Telok Ayer Arts Club (TAAC) has quickly become known for successfully melding F&B with a roster of quirky, unpredictable art and music shows and this telegenic 30-year-old is a key figure to thank for that. After all, being right smack in the CBD, the multi-use bar/restaurant founded by Sue-Shan Quek of Sprmrkt fame tends to sit in amorphous territory.
“We don’t have gallery sitters – we have bartenders. We are constantly filled with a flow of people coming for other purposes such as drinking, so the art engages with them in different ways. Often it takes them by surprise,” says Van Nieuwenhove, who’s been TAAC’s art manager since it opened in late 2018. “It took some time, but I think people are cottoning on to the idea that art can exist in a casual space.”
While there have been similar initiatives that have tried to integrate food and art, TAAC’s offerings come across as more multi-dimensional (read: don’t expect just paintings on a wall). There have been sex toy workshops; the display of site-specific sound sculptures and even a sold-out theatre-meets-speed-dating performance piece by the Singapore artist Dawn Ng – all co-conceptualised and programmed with freelance curator Kamiliah Bahdar. With the team focused on fostering collaborations and an open mind, there was more recently The Salon, a show that invited four independent art spaces to exhibit their wares on site.
All this is even more remarkable given Van Nieuwenhove’s non-traditional arts background (she majored in English literature), but – as she puts it – it’s simply a matter of maintaining an open mind. “Today, anyone can impact how you approach art – they don’t necessarily have to be art personalities. People like Virgil Abloh, Cardi B, Donald Trump and Elon Musk have all made us think about the contemporary issues that shape one’s understanding of artwork and media,” she explains. “Sometimes even reading The Economist can give me new insights. It’s all about trying to understand the world, which I believe is what art tries to do as well.”
Soon to come: possibly a second edition of the experimental food-as-art experience, Advanced Dining, by artists Aiwei Foo and Wangxian Tan. (PS. The inaugural one last July was met with great acclaim and sold out.)
Here, an exclusive peek into Van Nieuwenhove’s psyche – check out what inspires her in the gallery above, her take on the art scene and more:
Her approach when it comes to curating
I have to first state that I’m not a curator by training, and that there are many other people doing great work in this field. I think that today the word ‘curator’ has really come to the fore, to mean an assembler of ideas, people and objects – whether it’s in fashion, design or even Instagram pages. In the art world, many artists even curate their own works and shows. To answer, what I’ve learnt in my job and what shapes my approach is that the artist comes first. It’s important to remember to let them and their work take the lead, idea wise. My job entails creating entry points for audiences and artists to meet. It’s a lot to do with communication: understanding people and understanding space—how things could be read.
Why she favours a holistic perspective to understanding art
As a reader, can I talk about books? I often find that a cross-disciplinary approach really invigorates the way I see art. For example, the two modules I took under Professor Tania Roy at NUS—Post-colonial and Psychoanalysis studies—are syllabuses I constantly refer back to, and have proved extremely relevant for contemporary readings of art. I’ve also always enjoyed the readings of Hans Ulbrict Obrist, but now am finding more interesting the readings of Chinese writers like Hu Fang. Sometimes, even reading The Economist can give me new insights – it’s all about trying to understanding the world, which I believe art tries to do as well.
How she ensures a cohesive flow between the art shown at Telok Ayer Arts Club and its other elements
This is sometimes the difficult part when we’re putting on a more ‘straightforward’ show. We were initially careful about being too derivative by having a menu or playlist that responds to the work but after a while we really had fun with these. It also gives a chance for the kitchen and bar team to have their own creative response every couple of months, a challenge (I hope) they enjoy. We’ve also experimented with other programmes that already combine a few elements with art – like Dawn Ng’s performance piece 11 which combined theatre and social experiment in a speed-dating format, and The Picnic’s Advanced Dining which combined food and art in an extremely dramatic way.
What Telok Ayer Arts Club represents to her
I’m constantly surprised by TAAC. It makes me hopeful, because being in the arts in Singapore can sometimes grows cynicism, apathy and a feeling of being disgruntled. Despite being a small and young establishment, I’ve seen how TAAC is something people enjoy, and cherish. I am hoping we can serve many more people in the future. I do feel it is a beacon of a changing tide in perceptions of the arts in Singapore.
On the state of Singapore’s art scene in 2020
I believe there will be many new types of art spaces emerging. Art is being used in many more ways: commercially especially, and in civic society. This means growth – more jobs, more opportunities. Young artists will be very different from their predecessors. It’s hard to imagine what art they will make, and that’s exciting.
Plans for Telok Ayer Arts Club this year
We’re hoping that 2020 will be more open and collaborative. We want to create more space for anyone who wants to show to be able to. We want to build on our partnerships with other existing spaces, and with our community in Telok Ayer. We are also hoping to do two large interdisciplinary or immersive projects that year – we’re still brainstorming but one will be with an arts group we really respect, in a far out place. We’re also hoping to produce Advanced Dining 2.0. Fingers crossed!