Urban Flâneur and Ghost Stories—The Singapore-based Curator who Navigates Extremes As If It Was Nothing
On the spectrum between spontaneity and premeditation I am uncomfortably random as a personality. It’s all contextual. If I’m, say, penning an essay, I fret and fuss over every detail, from diction to punctuation to syntax. A period, a colon? Is using the passive voice just an illegitimate way to distract attention from my subjective position as a writer? It often becomes counterproductive. If it’s a generic e-mail, I’m lackadaisical to the point of multiple typos and repetitive language. I veer between being wildly impulsive and a complete worrier.
It’s the same with curating shows. At the moment I’m in Yangon, putting together a group show of Burmese artists, the idea for which happened on the fly. I’m hoping to orient the exhibition around the motif of the body, the body understood and represented not metaphorically or theoretically, but literally. I’m enjoying being literal these days.
My musical inspiration comes from really uncool stuff. I’m not kidding. Like doo-wop, for instance, or the theme songs to cheesy old TV shows. Right now sitting at the top of my Youtube playlist are a Mandarin cover of ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! by this Taiwanese singer who went by the moniker The Frog Prince several decades ago, as well as a bunch of French renditions of popular 60s hits by a Francophone Madagascan group, Les Surfs. The least embarrassing thing I have going is the recent discovery of something called “city pop”. It was a loose genre of easy-listening music that was big in Japan in the ‘80s, and has re-emerged as an object of sonic desire for hipsters and underground spinmeisters. The tunes are less about a defined musical style, and more about a vibe, a feeling. It’s the sort of stuff that you imagine listening to at overpriced cafes on bright, sunny afternoons, post-lunch, downing a couple of cocktails and getting sentimental about an ex-lover, a pair of sunshades on to hide the fact that you’re tipsy in the middle of the day.
I imagine my ten-year older self is visiting me from the future today and they tell me to stop overthinking sh*t. That things have a way of working out, and that the constant projections about the future are just those: projections. Reality is simultaneously more mundane and more unpredictable than one’s mental scenarios.
I guess I’m known for having a collection of bow ties in unusual materials and patterns, which I pair with suspenders. It’s my sartorial calling card. I usually acquire them on the online marketplace, Etsy, which is fabulous for crafty, handmade, one-of-a-kind objects. I have bow ties in wood, clear plastic, ceramic, metal, paper, and even a couple that are battery-operated and light up. One Etsy label I’m particularly fond of is BoldFoldz, which produces bow ties in paper. Their designs are inspired by origami. Unfortunately, that’s all that people ever give me for presents now: bow ties.
I’m not tech-oriented at all. When I was shopping for a new laptop, my only specifications to the salesperson were “internet and word processor program”. She stopped short of rolling her eyes. These days I’m hooked on my smart phone, although I’m not proud to admit that I mostly use it to feed my social media addiction. I’m probably not alone there.
I just gave up a gym membership. I’m still looking around, but in the meantime there’s a school campus near where I am, with a track and an exercise station. I’ve got a workout routine, which consists of a circuit of chin-ups, dips, push-ups, hanging crunches, sit-ups, squats. I alternate workout days with running days; cardio exercise is essential, because I put the pounds on around my middle all too easily. I’ve lately also started experimenting with using a weighted vest to get more out of my routine.
I do have a fetish for small, historical cities situated by the water. It’s some combination of the sea air and old buildings and the smell, almost, of decay … It’s something in the air. Penang, Tainan, Kamakura, New Orleans, so far those cities are at the top of the list. I remember my first visit to Kamakura. It was early winter, and I spent an hour standing on the beach watching the surfers on the waves with a biting wind in my face. I don’t know why that should be memorable, but it is.
I do collect some art, and I personally enjoy a very bland aesthetic. Monochromatic canvases, geometric shapes, black-and-white drawings, a limited palette and few visual flourishes. The work shouldn’t eat up a room. It’s fine in a white cube where the art is the centrepiece, but a living space is something else. I also collect stuff by queer artists. A work I acquired a while ago was a trio of wall-bound sculptures that look like blank panels from the front, but behind which are architectural details of small, intimate spaces like stairwells and corners. The artist, Faris Nakamura, is Singaporean and queer, and his practice is oriented around sites of sexual encounters, charged spaces that he presents in the most nonchalant, undramatic manner.
If I ever need to reset my mind I take a nap. Sleep recharges the brain cells.
In curating, when I need to go back to basics I do what every curator does: I see shows. Sometimes inspiration hits, sometimes the repulsion is so visceral the dis-inspiration is equally productive. And oftentimes it’s just another exhibition that I barely recall a couple of months down the road. The last show I saw that really got me fired up was one about Korean architect Kim Chung-Up, at the MMCA Gwacheon. I was so taken with his work that I tracked down a couple of his more fanciful buildings in Seoul that still stood, one of which was the former Seo Gynaecological Clinic. Kim privileged symbolic form in the design, and the layout was informed by the shape of a phallus and a womb. I spent that day tracking down buildings around the city. A show that fuels you that way has done its job.
The best way to know someone is the good, old-fashioned way – talk to them.
Creative types are a breed upon themselves. Artists as people, and artists as artists, can sometimes be two distinct entities in one body, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I’m not sure I want to get to know an artist too well maybe just the practice.
When I travel I always take my laptop with me. Working in the arts can be brutal. It means almost never being switched off.
I never curate a show without an idea, that’s the core of it, the kernel and the seedling. Everything else that comes after, the visuals, the textures, the design, the spatial mood—should logically follow.
The perfect meal with friends is when there’s laughter. That laughter can come from how dismal the dining experience was. Good food comes and goes, but the laughter sticks around, and proves to be a bounding experience. The granddaddy of all bad dinners was a birthday meal with friends at Gaggan, in Bangkok. The restaurant features a prix fixe menu of twenty-five courses, and though the portions are bite-sized, the meal in its entirety was filling, to say the least. We headed back to the hotel afterward, and perhaps had one too many drinks; when it came time to head out to the clubs, I threw up all over the nearest person (who happened to be Malaysian artist Chris Chong). All twenty-five courses of molecular gastronomy came back up. We still talk about it to this day. It was both the best and the worst meal of my life, and it was good to have friends to share it with.
The one guilty pleasure I can finally come clean about is one that I’m publicly owning up to—a fascination with those Chinese concubine TV serials, where the focus is on the machinations, the scheming and the plotting of women in the imperial harem. For some reason, these shows all seem to be set in the Qing dynasty, and the costumes are a visual delight. The female characters don the most outlandish floral headgear and long, spiky, bejewelled nail guards to protect the long nails that seem to be a royal prerogative, so they look like they have lush bouquets of blooms in their hair and pointed claws for hands, which I guess can be understood metaphorically.
The book that still haunts me is Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, the air of failure and mediocrity and disappointment that lingers on is, literally, haunting. As the protagonist, the child of working-class parents who goes on to a lacklustre career and an unremarkable life, observes: “I’ve had occasional dark hours, dreary fits, when my life, laid out before me, has seemed bitter and hollow and insignificant… I forgot the many modest successes of my career and instead saw every failure… the missed opportunities, the moments of cowardice and disappointment.” It’s the fear that life is ultimately a letdown… it’s the presence on the other side of one’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, slowly turning the knob while you watch with growing horror as the door creaks open.
My perfect holiday is a cold-weather vacation. I enjoy a brisk chill. My vacations are mostly spent museum or gallery hopping, followed by several hours of aimless strolling in random neighbourhoods, looking at buildings and stores and more often than not, ending at a restaurant I’ve just stumbled across. It isn’t terribly imaginative or exciting, but it’s what I enjoy doing on my off time in foreign lands. I’m not much of a tourist.
I feel at home when I’m at home. When I’m lying in bed, with a beer or a whiskey.
May I be honest? I’m not sure what drives me forward the most about curating. I’m an accidental curator. I was trained in art history, and always assumed that I’d go on to an academic career. Somewhere along the line, I ended up curating independently and then in an institution, and now independently again. At this point, I’m still sufficiently inspired by the desire for creative expression to want to do this. I’m putting together a number of shows in the coming months. One is an exhibition that looks at the aesthetics and critical potential of camp at a university museum, and another, a new public art festival in Penang, Malaysia, that provides a satirical take on tourism and its tackier aspects.
A project that just ended was a pop-up show in a disused ship repair yard. The exhibition, which I was invited to curate by the Singapore Arts Club, was titled Strange Things, but we also had a smaller preview before that, and one of the works involved artist Wong Lip Chin, who’s Singaporean, reading a tome on animal rights to a live cow. Perhaps it’s moments like these, when one gets to be irreverent and humorous and take the piss, that makes art worth the while.
If I wasn’t curating I would be a morally vacuous corporate type. If I don’t have creative or intellectual satisfaction, I’d like some money.
Louis Ho is an independent curator and critic. He has lectured at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, and is a contributor to various journals and publications, such as Modern Chinese Literature and Culture and ArtAsia Pacific. He was trained in art history, and his research interests include Southeast Asian visual culture and the intersections between art and the social. He was previously a curator at the Singapore Art Museum, where his first exhibition was the permanent collection show, ‘After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asia Contemporary Art’; other exhibitions included the ‘Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2018’ show. He was also a co-curator of the Singapore Biennale 2016, ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’.