Curating in Singapore and the UK: a Public Service with Southeast Asia and the World in Mind.
My formative time as a curator happened during the five years I worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore. At the time, director Bala Starr, who is now director of La Trobe Art Institute, had recently joined the ICA, reshaping much of its programme. I was then working as a lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts (where the ICA is based), teaching foundation and undergraduate courses in visual culture and arts management. Alongside my teaching commitments, I was doing independent curatorial projects, writing, and finding my footing in Singapore. When the curatorial position at the ICA came up, Bala and I had already seen and spoken to each other at various art events. She often commented on my curiosity and gregariousness, qualities which probably got me the job! Through working on many exhibitions and projects, we built a wonderful creative and professional relationship.
The importance of mentors. The wonderful thing about Bala was that she was incredibly encouraging. She’s a hands-on director, who cares about her staff and their personal development. When I joined the ICA, I was fairly young in terms of curatorial experience. She gave me a huge amount of freedom to pursue my vision, from conceiving exhibitions right through to their execution. As long as I could argue for my ideas, she would be on-board. She was committed to the process and pursuit of risk with the idea that something should always be at stake for the artists and the curator involved. Continuing to question ideas, layouts, and artworks, throughout the development of an exhibition, was really important to both of us.
Forming a curatorial vision. At the ICA, Bala was keen to pursue group exhibitions with an international perspective, which she felt were lacking in other galleries in Singapore. Responding to this framework, I began to explore what I have previously described as paradoxical aesthetics: a simple incarnation of this idea would be an artwork which feels both present and absent at the same time. In my first exhibition at the ICA, “Countershadows (tactics in evasion)” (2014), I related this idea to the context of Singapore. The title of the exhibition comes from a camouflage technique used by late nineteenth-century American artist Abbott Thayer. He used the term countershading to describe the way in which animals have evolved over time: the colour of their fur or skin adapting to and blending in with their surroundings. It was Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui, who also works under the moniker of the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ), who introduced me to Thayer. A lot of Zhao Renhui’s works appear as if they are photographs of real animals or nature when in fact they are fictional concepts and illusions. His work White House Crow (2013), for example, depicts a fictional species of bird claimed to have emerged in Singapore between 1978 and 1995, which developed white feathers in response to widespread land reclamation (built on sand) in Singapore. This exhibition also included Sai Hua Kuan’s walk-in installation “Something Nothing” (2007), in which Kuan both imagines and physically realises a blank piece of white paper as a three dimensional structure. The end result is like a floating expanse, its material quality belying its invisibility. Metaphorically, the exhibition seemed to reflect qualities of Singapore’s urban and cultural fabric: its often shifting landscape, due to constant building works and construction, as well as the passive-aggressiveness which can sometimes permeate social interactions.
As a curator, I feel that it is important to configure your practice in light of precedents. When I was developing the exhibition “Countershadows”, the possibility of articulating a sense of Singapore’s identity and contemporary art through sensation and feeling, as opposed to images or text, felt important. Most of the exhibitions that I had seen or read about Singaporean contemporary art often employed iconographic approaches, as if the notion of a locally rooted art or aesthetic could only take the form of a codified image. How will an exhibition contribute something new or different to current artistic and cultural conversations? This is a question I often ask myself before embarking on an exhibition.
Working at Ikon in Birmingham since 2020. After working on more than sixty exhibitions at the ICA, I found that I had gotten used to the space and programming. The ICA in Singapore is relatively small. When I was there, there were just six core members of staff. So being able to work within a larger, more complex institution, where I could assume greater responsibility for areas such as institutional strategy and financial management, was important for my development. The role at Ikon came up at the right time. Ikon’s current director, Jonathan Watkins, is committed to solo exhibitions, which coming from the ICA was an interesting change for me. It’s a format that enables a curator to work with an artist in depth, often over a long period of time.
Shows without artists. At Ikon, we’re currently installing an exhibition by Czech artist Krištof Kintera, who unfortunately won’t be here as a result of renewed quarantine restrictions on people arriving from the Czech Republic to the UK. It’s quite the challenge! But we’re adapting, sharing videos of the installation and talking regularly with Kristof via WhatsApp and Zoom.
Bringing together personal and institutional interests. As a curator, I would say that if you are in the right institution, these interests naturally overlap. It sounds obvious, yet I know there are curators for whom this is not necessarily the case. In recruiting me, Jonathan saw a potential to renew Ikon’s international perspective and broaden the gallery’s programme towards Southeast Asia. At the same time, this isn’t requirement, he’s always encouraging me to look beyond the region, towards other areas of the world and of course, the UK.
Writing as an alternative format for working with an artist. I have often turned to writing, which I find a useful and interesting tool. In terms of curating, I find that committing words to paper really helps shape the concept of a show, but it’s also a great format for exploring artists’ work on an intellectual level. Recently, I published an essay in Art Monthly (UK) magazine looking at colonial legacies of English, and the importance of listening more carefully to English variants. One work that I discuss in the essay is “Disputed Utterance” (2018) by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, where he draws on a technique known as palatography. Used by researchers of phonetics, the technique involves the application of a mixture of charcoal and olive oil to the tongue of a human subject, who is then asked to pronounce a word. The subsequent imprint on the roof of the subject’s mouth illustrates patterns in their pronunciation. In the work, Hamdan includes prints showing the insides of the mouths of people subjected to this technique and texts describing legal cases in which a misunderstanding of a spoken word or phrase led to a legal battle, persecution, protest or death. Hamdan highlights how migrants are often discriminated against, as a result of so-called bad accents or limited vocabulary. Coming back to the UK after eight years in Singapore, where English is widely spoken, but often in its variant form of Singlish, I have become especially sensitive towards these kinds of inequalities.
There is a paradox in curating where on the one hand, you need to feel confident that the artist is at the right point in their development and that they are ready to take full advantage of the opportunity that an exhibition can offer. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to pursue a project if you already know exactly what the outcome is going to be. You might as well conclude the exhibition essay right there! An exhibition has to include an element of venturing into the unknown. Part of what a curator does is imagining all these potentials and how these might strike a chord with wider currents, often as they unfold. The whole process of talking with an artist, negotiating loans, and working out logistics tends to turn an exhibition into something quite different than what was originally planned on paper.
In defence of institutions. As part of my two-year MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, I also worked as a Curatorial Associate at Modern Art Oxford (MAO). The structure of the course meant that I was working at MAO four days a week alongside writing essays, group projects and, every couple of months, participating in week-long sessions at the RCA, where we were hothoused in curatorial theory and history. This combination of theory and practice enabled me to reconcile curatorial ideas with the realities of working in an institution. It also informed my commitment to working with institutions, whether as an in-house curator or as an independent collaborator. Nowadays, many curators seem to be weary of institutions, even if they work in one. It’s as if “the institution” has come to stand for everything that is unethical and undesirable about contemporary curatorial and artistic production. Yet the reality is that even independent curators rely on institutions, whether for teaching jobs or curatorial projects. I think it’s important to embrace working with them, even if as a curator you might not agree with their visions or protocols. It’s only through working with (or within) institutions that curators can understand how these protocols operate, and gradually institute changes.
Curating as a public service. Throughout our adult lives, we all develop more complex personal and professional relationships. Some women become mothers at the same time as gaining greater responsibilities at work. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I’ve become much better at dividing my time between different things. I’ve also found myself mentoring younger curators and doing interviews like these! As my investment in these kinds of relationships has grown, I think of curating more and more as a form of public service: to the public, whose taxes contribute towards the running and programming of publicly funded arts institutions like Ikon, as well as for the people I care about and who support me professionally and creatively.
Sport as a way of sustaining curatorial practice. I genuinely enjoy exercising, which is why I do it consistently, some might say maniacally! Until about two years ago, I was doing a lot of long-distance running and ran five marathons in five years. I never listen to music when I exercise. I find it quite distracting and I prefer connecting with my body, listening to my breath and falling into a natural rhythm. However, two years ago, quite suddenly, I suffered from an injury in my right leg, which meant I more or less had to stop running. At the time I was devastated, running was really both my antidote to, and means of, sustaining my curatorial practice, which I find requires significant levels of focus and stamina. With hindsight, I realise that all of this training was almost masochistic, reinforcing my belief that suffering was somehow a necessary condition of achievement. Now, and with the slower pace recently enforced by global lockdowns, I have become more forgiving of myself, both in terms of my curatorial achievements and training. I’ve started cycling, swimming and lifting weights: all activities that are much less impactful on the body, and which help me maintain a balanced lifestyle.
If I wasn’t curating I would be a writer or an editor.
Curator at Ikon Gallery
Melanie Pocock is Curator at Ikon Gallery. Together with Director Jonathan Watkins, she is responsible for the gallery’s artistic programme, including exhibitions, commissions and publications. Prior to joining Ikon, Pocock was Assistant Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore (2014 – 19), where she organised more than sixty exhibitions with local, regional and international artists. Among her curatorial projects at the ICA were Dissolving Margins (2018–19), Native Revisions (2017) and Countershadows (tactics in evasion) (2014), a trilogy of exhibitions exploring paradoxical aesthetics in contemporary art, as well as collaborations with the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (2015), Palais de Tokyo (2015 – 16), and the Singapore Biennale (2016 and 2018). Pocock is also a writer and contributes regularly to international publications and media, including Art-Agenda, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Monthly, Frieze, Kaleidoscope, LEAP, Ocula, The Financial Times, divan | Journal of Accounts, Journal of Curatorial Studies and Third Text. In 2014, she edited and co-wrote the first monograph on the work of Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman, published by Kerber Verlag. Pocock is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and holds an MA (Distinction) in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art.