Telok Ayer Arts Club in Singapore: Curator Anmari Van Nieuwenhove on McCallum Street's new art and music restaurant-bar
When SPRMRKT inaugurated their art programme at the food and beverage group's then newly-launched space at Cluny Court in July, co-curator Anmari Van Nieuwenhove invited DJ Daytime Dancing and Eunice T for a sonic complement to Singapore artist Calvin Tay's study of the ripple effect an MRT line has on its surrounding area. Seen in his solo exhibition, 'Conjugation: SMRT', Tay traced the MRT lines in their entirety over and over again with a hot glue gun, creating a sculpture on canvas.
The artist is one of many local and Singapore-based names roped in by The Supermarket Group, founded by Singaporeans Sue-Shan Quek and Joseph Yeo who envisioned a unique culinary-cultural concept. In celebration of mothers in May, Van Nieuwenhove worked with writer Patricia Lee to bring personal journeys of four women: Artist Kumari Nahappan, fashion entrepreneur Nin Choong-Wilkins, veteran educator Carmee Lim, and competitive speed-skater Sui Chin Han-McKeand. Not only did they create a physical manifestation of the facets of guilt, play, trepidation and zest experienced in a mother's life, the team also worked with SPRMRKT's kitchen to create a dish for each feeling. Nahappan's roti jala was a sumptuous solution that delivered the pushing, pulling and infinite possibilities of how a mother can be stretched.
But while we've bid farewell to SPRMRKT's beloved space at McCallum Street, a reincarnation of sorts has taken place. Quek, Van Nieuwenhove and DJ and producer Hasnor Sidik (previously the music director for W Hotels Asia-Pacific and The Lo & Behold Group) have come together to debut Telok Ayer Arts Club. A new space that combines their passion for art and music, it sees Bertram Leong heading a kitchen that dishes out casual French Mediterranean plates, with Din Hassan (formerly of CE LA VI) tending the bar that favours Southeast Asian flavours.
Bringing in Jasper Chia from FUUR Associates to hack down the space in June, an overhaul took place in under two months to transform its former self with a '70s modernist aesthetic. With tiles by Rubik Lab and fabric by Kvadrat, the chestnut and terracotta hues might remind you of the design legacy left by the old National Library as well as Ricardo Bofill's Walden 7 in Barcelona. Aiming to foster a sense of community in the Telok Ayer hood that'll appeal to the artsy-fartsy crew, sound-hounds and gourmands of the CBD district, Telok Ayer Arts Club presents artists who've been invited to respond to ideas around Telok Ayer as a site.
"To be super honest, I've had a dream of operating a gallery-studio-bar of my own down the road, so I think that all this is very serendipitous," said Van Nieuwenhove, who has been running the arts programme at SPRMRKT for the past year. Together with co-curator Kamiliah Bahdar (previously from Galerie Steph), they've invited artist Goh Abigail to observe and document the site's transition to an Arts Club through reconfigured sounds created with objects collected from the site. Every Tuesday, visitors will have the opportunity to witness her process as she builds on her work.
Telok Ayer Arts Club already has plans for its next group show, which will see artists Megan Miao, Zulkhairi Zulkiflee and Susie Wong touching on themes such as desire and intimacy. Next year's list sees the likes of Dawn Ng, Mike HJ Chang and Ginette Chittick. Meanwhile, Has will curate Telok Ayer Arts Club's music arm with events and club nights such as a weekly Friday evening DJ set, 'Office Hours', and 'Kelab Malam' ('nightclub' in Malay), which will bring in international guest DJs. In her own words, Van Nieuwenhove tells us more below.
So what the hell is an arts club?
It sounds like the CCA I wanted to join in school that didn't exist. I look at it as a place where like-minded individuals gather, with a certain outlook — political or programme-driven (usually art or music related). I've not seen a similar concept locally and to be honest, we're often told that multi-use spaces "just don't work". Ironically I think that's what the beauty of this space is.
In Singapore we like to label things — 'emerging' or 'established', 'gallery' or 'museum', 'restaurant' or 'cafeteria' — when actually, there's a lot of overlap. Art doesn't have to be confined to the collections of museums, exhibitions or walls in galleries. Art can be anywhere. We believe people don't want to be pigeonholed and we're about creating that space for dialogue to happen.
You've previously worked at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). What were the most important things you've learned from your time there that will apply well in your curation for Telok Ayer Arts Club?
I did marketing and communications for SAM for four years. SAM's mandate, as a public institution, has always been about bringing art to a larger audience, which I think is a great thing. It forces you to think about who you're speaking to and who your audience is. I was also in charge of the social media channels, which really taught me a lot about how people connect with art — through things they can relate to like food, music, literature and pop culture. I hope the Arts Club can be where some of these connections happen.
How different is Telok Ayer Arts Club's curation going to be from SPRMRKT, who also supports under the radar and young artists?
We approach artists based on their practice, and ask what they would like to do in the space. Given its uniqueness, it's usually a response to the space as a functioning bar and bistro, or of its larger community: Telok Ayer. We observed that we're an arts space at the crossroads of a rather old district undergoing a lot of rapid upheaval. It's an overcrowded, fast-paced neighbourhood with a good mix of old and new — which can be a very special thing. We try to consider that, and our audience, in the curation.
Why were Goh Abigail and Ruben Pang the right artists for the opening show?
￼I thought it would be great for the first show to convey the idea of change — something I wanted diners in the new space to be aware of. We brought Goh Abigail to the space when it was just a hacked out room of dust and rubble, and asked if she would be open to seeing where this goes. The idea developed, and she will 'occupy' the space — both pre- and post-construction — to, in some ways, document this change.
I've known Ruben to play music occasionally and wanted to see if he could explore this further. At the Arts Club we believe that everyone has more than one side to them, and more than one profession. Ruben's a very successful painter, but how does Ruben the painter compare to Ruben the guitarist in a five-piece band? How does the music feed into his other work? What are the conversations that can be had about creativity and the artistic process? These links are things we want to explore at the Arts Club — the intersections of different disciplines and the outcomes.
How will the themed club nights go hand in hand with the art curation?
Our music director Hasnor Sidik sits in our weekly curatorial and programming meetings so we brainstorm together. Our 'Kelab Malam' nights will take place in between art shows (so we have more space to work with) but the key is to always offer something new, in terms of the way we consume music in Singapore. The space is small, so it has to be tightly curated and intentional. On 16 November we've booked Fort Romeau, who's never played in Singapore. He went to art school so we're going to try and bring something different to the table.
The idea is to speak to the person who'll walk in: The CBD crowd. They're always looking for ways to get their mind off work. We called our cosy Friday DJ nights 'Office Hours' as a tongue-in-cheek way to get people to think about the concept of labour, and what that must mean to a DJ. The DJ is confined to a small 'work desk', and yes, he will wear a suit.
Do you think Singapore has been lacking in a venue that champions both art and music together? How do you think Telok Ayer Arts Club can fill such a void?
Not exactly. I mean the arts and music have always come hand in hand and I can think of several places that do this very well, but I don't think there is a venue that does this cohesively with a kitchen and bar as well. Our beverage manager and head chef are heavily involved in our brainstorm sessions too! The other thing is that most art venues need funding and support from the government to sustain their activity, whereas we're privately run. I don't think enough businesses or individuals see art as important enough to invest in it, so at the moment art in Singapore is heavily reliant on the state.
How does Jasper Chia's (FUUR Associates) work complement the space?
I think FUUR's work has always been modern, with a style that's quite pared down. It's not ostentatious, which is perfect for what we envisioned: A warm, inviting, non-intimidating space. It kind of feels 'unpolished' but we like that. It's meant to be casual. It's why we've designed a park bench — from the same teak wood as the bar — so people can feel like they're back at school or in a park somewhere.
Initially it was difficult to conceptualise a bar that was also a space for art, but eventually we broke out of fixed ideas of what a 'gallery' must look like, and situated the design in '70s modernism', which was a time when architecture was looking toward providing solutions for the future.
Lastly, could you name a song that you'd like to be played at Telok Ayer Arts Club's opening? How does it represent the club's ethos?
There's a song that inspired my vision of a gallery-bar. I was on a bus when it happened and this song was playing: Reinbågen — Todd Terje, Prins Thomas. It's on the Telok Ayer Arts Club playlist.
'in-inhabitations' by Goh Abigail runs till 23 October.
Ruben Pang and four other musicians will perform on 11 September with a one-night musical discourse on failure and experimentation.
Fort Romeau will perform on 16 November.
Telok Ayer Arts Club is located at 2 McCallum Street, Tel: 6221 0712.