IN CONVERSATION: Simon Pilling

Upon return from Asia Week New York, and ahead of an annual buying trip in Japan, Asian Art in London sat down for a conversation with Simon Pilling, dealer of East Asian Art and Interiors. Having been in the market for ten years, Simon describes how he is focusing on educating the Western buyer in understanding the values of owning Japanese work, as well as appreciating the aesthetic impact it can make to ones immediate environment. Whilst his speciality lies in Japanese lacquers, Simon’s previous collections have included ceramics, metal works, silk screens and woodblock prints. Ahead of his forthcoming exhibition for Asian Art in London, we met at Soho’s Century Club to explore past, present and future collections.

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SILKSCREEN PRINT: MARK OF THE FAN by TAKEDA Hideo (b.1948)


Asian Art in London: First of all, can you summarise how you became a dealer of Japanese items? You come from an architectural background?

Simon Pilling: Yes, that’s right. I first became interested in Japanese art, when I was studying architecture at university. I soon developed a passion that I pursued through reading, and a certain amount of collecting. Through 25 years of practising architecture I continued my study of Japan, finally deciding that I should make a business out of it. So, I went back in to education, at the Sotheby’s Institute where I completed a Masters in East Asian art. I then launched myself in to the art world. While I still teach architecture at UCL 2015 it is my tenth anniversary of dealing in Japanese art.

AAL: Was the Masters a useful thing to do? Has it helped you in your professional practice in the art market?

SP: Yes, although the academic study was inevitably relatively generalised at MA level – covering Japanese, Chinese and Korean art – the act of studying changes your mind-set, and opens up an awful lot of good contacts.

AAL: You’ve just returned from Asia Week New York, how was it?

SP: It was very interesting: although not many U.K. dealers were showing, there were an exciting range of gallery exhibitions by stateside dealers, plus associated museum exhibitions. As a result of the Ellsworth sale, Christies main Japanese sale was moved back to mid April, although, Bonhams held their sale.

AAL: You mentioned previously you are returning to Japan in 3 weeks? What’s the purpose of the trip?

SP: It will be my annual major buying trip, meeting with dealers and artists.

AAL: So will you be on the hunt for contemporary work? Or more historical pieces?

SP: My specialisation, and what I’m most interested in, is 20th Century and contemporary; that is not to say that I don’t stock older pieces that I find interesting. There are relatively few dealers in the West that stock post-Meiji art.

AAL: Your 2014 Exhibition, Form and Allusion, had a broad collection spanning from the Muromachi period (1333-1568) to the current Heisei period (1989-present), will you be looking to do something similar at this years Asian Art in London event?

SP: Clearly I try to have a theme for each exhibition to avoid simply showing a recent acquisitions collection, which is the default position. Dealers usually try and think, ‘lets have a theme of…’ So in the past ten years I have always focused on different things. This year will be ‘The Tenth Anniversary Exhibition.’ For the first time, I am just going to go with that title.

AAL: So do you have certain pieces in mind for it? Or will you see what Japan has to offer?

SP: That’s primarily what this trip is for. There are certain pieces that I know are currently on offer out there that clients may want to buy, so I’m going out to see how good they are on my visit.

AAL: In the past ten years what do you feel has been the most important item you have sold?

SP: I suppose my real joy has been to find contemporary artists. I have one or two that I feel are particularly interesting in what they are doing and how they are continuing the medium of Japanese lacquer, which as you know is an East-Asian art form that the Japanese have unrivalled precedence in. It does continue which is extraordinary; like all art forms it needs a certain amount of dedication and focus to deliver the excellence that is required. It’s not an easy market; not in Japan, not in the West, but there are artists who are carrying on the tradition. So I go to the graduate shows, and if I see an artist’s work that is interesting, I’ll go down and see if we can work together to bring the work to the West.

AAL: So, who are the contemporary artists that you are so fond of?

SP: One is called Sasaki Gakuto. He’s only a young guy, 32 years old. He teaches at the Tokyo Geidai school and produces work in his spare time. If you look in my latest catalogue you will see his work, which intrigues and surprises the viewer, in that it uses lacquer to replicate other materials; this is quite a long-standing tradition. He has produced a series of boxes that replicate leather, zips and other materials. In 2014 Sasaki’s boxes were picked up by the Financial Times in their ‘How to Spend it’ supplement. He is an extraordinary man.

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Above: Two works by Sasaki Gakuto

AAL: Referring back to your Form and Allusion exhibition; Mark of the Fan by Takeda Hideo, was very interesting as it was produced in 1985, however, the work resembles the early floating world artistic style. Interestingly you positioned these alongside a piece by ukiyo-e master, Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi. Can you tell me a bit more about Takeda Hideo’s work?

SP: Yes, this is an artist who produced his most famous work in the 1980s. He was revisiting the 12th Century civil wars in Japan. Ultimately, he was showing that it was a subject matter that had become over-fetishised by the Japanese; he wanted to put a new spin on it. So he introduced both humour and fairly strong erotic content to the series. The British Museum actually ran an exhibition of the whole series a few years ago, the works certainly appealed to the West; Hideo’s workmanship is extraordinary. Kuniyoshi worked in woodblock and this artist was working in silk screen. The amount of detail is astonishing.

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WOODBLOCK TRYPTYCH: UJIGAWA KASSEN NO DZU by ICHIYUSAI Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

 AAL: I expect the market for lacquers is extremely niche?

SP: Yes, my speciality is lacquer, which is the one artform that I feel is so little understood in the west and yet is so fundamental to Japanese art. In the west it’s a niche within a niche, it doesn’t get much more niche-like than lacquer!

But the way I approach what I do is to try and open the whole understanding of Japanese society and Japanese values to those visitors to my exhibitions who are primarily intrigued by just the visuals of the work. There’s so much more behind it, so much about Japanese society which we really don’t understand enough of in the West. Fundamentally Japan is an exotic destination; yet, there are values in the artwork that are universal.

AAL: It’s refreshing to see the extent to which you explore the concepts behind work.

SP: Well, dealers do produce very good research, and I try to talk more about the societal context and history of a piece. I try to look behind a work’s technical amazement; until you understand why a piece works in the society that produced it you don’t really connect with it, which is what I’m trying to do, I’m saying that there are universal values in all art work – seasons, classical poetry, historical stories etc. Japan has probably got that depth more than any other society, which, when you understand the values, enriches both your life and your perception of the work.

AAL: The term Wabi-Sabi, seems to be a Japanese concept that is ungraspable to the West. Would you agree?

SP: There are certainly issues when the West and East have very different attitudes. For instance the West want things to be perfect, they do not want to see damage and decay. That is very different in Japan. For the Japanese, decay is the sign of history, it shows how society has used a piece over years; it becomes inevitably damaged, that gives it value and meaning for the Japanese. I had a piece in my last catalogue, a negoro lacquer, which fundamentally is a utilitarian piece used in temples for serving food to monks. They are black lacquered pieces of wood with a finishing coat of red. When they are first used the red is vivid and uniform, then, as a result of years of use the red layer wears away and the black is revealed. For the Japanese this is an extraordinary development. To an extent this can be understood in the West, but it’s a very different way of looking at it. Actually appreciating that the passage of time adds value to the work in society is not inherently a Western value.

AAL: So what’s the demographic for buyers of lacquer in the west?

SP: I suppose with all collecting the demographic is older than you might wish it to be. I would like to make the demographic younger. Using my architectural sensitivity and appreciation, I am trying to think more about somebody who will take a piece and put it in their home for aesthetic quality; I want the work to make an impact, and improve the quality of their immediate environment, instead of a collecting lots of pieces and putting them in storage somewhere; its a different kind of appreciation. 

Again, there is a tradition in the East that you rotate pieces that are on show; you don’t have many out at one time. The work on show matches the season, which adds appreciation; you see things through fresh eyes. In the West, everything is accessible almost all of the time.

In terms of the appeal of Japanese work, it’s certainly much easier to sell a piece of ceramic, or metal work, and as you pointed out earlier, prints for the wall; these are more familiar items to the Western buyer. The problem with lacquer is that there is no Western equivalent. People can be uncomfortable with it – they fear it’s too vulnerable, they fear it will take a lot of maintenance. In essence, they may have no way of relating to it. That is one of the challenges of my position. But, every so often you will find someone who is taken aback by lacquer – amazed by its quality. I believe, as the French critic Louse Gonse wrote, Japanese lacquer to be “the most perfect and finest objects issued from the hand of man”.

AAL: The notion of work being rotated is interesting. Whilst visiting Japan this February, all of the museums that would traditionally show work by Hokusai had alternative works on show. This was due to the Hokusai collections being in Paris for the Grand Palais exhibition. This gave museum viewers, like myself, a chance to see work by artists such as Shiro Kasamatsu, and Kawase Hasui, which would traditionally be less of a focus. This is something you don’t often see in the West.

SP: It’s true. There are some museums who are increasing their collections of contemporary and 20th Century Japanese work; London’s V&A being one of them. Fundamentally, however, museums established their major works when 19th and 20th Century collectors were donating their work. So, Meiji work was contemporary at that time, it’s not as if they were showing the public antique pieces. But then that all stopped for several sound 20th century reasons, and what has been happening since is relatively little known.

AAL: Finally, is a permanent location something you are looking to invest in? Whether that be in New York, Tokyo or here in London?

SP: No. In theory it’s a nice idea, but a permanent space is a permanent drain on one’s finance, as well as limiting one’s ability to travel. And to be frank, there’s not a huge amount of passing trade in this market. What I’m doing, not uniquely, is almost exclusively buying in Japan, and bringing the material back. That is not to say that it would not be possible to work primarily in the Western market – many dealers do this very successfully. There is a lot of work already over here in great collections, thus there’s a business to be made. But if, like myself, the passion is for more modern work the source will almost always be the country of origin – Japan.


Simon Pilling will be showing his Tenth Anniversary collection during London’s Asian Art Week, 5th November – 14th November 2015.

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