Phoebe Hui

LONDON — E, S and G are becoming three of the most important letters in the luxury alphabet, with brands eager to spell out just how responsible, and impactful, they can be with their environmental, social and corporate commitments. At the same time, investors and shareholders are increasingly putting their faith, and their money, behind brands that are not just profitable, but progressive, too.

Europe’s luxury watchmakers were among the first movers on the social side, putting their money, and influence behind artists, artisans and designers. Richemont’s chairman and owner Johann Rupert cofounded the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship with former Cartier executive Franco Cologni, while Rolex established its Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative nearly 20 years ago.

Audemars Piguet has run its Contemporary program for nearly a decade, commissioning work from international artists at various stages in their careers, and COVID-19 failed to interfere with its mission to find artists and support new work.

Phoebe Hui  Image Courtesy of Phoebe Hui and Audemars Piguet

The pandemic even spurred Audemars Piguet Contemporary to think differently, base its latest commission in Asia for the first time, and expose the artwork to a worldwide audience for an unusually long period.

The large-scale installation “The Moon Is Leaving Us” by Phoebe Hui, an artist and researcher who looks at the relationship between language, sound and technology, will go on show at Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong on April 25. The show will run for nearly a month, through May 23, and the last few days will coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong.

Hui, who is based in Hong Kong, said she was so taken with the moonlight falling on the snowy mountains of Switzerland that she decided to delve into humans’ relationship with Earth’s only natural satellite. She worked for more than a year alongside Ying Kwok, the guest curator on the project who also oversaw the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017.

Hui said the moon struck her during a visit to Audemars Piguet’s headquarters in Le Brassus, Switzerland. She was on her way to dinner with the AP Contemporary team, and they took a short walk through the snow to reach a family-run restaurant.

“I noticed the way that the moonlight bounced off the bright snow and the peaceful soundscape — it was awe-inspiring. My imagination loomed large, and it is then that I started to conduct some early research about the moon,” said the artist in an email interview.

Phoebe Hui in her studio.  Courtesy of Phoebe Hui and Audemars Piguet

The project, she added, responds to historical and contemporary observations of the moon and the critical role that its physical image plays in science, “and in our understanding of the universe.” Her work is also a meditation on the moon’s slow migration away from the Earth, hence the title of the work.

The installation will take place across multiple rooms at Tai Kwun and features sculptural and mechanical elements that she built herself. AP Contemporary put her in touch with François Conti, cofounder of the Swiss robotics, aerospace and research company Force Dimension, and a slew of academics to assist her with the project.

Hui created a video installation and a separate, kinetic robot called Selena, which is able to draw and which wears 3D-printed clothing. Hui even designed some of the screws used to put Selena together.

“We encouraged Phoebe to be ambitious, to go wild,” said Kwok in a Zoom interview alongside Audrey Teichmann, AP Contemporary curator. Kwok said the two key words they gave to the artist ahead of the project were “complexity” and “precision,” while AP Contemporary wanted the artist to step out of her comfort zone.

“They don’t just offer the resources. They try to help. Phoebe had never done anything on this scale, at such a complex level. Artists don’t always get this kind of support,” she said of AP Contemporary.

An image of the Moon, part of Phoebe Hui’s artwork for Audemars Piguet Contemporary.  Courtesy of Phoebe Hui and Audemars Piguet

Kwok added that the commission was “life-changing” for Hui because it allowed her to try something ambitious, and argued that it was good example of how luxury brands can support the arts “without putting a spotlight on product.”

Teichmann said the company never asks the artists to relate to Audemars Piguet product, talk about watches, or design a watch.

“We don’t push for a theme, we don’t push for a medium. We give the artists carte blanche. For us, it’s really about considering the unique practice they have. What we’re really interested in is the diversity of the discourses in contemporary art today. We want to dialogue about the world we live in, set ambitious goals for the artists, and offer support and resources they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.”

Asked why it’s important for Audemars Piguet to be involved with contemporary art, Teichmann said it “allows us to explore different perspectives on the world we live in. We feel the responsibility as a company to be very aware of, and to dialogue with, critical approaches to society, and different positions.”

She admitted the link that a luxury brand like Audemars has with contemporary art is intangible, and argued that it’s more about shared values. “High-end horology and contemporary art allow you to go beyond first impressions. The more you appreciate them, the more you enjoy them.”

AP Contemporary has built a flourishing creative community around its various art projects. In addition to the biannual commission that normally shows in conjunction with Art Basel, AP Contemporary has a Studio program which engages a variety of artists on a more frequent basis.

Teichmann said AP Contemporary keeps a close eye on its artists, and their work and is keen to make connections for them with collectors, institutions and galleries.

She said AP Contemporary is often involved in the second and third exhibitions of work it has commissioned. To wit, in late May AP Contemporary is partnering with The Vinyl Factory x Fact in London to stage a vast exhibition of work by Ryoji Ikeda at 180 The Strand in London.

“We have a long-term relationship with Ikeda, and a continuous interest” in his work, she said. “And we want to support artists in different stages in their career — not just young or emerging ones.”

Among the artists in the AP Contemporary group are Cao Fei, Kurt Hentschläger, Dan Holdsworth, Lars Jan, Theo Jansen, Alexandre Joly, Kolkoz, Robin Meier, Quayola, Cheng Ran, Arin Rungjang, Tomás Saraceno, Semiconductor, Jana Winderen and Sun Xun.

AP Contemporary is also working to be as open and welcoming as possible.

Hui’s physical installation will be presented by invitation only (due to COVID-19 restrictions) at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong, although anyone can access the installation remotely through a virtual exhibition tour and digital curator walk-throughs on the Audemars Piguet website.

“We want to contribute to a global dialogue. We are very sensitive to that and we want as many people as possible to experience Phoebe’s artwork,” Teichmann said.

While a range of luxury brands may be piling into the contemporary art sponsorship space — Chanel just established a new fund aimed at supporting creative pioneers and working with international museums and institutions — Teichmann believes there is zero threat of competition for talent.

“There are even more artists than brands,” she said, “and we will go on digging into the diverse art scenes. Emerging artists are a great source of exploration. There are so many approaches we want to consider — we don’t feel like there will ever be a shortage of talent.”

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