Establishing Long-Term Relationships with Artists, Mixing Synergies, and Working Holistically
Florence. My first inspiring art memory was when I was studying communication and media in Romania and I applied for a one-year liberal arts programme in Berlin. I was about 22 years old. During that programme we visited Rome and Florence. In Florence, we saw a chapel with a famous mural painted by mannerist painter Jacopo da Pontormo, “The Deposition from the Cross”. I was so surprised that someone could take a biblical theme and represent it in such an unexpected new manner. I still remember those bright shades of blue and pink and the choreography of elongated bodies. The mural is from the 16th century but it felt so contemporary. It struck me that art was such an imaginative field, it can challenge traditional themes and reimagine them.
Curating transforms. In Romania, in 2005, I made a selection of video works by art and film students for a one-off evening screening in the courtyard of a music club. This event is more of a footnote in my journey, but it was meaningful as it showed me that curating allows to build bridges between practitioners, institutions, art, and various shared spaces. At the time, I also realised the possibility of working across disciplines and skills. Curating is never fixed, it always transforms. Very intuitively, that drove me to apply for a master in curating at Goldsmiths.
Get comfortable shoes. I knew about Goldsmiths broadly, but I was little aware of the precise direction of the course, yet it was a good match for me. It was largely self-driven, giving you space and time to find your own voice. It was also very much peer-oriented, which was new to me as a way of learning. So much of the course was about exchanging with your colleagues, presenting your research, discussing, and shaping together the content of the class. This stayed with me as a valuable model of collective learning and working. Another thing that stayed with me, is the advice from one of our tutors to have good walking shoes. A lot of what I learned in those years in London was from walking the grounds, seeing exhibitions, making studio visits, and meeting artists and curators. The programme was not as structured as other courses but it gave me valuable tools and methods. It also suited the context of London, a city that takes a lot from you but has a lot to offer, a layered art scene with so much interest and curiosity—at least this was the case when I was studying there in 2009. People would travel all the way to zone 9 for a two-minute performance!
Collab and artist-focus. While enrolled in the programme, we had the opportunity to make an exhibition proposal in a gallery inside a students cafe. Naturally that area was full of food and drink smells, and we took this sensorial atmosphere as a point of departure. With two of my colleagues, Colleen Grennan and Manuela Schulmpf, we decided to work on new works with the fine arts students on a synaesthesia project. It was my first such exhibition project in collaboration, and that is how I still like to work today, including being engaged in new productions. I since remained very artist-focused, being part of the process of conception and production of an artist is extremely important to me. Also, we worked with what was there, with the particularities and limitations of the space, and I believe one can always work around constraints and give them a conceptual twist.
Working with the tools of the artist. One of my recent collaborations was with the late Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail, aka Ise. Sadly, Ise passed away in 2019. In 2018, we started working together on a solo project in Kuala Lumpur. He worked a lot outside Malaysia—he was truly an artist on the move—but he longed to gain recognition at home. He always told me that this solo project would mean a lot to him. “Operation Bangkok” is a collection of large-format drawings Ise did after a residency in Bangkok, mapping the city through his wanderings, with collected stories from collaborators or strangers. I saw in these series the potential of bringing back home Ise’s experiences and ways of navigating the world. Ise was also very interested in publishing and printed matter, so we discussed the making of an artist’s book: a pop-up book dedicated to the robot, one of Ise’s recurring comic characters. The idea was not advanced so when Ise passed away I wanted to bring this project as close to his vision as possible, and make it happen in his own terms. For the publication, I didn’t want to do a conventional exhibition catalogue but work with his tools. In 2005, Ise and curator Nur Hanim Khairrudin started an art magazine, sentAp! (Malay acronym for ‘art without prejudice’), as a platform to foster contemporary art writing in Malaysia and create regional connections. It ran until 2015. It was also a site of artistic production for Ise, as he would often do collages for the magazine or design the cover. I proposed Hanim to do a special issue of sentAp! dedicated to Ise. For me this was a way to remain close to the artist, work with what he developed and give continuity to long-lasting collaborations. We focused on interviews for the publication’s content, because that is also how Ise worked, always relational, in dialogue with people. The show opened in December last year at A+ Works of Art and then travelled to Singapore to the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art where Ise was an artist-in-residence in 2015, when we first met.
Leaving for Singapore. There are big decisions in life that aren’t hard. Although leaving for Singapore was a big change, I had no doubts about it. In 2011, I participated in a curatorial course organised by the Gwangju Biennial Foundation which provided a rich introduction to local artists, art institutions, and alternative spaces in Gwangju and Seoul, and I wanted to establish stronger connections with the broader region. Working at NTU CCA Singapore (an institution founded in 2013 that is closing its exhibition space this April), was such a timely opportunity, and I immediately immersed myself in this context from the very day I landed. It was literally starting from scratch, and as challenging as the process of institution building was, it was a rare gift.
Take a detour. In 2010, in London, I joined an independent initiative called FormContent, established in 2007 by three Goldsmiths graduates: Francesco Pedraglio, Caterina Riva, and Pieternel Vermoortel. This was a very formative experience for me. Together, we developed the nomadic programme “It’s Moving from I to It”, that unfolded as a script taking the pulse of conversations on art writing, authorship, subject-object relation—all ideas prevalent in London at the time. FormContent nurtured in me an inclination to think closely with artists, take a subjective and imaginative approach in curating and writing, and work holistically. It means reflecting on and caring about each component that makes a project complete. That’s an attitude I tried to bring to NTU CCA Singapore. I also tried to create small pockets within the body of the institution where you can have more intimate and close encounters, such as the “Exhibition (de)tours”. I saw exhibitions as a malleable material, and instead of doing conventional curators tours, we invited contributors from different backgrounds to introduce the exhibition from their perspective. It was also a way to make the contents relevant here and create relations with the community in Singapore. For instance, for Simryn Gill’s exhibition, we organised an “exhibition de(tour)” off-site, led by architect Lai Chee Kien. We walked along a popular area in Singapore known as the Golden Mile, experiencing the post-independence vision for Singapore conceived by a group of forward-looking architects in the 1960s, a vision of the city of tomorrow, one that integrates housing, retail, and transport in one place. We practiced together what Simryn’s describes as a form of understanding a place as a verb, rather than a noun, by walking, talking, and living.
Radical inclusivity. With Vera Mey, NTU CCA Singapore’s curator for residencies in 2014, we invited Post Museum to NTU CCA Singapore for a duration of 6 months. Post-Museum was established in 2007, by artists Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei, as an independent cultural and social space. Since 2011, it was running nomadically. Post-Museum took over one of the artist’s studios in Gillman Barracks, where NTU CCA Singapore is located. It was a wonderful collaboration under the umbrella of “More than [show] business: Post-PopUp at CCA”. They did an open call to share their space and received many applications. We were ready to make a selection, but in an act of radical inclusivity or in a very Duchampian’s understanding of an open institution, they accepted all the submissions. They reached out to communities that would not otherwise come to Gillman Barracks, which is also the value of these types of collaborations. This is the wonder of artists-led institutions, in their hands a small space becomes big. A lot happened in that studio, all self-organised!
Trust the process. I have a strong interest in a mode of working that privileges processes, exchanges and reflexivity, rather than themes. That’s something I call curating at first-person, which implies taking a personal approach, along the lines of feminist histories, but one that is always relational and engages with the world. I trust the artists a lot and I am trying to work through their ideas and start a process from their works, see what happens when they come together. It may be not as appealing sometimes and it can be a risky result, but I try to build long-term alliances with them, so when we come together on a project there is already an established trust.
Walk the talk. There is a certain tendency to not look or experience artworks for what they do, but be more interested in what they are about. The act of looking, the immersion into a sensorial-perceptual experience becomes more and more disregarded. I am interested in listening to the artist, but I also try to see how certain statements and claims—some projects are so well articulated—are embodied and substantiated by the artwork itself. If I am not convinced by what the work does, I am just not convinced. I am also interested in how artistic practices develop over time, not just in one singular work.
Pandemic companion. I came across a novel by Bernardine Evaristo, “Girl, Woman, Other”. It was a companion to me at the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all lonely and isolated. It’s such a powerful book. It brings together different narratives of Black British women in the UK across generations. It’s such a polyphonic novel. Evaristo writes in a very poetic mode where she is able to convey spoken language. I immersed myself in the stories of these women and all the nuances of their communities and the inevitable contradictions in their lives. It’s a fantastic book.
For fun, I like to run and play boardgames. I don’t like gyms. I live quite close to the sea in the East side of Singapore. If you run in the evening there is quite a lot of breeze, and the air is not so stiff. I love the simplicity of running, it’s so minimal, just your shoes and your body. And then I like to play boardgames. With my partner and a group of friends we have boardgames nights sometimes, we play Catan and Concept, I really like it.
If my 10 years older self was visiting me from the future today, she would tell me to not lose purpose. With the pandemic, I feel that I tended to lose purpose in what I am doing, so that would be helpful.
A beginning and an end. I try to be as disciplined as I can. I am a morning person, so I try to use my morning for thinking, writing, and reading. So I got myself a timer. That works for me and allows me to have more time for myself. When I was very young, I worked as a scriptwriter for television, writing two episodes a day at times. In a script, you always need to think about the big picture, to know the story from the beginning to the end, and this is how I work, I need to have a structure, a start and a finish. It can be just a timeline. Also, if I work on an exhibition or a book for say, two months, I am fully committed, day and night. So sometimes when working in an office, I need to learn how to distribute my energy evenly.
If I were a collector I would not be object-oriented. I would support independent initiatives, practices, projects, and ideas. For instance, I would support a publishing project if I had the resources. If you are a real art patron and you care about art, you need to support art at different levels.
If I wasn’t a curator, I would love to be a coach. What makes me happy is to see people following their dreams and fulfilling their potential. I enjoy such discussions with my friends, talking about their visions in life. I am constantly thinking about matching people with the right opportunities or with suitable collaborators. I would be very committed to this form of mentoring, in particular with students in universities or with people from disadvantaged backgrounds. To give that boost of confidence to someone and enthusiasm to pursue their vision, that’s something I would love to do.
Anca Rujoiu (b. Bucharest) is a curator and editor living in Singapore. As curator of exhibitions and later head of publications (2013–18), she was a member of the founding team of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore contributing to the institution’s numerous exhibitions, public programs and publishing projects. She worked closely with the Centre’s Founding Direct to align the institutional infrastructure holistically with the curatorial programme. The initial three-year overarching programme, Place.Labour.Capital., built connections across research, and residencies, and exhibitions with artists Simryn Gill, Allan Sekula, Trinh T. Minh-ha to name a few. She was the co-editor of several publications including, the artist’s books Thao Nguyen Phan: Voyages de Rhodes (2018), Simryn Gill & Michael Taussig: Becoming Palm (2017). In 2019 was the co-curator of the third edition of the Art Encounters Biennial in Timișoara, approached as a one-year institutional programme. As part of the curatorial initiative, FormContent in London, she worked on a nomadic project, It’s Moving from I to It (2012-2014), that took the format of a script comprised of seventeen “scenes”: exhibitions, workshops, commissioned texts, and the like. She is a PhD candidate at Monash University, Melbourne. Drawing on feminist methodologies, her PhD research, First-Person Institutions focuses on institution building, artists’ archives, and transnational imaginaries across the Asia-Pacific region. Whether working in a contemporary art centre, an independent space, an art school, or in the context of a biennial, she has been passionate about decentering curatorial practice and stretching the possibilities of how cultural production can be made public, experienced, discussed, or written about.