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Three years ago, curator Khai Hori was invited to move to Paris to be Deputy Director of Artistic Programming at Palais de Tokyo, one of Europe's most exciting contemporary art centres. When his contract ended, offers for other leadership roles came from various organisations. Among those that caught his eye was one from Chan Hampe Galleries. As one of Singapore's leading art spaces, it has fervently championed local and regional artists, even launching the Chan Davies Art Prize in 2015 to sponsor art students here. Mr Khai, 43, felt the position provided a great opportunity to collaborate with patrons, artists and fellow professionals in developing cutting-edge projects. He accepted it - and the gallery changed its name to Chan + Hori Contemporary to reflect his appointment. It moved to Gillman Barracks earlier this year and its programme has expanded dramatically to include more radical and experimental art forms.
Where is the visual art scene now?
To be perfectly honest, I am worried. I would like to see a much stronger visual arts core with competent leadership and original, engaging curating via the major institutions. This, I feel, is a prerequisite for a dynamic scene. Our strength cannot lie in infrastructure alone and we cannot successfully become a hub when our core is unstable. We need to be even more generous and allow room for artistic messiness and experimentation. The public should not be exposed to just glossy art and the glamorous lifestyles possibly associated with it - it should understand the fact that art is evolved culture of our time.
You previously worked at the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Art Museum before joining Palais de Tokyo. What did you observe about the art scene there?
Singapore museum directors and curators frequently visit places such as Palais de Tokyo, MOMA and Centre Pompidou as part of networking, research and learning journeys. What they witness is the result of years of finesse and dedication to the craft of exhibitions. But the psyche of such institutions can only be deciphered when one is immersed full-time within them. As part of senior management at the Palais, I realised that the scale and attention to details of the projects there lend power to the curatorial voice that I feel is lacking here. At the Palais, there is much respect for the artistic and curatorial direction. In fact, the institution is devoid of a board of directors; all executive decisions are the result of consensus between its president (director) and the various department directors and deputies. If there is one quality that we should emulate here, it would be trust. We need more trust and ownership in our own leadership, curatorial teams and the artists we engage.
You've entered the commercial arena for the first time by joining Chan Hampe Galleries, which has been renamed Chan + Hori Contemporary. How has the transition been?
I have always gone with the flow and capitalised on opportunities availed to me. This has always been the basis of my personal development in the arts. I innovate within the means available, carving prospects for projects that I imagine would excite artists and the public I work with. In the past, I mostly stayed away from having close relationships with commercial galleries. This was largely due to the "conflict of interest" protocol of the civil service of which I was a part. My perception and understanding of commercial galleries took a turn when I worked in Paris. There, institutions often work hand-in-hand with private galleries in realising ambitious projects with artists, believing it is for the greater good of artists, institutions and the galleries themselves. It occurred to me that our local gallery-institution model is rather old-fashioned and caught in unfounded insecurities. So with Chan + Hori Contemporary, we've re-evaluated our core engagements. We have dropped the word "Galleries"' from our name. And we want to focus on developing meaningful projects and explore potential trajectories of the artists we work with.
Some people believe the art collecting pool in Singapore is simply too small, and that there are fewer than 10 connoisseur collectors here. Is that something that worries you?
I never personally counted how many "connoisseur" collectors there are, I do not even know what that means really. However, I have met collectors who are interested and excited to contribute to and be part of exciting curator-led projects and the work of young artists. Such interest is more critical than straightforward support by acquisition of artworks alone. This type of patronage is not new, but it is the way forward. It would allow for more art projects to be developed and realised in specific branches of, say, finance, sports or education. I have been told that I've a flair for spotting and giving room for talent. It is one thing to spot talent - but without patronage, opportunity and trust, there is only so much I can do to harness the artists' potential.
Who are your favourite artists now? And whose practices did you admire in your formative years?
In recent times, I have been caught by the work of Laurent Grasso, Oliver Beer, Maya Rochat, Tianzhuo Chen, Marguerite Humeau and Korakrit Arunanondchai. In my formative years, I was lucky to have local artists Salleh Japar, Chandrasekaran S, Goh Ee Choo and Baet Yeok Kuan among my teachers. They echo my love for both the visceral and formal. I first became acquainted with the art practices of various key members of The Artist Village when I was 16 through a friend and when I started hanging out at The Substation. My involvement in Malay theatre at the same time made my understanding of art more whole.
What hangs on the walls of your home?
Other than mementos from artists, I do not have much art around me. I used to have a collection of long-skateboards, musical instruments and bicycles, but gave all those up when I moved to Paris.