Singaporean bags top curating job at prestigious Paris contemporary art centre

Khairuddin Hori, a senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum will join the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, one of the world's foremost contemporary art centres, in November as deputy programming director. --PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN 
Khairuddin Hori, a senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum will join the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, one of the world's foremost contemporary art centres, in November as deputy programming director. --PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN 

Singaporean curator Khairuddin Hori has been appointed deputy programming director at the Palais de Tokyo, a Paris institution that is one of the world's foremost international contemporary art centres.

He will take up the post next month. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts alumnus is currently senior curator, curatorial development at the National Heritage Board, and was formerly senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

Speaking to Life!, Khairuddin, 40, who graduated from the academy with a diploma in Fine Art in 1995 and has also worked in the theatre as an actor and director, says that his new appointment "is so surreal, it still feels very unreal".

He was offered the job in April by Palais de Tokyo's president Jean de Loisy, while in Paris preparing for the Singapore Festival in France. The Singapore Festival takes place in March next year and the centre is a partner.

Mr de Loisy and Khairuddin have known each other for several years. They collaborated last June when an exhibition co-curated by Khairuddin, File Not Found, was selected to be shown at the Paris centre. When Mr de Loisy first brought up the idea of working at the Palais de Tokyo, Khairuddin dismissed it as an offhand remark.

"At that time, I thought he was joking, so I laughed along and then stopped talking about it. There are so many other curators in the world who could do the job, so why me," he recalls. "And then in June, when I met him again, he said, 'Why haven't you answered me?' And I told him that I thought it was a joke."

Even after thinking the offer over, the bachelor had reservations about the move. "If they had invited me there as a curator, I would not do it because I think I can do more in Singapore, I can make more of an impact here and in South-east Asia. But when they told me they wanted me as a deputy director, that was something else completely."

His new job involves overseeing the centre's six curators and he will also be curating one exhibition a year.

At press time, Mr de Loisy could not be reached for comment, but Khairuddin believes that what prompted the offer was his unconventional approach to curating, having been an artist and theatre maker.

At the Singapore Art Museum, he has put street art on its walls, and as an artist, his multidisciplinary works have primarily a local and regional focus.

Said the Singaporean: "I told Jean, I'm not an academic curator. I started off as an artist and even when I'm curating, I work like an artist. Palais is known for being very theoretical, but Jean told me that that's not what he wanted."

"He said the current curators are too safe. He wants someone to bring the chaos, someone to bring the madness, to create trouble, and to stir up the way they think.

"He told me that everybody is looking for this thing called 'the contemporary', but it does not exist. And he told me, 'you know that it does not exist. Everyone else doesn't know it, they're still looking for it. That's why I want you.'"

Mr de Loisy himself has worked in the art industry since 1983 and has been president of the centre since 2011. "He kept saying that I am like him when he was younger, and that he sees himself in me", adds Khairuddin.

Veteran artist and art mentor at the School of the Arts, Vincent Leow, says that with Khairuddin's departure, Singapore will lose a great talent. "He is both an artist and a curator, and it's very unique to see someone in that kind of a position," he says. "Khai is also someone who really understands the craft, the practice and making of art, which to me is very important."

Leow says that as a Singaporean artist, Khairuddin will probably bring to his new job "something from Asia and South-east Asia, he will carry that layer and that narrative over".

Mr Tan Boon Hui, former director of the Singapore Art Museum and current group director for programmes at the National Heritage Board, says that Khairuddin's appointment is a boon for Singapore.

"For a prestigious museum like the Palais de Tokyo to take on Khai is really a testament to Singapore's vision in becoming an international centre of the arts.

"In fact, I don't see it as Singapore losing one of ours. I see Khai as a great addition to the Paris arts scene, and I am very certain that he will bring Singapore and South-east Asian art to even greater awareness worldwide."

Khairuddin does not speak French and is still hunting for accommodation in the French capital. Nonetheless, he is looking forward to the challenge of his new appointment.

He says: "My job is to mentor the curators and to help them open up to other viewpoints and ways of approaching and presenting art. Also, because Jean travels a lot and is always very busy, I will stand in for him when he is not available, so I'm his shadow."