also a wonderful coincidence that it has the word ‘Bang’ in the middle given the name of T.O.P’s group, so there’s a wonderful intertextuality there. T.O.P asked and he said yes. It’s a noble gesture and marks how serious T.O.P. is as a collector that he’s able to procure something of such stature from one of the world’s leading collectors. 

Infantry by Jean Michel-Basquiat (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

Any other notable collectors? 

Well, we have a Keith Haring, a set of 23 images, which has come from David LaChapelle. He’s a celebrity photographer and artist, as you may know, so basically he sets the record for a Haring painting in a Sotheby’s auction in June in London. This was another Haring work he owns. Keith Haring was good friends with LaChapelle, Warhol, Basquiat, all that New York art scene. When LaChapelle learned about this auction, it meant a lot to him to be able to offer it. 

Keith Haring's work (Courtesy: Sotheby's Hong Kong)

Sotheby’s is using Anya Hindmarch in London as part of its next collaboration. What more can we expect on that front? 

We wouldn’t do it every season. It has to be the right person, in the right context. We wouldn’t feel forced to do that every season just for the sake of it. But what’s happening now is that there’s so much information available to collectors, it’s getting more difficult to really excite people just by showing work in a conventional way. You need a story to really capture eyes. And this is one of the trends in the world now. To see art through somebody else’s lens if you like. 

Certainly it arouses much digital interest. 

T.O.P’s auction for Sotheby’s has already generated more than 13 million impressions online worldwide. Just for this one auction. I think this must be the most traffic Sotheby’s has ever witnessed for such an exhibition. And it’s very interesting how cutting-edge that is and how representative of our innovative thinking. We’re very proud of that. 

What else can you share about the T.O.P collaboration? 

We’re doing this because T.O.P is notably one of the most serious and cutting-edge and important young collectors in Asia. He represents what is happening in Asia and the art world. With Art Basel in its fourth edition here in Hong Kong, there’s been an incredibly fast learning curve, compared to markets like London. There’s a lot of young people in Asia who are more art aware, who want to collect, and who can afford to collect. And so this is really what’s happening in Asia. And it sends a message from Asia to the world. We did a preview in Seoul two weeks ago. I was amazed by teenage schoolgirls in uniform coming in and wanting to understand what Richter is all about, what Basquiat is all about. How can that not be a good thing? Because their icon is into these things, that’s a great entry point for his followers. It really allows them to get into his psyche, and to feel they know him. Over and above that, it’s just a great platform to get younger people interested in art. T.O.P is using his power and influence. I was really touched by that in Seoul, seeing those girls, trying so hard to understand. I think he will continue to become a more and more important figure in the art world. And not just in Asia. 

In this Story: #icons / #culture / #art & design