Tom Tandio: A Journey of Self-Discovery Through Art
What Makes Art, Art is a series that delves into some of art’s biggest questions and picks the minds of various individuals from the art industry to uncover diverse perspectives that stimulate, inspire, confront and even clash.
If I had met Tom Tandio in 2006, I would’ve met a markedly different person than I did today. Formerly working in the automotive industry, the 38-year-old admitted that he used to live a bourgeois life, obsessed with materialism and wealth. Art was still a complete stranger to him. However, in 2007, his world started to change when his sister-in-law invited him to a gallery, owned by a family friend. Within two years, he’d gone from looking at art purely from an investor’s perspective to rediscovering himself through art. The more he explored, the more he fell in love with the geniuses behind the canvases.
“I started befriending the artists. I drank and partied with them. I wasn’t necessarily buying their art, but I was getting to know more about them and their works by hanging out with them,” says the Indonesian-born Art Jakarta fair director, who also founded IndoArtNow in 2011 to archive contemporary Indonesian art online. Beyond getting to know more about the artists, Tom was learning more about himself and about life.
“I used to be so shallow,” reveals the chatty, down-to-earth gent. “In the past, I would never use a tote bag like this [points to his Gillman Barracks tote] and it’s free too. I’m proud to use it especially since it promotes the contemporary arts cluster. Material things don’t matter to me anymore. I could be sitting here drinking with you at a five-star hotel and, at the same time, be sitting at a roadside warung in Yogyakarta with an artist.”
The art collector, who savours the intellectual experience of art and favours works that challenge his preconceptions, adds, “I became more open-minded about everything. It’s like the scene with the blue pill and the red pill in The Matrix—I feel like I’ve taken the red pill and now I see everything.”
High Net Worth: How did you begin hanging out with artists and curators?
Tom Tandio: One of my art mentors told me that a curator spends 24 hours with an artist. They know more than we do, so you should get to know them and find out which artists to collect. With that advice, I started getting closer to the curators, and then they told me that if I really wanted to know more about the artists, I should hang out with them. They also said that a lot of artists make art not because they’re looking for money. They just love art and want to express themselves. As someone who studied finance, I didn’t believe that, especially in a capitalist country like Singapore where it’s all about wealth and your social status.
To find out if the curators were telling the truth, I started befriending the artists. I drank and partied with them. I wasn’t necessarily buying their art, but I was getting to know more about them and their works by hanging out with them. I realised that even though many artists are poor, they continue to buy canvases and make artworks that sometimes may not impact others because it’s their passion.
Would you say you’re collecting artists rather than artworks?
Yes. I always say that I don’t believe in collecting artworks. I believe in collecting art practices. What does the artist believe in? What do they practice? What are they trying to convey? If their idea strikes me or changes the way I perceive something in my life, I consider it a good work and I start collecting them—not just a single piece of art, but the entire series of works by an artist.
Why do you collect in a series?
It goes back to the definition of how you perceive art. In my opinion, a good contemporary artwork is an artwork where the artist has a message to convey and that message is relevant to us in this era. I collect a whole series because you want to see how the artist develops and researches on the idea.
Do you ever feel the frustration of not understanding an artwork, and encountering an artist who isn’t keen to reveal the meaning behind a piece?
There are a lot of them. Artists are visual people. They’re not very good at talking. Sometimes, I find that when the artist is very articulate, the artworks aren’t very good. Then, there are artists who can’t speak well but their artworks are great. Artists will only talk to you once they know that you are sincerely trying to find out more about the artworks. If you go to an opening at a gallery and ask the artist what their work is about, they’ll feel like they’re not articulate enough to explain their work. If you hang out with them as friends and ask, especially when they’re drunk, they will start explaining.
There’s this Indonesian artist, Handiwirman Saputra who was selected to represent the Indonesian pavilion in the Venice Biennale. He doesn’t speak English, and even if you talk to him about his artworks, he won’t speak. He’ll only talk to those he’s close to.
What do you consider bad art?
If the message of the artwork is too general or shallow, the artwork is not interesting. For example, talking about getting married as an LGBT is so 80s. If you really want to be specific and sharp, you should be talking about whether LGBT couples should have children. What is the psychological state of children who grow up with two fathers or two mothers? In my opinion, such themes are sharper, more relevant and make for better artworks.
There are artists who say they’re tackling environmental issues, and have hence created a painting of a factory giving out smoke that pollutes the air. That’s so general, no? If you told me the artist placed a piece of paper on a chimney every day for 30 days to see which days are more polluted, it’s more detailed and conveys a deeper message.
Your experience of art is more intellectual.
Yeah, more cerebral.
What sort of art do you collect?
I collect everything from video art to performance art.
How do you collect performance art?
With just a piece of paper. There was an artist who did a performance I really liked, so I told him I wanted to collect it. He said, “Okay. This performance is yours.” And he wrote and signed on a piece of paper to say that it belongs to me. Now, whenever he wants to perform it again, he has to ask me for permission.
Is there a style or aesthetic that you’re more drawn to?
No, I don’t think I have a particular one. For me, it’s about the idea. The form can be so different.
What kind of ideas are you into now?
I recently bought a video art by a Japanese artist. Video art is a performance that’s been recorded, and once you purchase it, you collect the video in a USB drive. The artist is Chinese, but he grew up in a small town in Japan. Since he was the only Chinese in the Japanese community, he felt a lot of social pressure, which was tough for him. In the video, he returned to his hometown, laid on the grass, let snow fall on him until he couldn’t stand the cold anymore and walked away.
The deeper meaning is about life and how people are always telling you what to do and what not to do. We always endure until an age in our life when we say, “Oh, f*** you. I’m just going to be who I am.” That’s it. It’s such a simple idea, but I liked it.
How much did the recording cost?
It wasn’t expensive. It was about US$2,000.
Do you collect abstract art?
No. Because abstract art has fewer messages to convey.
You once said in an interview that ownership isn’t important, so why do you collect art?
I collect art because I want to send a message through my collection as a whole. For example, my collection shows what I’ve been thinking about. All the artworks I’ve brought have a theme.
What’s the theme?
To be very frank, it’s hard for me to define my theme because they’re all related to my life. It’s funny. I used to exhibit my collection at Yogyakarta. A friend of mine who knows me very well came to see my collection, and he immediately said my collection is really about who I am and what I’ve gone through in life.
Who are you?
If you see me on the outside, I’m very lively and happy. Just the other night, I was hanging out with artists and we went to a rooftop karaoke. None of the serious collectors would go there, but I would laugh and sing with them. People always expect my collection to be more colourful and joyful, but most of the paintings I collect are quite dark. I have a lot of drawings with knives and blood. My friend thinks that it actually shows who I really am.
What is one artwork that represents who you are right now?
I used to collect this artist, Aditya Novali. He told me that a lot of us are in denial. We have dual personalities and always define ourselves from the views of others. We don’t open that door to liberate ourselves and find out who we really are. I could not stop thinking about that. Artworks that illustrate such concepts make me think and question myself a lot.
What have you learnt about yourself through this process of collecting?
In the beginning, I collected purely for investment purposes. I used to be so shallow. I even chased after the best car, the best watch… After getting into the art world, my mindset slowly shifted and I totally changed as a person. I learnt that life isn’t just about material things—I became more open-minded about everything.
What is the meaning of life to you?
Poetically, life is about breathing. We’re all trained in school when we were children to have goals and targets, but actually in life, you’re just passing through. You just have to do the best you can in both the low and high moments. One day, you’ll just die. Life isn’t about chasing things. There’s no destination.
Finally, what is the importance of art fairs in reaching out to the masses?
A biennale is a big exhibition curated by a big organisation to show the zeitgeist of the era. For instance, a biennale could be focusing on the topic of gender, so they’ll pick artists and artworks that tackle gender issues, put them together and make a show out of it. A biennale is very important, but they don’t sell anything because they don’t want to be tainted by commercial values. They want to be more academic and knowledge-driven.
An art fair is the opposite. Art fairs also organise exhibitions in the format of booths for different galleries, but they are more commercial. The platform brings everyone together, especially collectors, and facilitates the transfer of money from the collectors to the artists.
These days, many galleries are doing their own shows, but most of them are run by individual owners and the ability for them to meet new people is very limited. In an art fair, it’s a lot easier to meet new people and sell. It’s also easier for the average person to go to an art fair, where they can see everything at once. It takes more effort to gallery hop.
An art fair can also become a lifestyle event. Some of the people who go to art fairs aren’t there to collect art. They just want to be seen at the fair, but it helps to pull them in—because you never know, they might start collecting art accidentally, like I did.