Ute Meta Bauer with Melanie Pocock

Ute Meta Bauer
Photo by Christine Fenzl

MELANIE POCOCK: I’d like to begin by returning to the conversation you had with Carson Chan for Kaleidoscope two years ago, where you commented how “unexpected moves force you to re-focus.” This comment related to your appointment as Dean of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art in 2011, which seemed to run counter to your preference for working within interdisciplinary contexts. Was your move to NTU Centre for Contemporary Art similarly “unexpected”? What made you move on from the RCA after such a short time span?


UTE META BAUER: Going back to Europe enabled me to reconnect with questions of curating and how artistic practice links to society in a more direct way. After seven years of not having curated an exhibition I realized that I really missed curating. Because the RCA is a great college that offers a wide range of disciplines, I was hopeful about the potential for exploration, particularly given my interests in connecting art with architecture, fashion, design, time-based media and sound. When I arrived at the RCA in 2012 the cut back of government support for higher education in the UK was already taking its toll. There was a substantial increase of tuition fees and student numbers in order to stay operational at the same level. For me this is a real concern, as I believe in access to education.

You are correct—my move to Singapore was unexpected. I’ve visited Asia over the past twenty years, working on and off on various projects with a number of institutions, most recently co-directing the first World Biennale Forum in Gwangju along with Hou Hanru. My first trip to Asia was to China in 1993 with Gilbert and George when they had exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai—a very different China than today. About a decade ago in Hanoi, I prepared the cultural program for the first Norwegian State visit to Vietnam and collaborated with a very engaged group of artists from both countries and a number of cultural institutions. I lecture regularly at Goethe Institutes, and have worked with the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and the Gwangju Biennale Foundation in South Korea. I find the societal changes in the region rapid; one never knows what is next. Therefore, I consider joining the CCA as Founding Director a unique opportunity to develop a new platform that intertwines different bodies of knowledge.

Block 43, Malan Road, Gillman Barracks, of Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art
Courtesy of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

MP: You’ve recently curated an exhibition with Anca Rujoiu at the Umea Bildmuseet in Sweden, “Theatrical Fields,” which explores artistic practices that highlight the “choreographed” or “artificial” nature of reality. This notion has a strong resonance in Singapore, which Rem Koolhaas famously described as a tabula rasa (blank slate). Do you share this view of Singapore as a kind of constructed reality? And how do you think this affects the work of artists who work and reside here?


UMB: “Theatrical Fields” deals with the potential of the theatrical to see something more clearly: what is to be seen shows itself, it unfolds itself in front of our eyes. It’s actually quite the opposite—it’s unpacking rather than constructing. If you look at Asia from the outside you see this utopian moment, which is also the case for Singapore, a city right on the equator in a tropical climate that nevertheless offers all the advantages of a 21st century high tech “Air-Con City.” Singapore is still manageable as it’s a city-state of about 5.5 million inhabitants, cars are expensive and emission is strictly controlled while public transportation functions very well. In a city like Jakarta, with about 9 million inhabitants and no metro system, the traffic jams and pollution have turned this city into an everyday dystopia. Of course, you see various unfoldings of these utopic and dystopic layers in both cities. For me, it is crucial to really understand what is the reality in these “utopic” and “dystopic” constellations and what does this entail? How do artists and intellectuals act and react within these everyday conditions? It is a rare opportunity for me to get a deeper understanding being located in the region and being part of the network.


MP: One of the main complaints among the artistic community here is the lack of critical discourse in terms of art. How will the CCA address this lack through its exhibition, residency and research programs? What is your broader vision for the Centre?


UMB: We want the CCA to be a useful platform for the art scene here –it should serve as a testing ground for artistic experimentation, while also being a part of the regional debates and infrastructure of Southeast Asia. There are of course many expectations from different sides about the CCA and unfortunately these do not necessarily overlap. [...]

"Free Jazz," CCA’s Inaugural Event: OFFCUFF performance (Bani Haykal, Mohamad Riduan, Shahila Baharom and Wu Jun Han). Photo by Wahid Subarmah

The CCA has to grow organically; it might mean two steps forward and one step back at times. It is important to provide free access to what we do, and our kick off project in our exhibition space, “Free Jazz,” is already an expression of that. We aren’t ready for “perfect” shows, but we’ve started to formulate a program and are ready to host discursive events, have concerts, form a public, and cultivate a community. At this moment it is about giving access and listening to many voices, but it is also about saying no to certain expectations and offers.

Art is more than a lifestyle; it’s a deeper choice of priorities. It is important to see art as a space for unconventional thinking, a practice that doesn’t provide “immediate” results. That is not just relevant for Singapore, but worldwide.


MP: I find the question of audience really interesting. I mean, do we even “know” our audience, or our potential audience?


UMB: You have to cultivate and form an audience, as well as develop a public and public debate. And people might join an event and be very critical, that is okay. Today, if someone criticizes you, then stakeholders think this is a negative result. Instead of saying “that’s good, people have an opinion,” they think about what they see and hear. In our commodified world we see a complaint as a service failure. There is the odd idea that that art should please everybody, but that is absolutely the opposite of what art does. Art should challenge us. We can’t give up on that. It’s really important that intellectuals join forces to claim this territory of criticality and experimentation.


MP: So what can we expect to see from the CCA in the coming months?


UMB: CCA’s first exhibition opens during Art Stage, Singapore’s international art fair, which has the tagline “We Are Asia.” But what does that actually mean? As one response to this statement, the CCA will present “Paradise Lost,” featuring three large-scale video installations by Zarina Bhimji, Fiona Tan and Trinh T. Minh-ha. “Paradise Lost” engages an Asian perspective addressing the asynchronicity of a diasporic space, but of course it goes beyond that. All the works problematize this “projected space” in various ways; for instance, Fiona Tan’s piece Disorient (2009) looks at Marco Polo and the cliché of the Orient; Zarina Bhimji revisits colonial India and its historical and emotional traces with Yellow Patch (2011); while Trinh T. Min-ha with Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) explores the lives and history of resistance of women in Vietnam and the US while questioning the norms of representation and filmic documentation. It is important to look at these fictions of Asia and the Asian South, complicating them with even more and other fictionalities.