Singaporean super-curator in Paris sees role as 'bridge'

At the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Khairuddin Hori is the bridge between Southeast Asia and Europe

Officially, Khairuddin Hori's job title at the Palais de Tokyo is deputy programming director. In reality, he does a lot more than just programming.

It is 11.15 on a sunny Parisian morning and we are sitting at a quiet, airy cafe just inside the contemporary art centre.

"Do you see that?" says Khairuddin, 41, pointing to what looks like a metal hoop embedded in a wall behind. "Even things like that, they'll ask me, should we remove or not remove? Because everything you see here, the dirt, the mess, is deliberate."

Since taking up the post last November, curating the gritty decor of the 22,000 sq m centre - the largest contemporary art space in Europe - is just one of the many things on his checklist.

Although programming forms the core of his work, he acts as an artistic compass for almost anything that goes on in the centre, from overseeing editorial work to marketing and event planning.

In doing so, he acts as the right-hand man to the centre's president, Mr Jean de Loisy, who personally selected him for the job. "He is the curator in the last few years that I've discovered with the broadest mind," says Mr de Loisy.

"I don't know anyone else like him. He's free from all conventions and that's exactly what we need to be."

What Khairuddin brings to the Palais is not just a non-institutional outlook and a wealth of experience as a practising artist, educator and former senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

When he left for Paris five months ago, he carried with him not just the makings of a new life, but also a deep understanding of Asia and its cultures.

He says an artist's spirituality or religious background is often significant in many Asian works, which may be overlooked by those unfamiliar with the region.

"Here, you don't look at the artist and ask, 'What religion is he? No wonder the work is like that'," he says. "But in South-east Asia, you do. You have to understand the history, culture, psyche and nuances of the artist."

He is a bridge between Europe and South- east Asia, which is still a "mysterious" place to many in the Western art scene, he says.

In November, he will be heading an as-yet untitled collaboration between the Palais and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, featuring six to eight French and South-east Asian artists.

Despite his high-profile appointment, he is down-to-earth. He is generous with his knowledge and his laughter, and is open about how star-struck he was during his first few weeks. "I met people who I used to read about, all these legendary curators. Suddenly, we're having lunch and talking as if we'd known each other for a long time."

One day, during a group lunch, he sat next to Jean-Hubert Martin, who curated the milestone Magiciens de la Terre show at Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989.

The show was one of the first to try to present Western and non-Western art on an equal footing, featuring a 50-50 mix of Western and non-Western artists.

"He actually asked my advice on certain things, like if he should go to see an exhibition. And I was like, 'Wow, you really want to know what I think?'," says Khairuddin, obviously delighted.

He is also enjoying the freedom and trust the centre invests in its curators. "In Singapore, if I want to invite an artist to create an artwork, I'd have to get so much detail from them. What materials, how exactly you are going to install it, blah blah. Here, for a lot of things, I don't need to do that."

Such flexibility is critical to keeping the centre, which he calls "a living space", responsive to the community's needs.

He recalls that the centre responded to January's Charlie Hebdo shooting within hours. "I was at a lunch meeting with my boss when we saw the news. It was about 1pm. By 5pm, we had a big banner made by graffiti artists and the next day, we had graffiti artists come and do tagging downstairs as a tribute. Things can happen without planning, it's very fast."

While the bachelor is enjoying his time at the Palais in France, there is one thing he wishes were different - his French. He chuckles as he admits that his grasp of the language is still "very bad".

"I attend meetings in French and I get most of it, but I still can't speak it properly," he says. "It's impossible for me to speak it because my French is so bad that it would slow things down."

Fortunately, most of his colleagues understand English and they communicate in both languages.

His focus is on providing artistic guidance for the four curators in his team and forging links between Europe and Asia. "Many people I know, artists, want to see something happen."

While his contract with the Palais is permanent, he does not yet know how long he will stay. He hopes to stay for at least three years and after that, "I'll just go with the flow".

"I'm not sure if I will stay in Europe, go back to Singapore or to another country in Asia," he says. "I may even end up quitting the scene. Anything can happen."

lting@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Corrie Tan.