Answers are supposed to be found
A conversation with curator Ace Le
Art, science, curation, and everything in between – the Nguyen Art Foundation invites curator Ace Le for a chat in the lead up to ‘Illuminated Curiosities’, our second exhibition featuring 46 artworks and 26 artists from both within and outside our collection. The exhibition will take place from May to Dec 2022, across the Foundation’s art spaces located in the two campuses of EMASI Nam Long and EMASI Van Phuc, Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyen Art Foundation (NAF): You are very knowledgeable in many subjects; you’ve studied science, business, communications, museum studies, and curatorial practices. Can you walk us through your adventurous educational journey?
Ace Le (AL): I belong to Vietnam’s first post-war generation, born in the 80s and grew up in the 90s. This was the đổi mới(renovation) period when the country started to open up commercially, globalisation arrived at our doorstep, and the Internet era began. With it came a tsunami of information and activities for young people like my peers and me to immerse in, and we were incredibly lucky to have the freedom to choose what we wanted to pursue in life. As the Confucius sỹ-nông-công-thương(scholar-farmer-artisan-trader) caste mentality was becoming outdated, I wanted to break free from my family’s traditions of academic scholarships. I decided not to continue my high school specialty in mathematics and instead chose business as my major as I enrolled in the National University of Singapore in 2003. And so for the last 15 years, I have been working as a marketer and communications specialist across various industries in Singapore and got my first Masters in Media and Communications from Nanyang Technological University. My day job now is an APAC Communications & Marketing Director for an international interior material brand.
I have loved art since I was a kid, but my peers and I had little resources to nurture such interests, as there has always been a serious lack of proper art education at school and even fewer opportunities to fully experience art in public institutions across Vietnam. Back then, the word giám tuyển (curator) was yet to exist in our vocabulary and collective knowledge, so no kid would write in their diary, “Oh, I want to be a curator!” It was not until I had a stable job with a decent income and time to spare was I able to allocate more time for art appreciation and research. I started looking retrospectively into the start of Vietnamese contemporary art in the 90s, and was instantly hooked by the sheer level of energy, excitement and chaos, and the amount of artistic talents then. I decided to initiate my own research project on Vietnamese queer art, and on Trương Tân – one of my favourite artists of all time. So four years ago, I enrolled myself into the Master’s course in Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices at Nanyang Technological University when the programme had just been launched, and chose to complete the first phase of my research in the form of the Master’s thesis. This is a unique course, founded under the leadership of the seasoned curator Ute Meta Bauer and in collaboration with NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore – where many Vietnamese artists have had residency in. To date, it is still the only Master’s course of its kind in Southeast Asia, designed to focus on discourses in Southeast Asia particularly. An eye-opener for me in many ways.
NAF: How has your educational/career past added value to your curating career now? Do you think you’ve found your true calling as a curator, or are you still planning to broaden your education in the future?
AL: Being a curator means you have to wear many hats – that of a researcher, writer, conceptualizer, storyteller, and administrator. You ought to engage with many stakeholders, including the artists, the institutions, the media, and the public. It is both practice and theory-driven, and having a good degree in curating does not warrant you being a good curator. I am still a beginner in my career as a curator and am learning every day from many of my seniors who are much younger than me. I would say that my background in science does help me craft my own logic when I curate and/or write, and my experience in business has also trained me to think communicatively and actively factor in the audiences throughout my process of curating.
Being a curator also means being the bridge between the artists, their artworks and the viewers. Many of my friends who are leaders in their own fields – medical, law, finance, you name it – have told me they do not understand a thing when they set foot in a white cube (i.e. the exhibition space of a gallery), and reading curatorial texts makes them feel intimidated and confused. I believe that curators are meant to break down barriers, not fence up new ones. And this is especially important in the context of Vietnam, where the accessibility to art already has so many existing barriers.
NAF: ‘Illuminated Curiosities’, your upcoming exhibition hosted by NAF, looks at the intersection between art and science. What led you to want to explore the crossover between these two fields? What is the significance of science for you, and what is its role in this exhibition?
AL: Today, we often think of art and science as two separate domains that seldom overlap. Despite their different approaches, art and science are similar in the way they encourage our imagination, push boundaries and explore new territories. As science advances, many scientific innovations and processes are studied and applied by contemporary artists. As their experimentation and production continue to be ever more diverse and research-driven, they result in unexpected ways for us to inquire, visualise, make sense of our world, and foster interdisciplinary dialogues. In that sense, art is a science, and science could be an art. By blurring definitions, ‘Illuminated Curiosities’ aims to invite instead of divide.
NAF: This exhibition will be the first project by your organization – the Lan Tinh Foundation; how do you think it fits into the mission of Lan Tinh Foundation, as well as NAF?
AL: Lan Tinh Foundation is a non-profit organization that works with a network of collectors and institutions to focus on the a) archival, b) research and c) exhibition of Vietnamese art. Under the last pillar, we would like to stage a series of exhibitions over the next 2-3 years with the same overarching theme, which explores the intersection of art and science. The chosen theme is ‘A Fluorescent State’ (‘Thể Lân Tinh’), taking after the scientific phenomenon whereby certain substances absorb light to emit their own in the dark – think glow-in-the-dark toys, fireflies or the fascinating bioluminescent sea. Allegorically, they embody alternative perspectives and issues often overlooked in the mainstream narratives.
Each exhibition under this theme will have their own title and curatorial positions, and our upcoming exhibition at NAF would be the inaugural one. The title ‘Illuminated Curiosities’ is a play on, and an expansion of, the early form of home collections in 16th Europe known as “cabinets of curiosities”. In the 21st century, our curiosities are no longer confined within home “cabinets”. The show displays the breadth and depth of capacities in which the artists try to defy limits in the pursuit to feed their, and our, curiosities. Staged in the two campuses of EMASI Van Phuc and EMASI Nam Long, [I hope that] such a presentation could especially resonate with the students’ growing curiosities alongside the classroom environment.
I’d like to also take the chance to thank my fellow curatorial musketeers – Duong Manh Hung and Tam Nguyen – for their insightful inputs and exceptional leadership in this project.
NAF: One of NAF’s core missions is to embed art into education. How will you tie in the educational aspect of your exhibition? In NAF’s inaugural exhibition ‘People, Victory and Life after the War’, our students from the Renaissance International School Saigon were invited to contribute during the preliminary phase of the project. Will you include them this time too?
AL: The entire exhibition has been designed with the students in mind as the core stakeholder. Their interactivity with the artworks is key to the success of the show. That is why we wanted to bring in guest artists and science educators to foster dialogues and open up new perspectives and ways to engage with both art and science. For example, artworks like UuDam Tran Nguyen’s or Ha Ninh Pham’s could easily be presented as an innovative classroom aid to illustrate the power and possibilities of mechanics and information technology.
So in the last show, the curator Gridthiya Gaweewoong asked the students to submit their favourite artwork(s) from the collection of NAF and featured them in the actual exhibition. That was a really refreshing approach. This time around, we did not rely on a democratic voting system, because the curatorial team already had an overarching theme that is the intersection between art and science, and this has worked really well as a ‘curatorial filter’ to shortlist relevant works in the collection of NAF. More importantly, we’d love to see yours as a living, breathing collection, so we proposed to organically expand the list to include other relevant works from the same artists (that have not yet been acquired by NAF), and also new works from other artists from Southeast Asia too.
The students’ involvement therefore was not expected in the curatorial process – but I do keep them in mind as we go along in everything we implement. For example – for exhibition design, instead of the usual 1.6m eye-level height, we have lowered the vision field to accommodate both students and adults. I have also chosen a very different approach in writing my curatorial text – instead of the usual serious academic essay style, it would be more of an open letter to welcome the students into the spaces of the exhibition, adopting more of a storytelling tonality. And because we want to maximize the students’ room for curiosities while they freely explore the show, the curatorial team has also decided to keep didactic labels to the minimum, and optional via QR codes. The only directive information you’d see would be the names of the different ‘zones’ that appear in the exhibition, such as ‘The Body’, ‘The Machine’ etc. to serve as cues and conversation starters to invite dialogues and critical reflection from the students.
NAF: What stories or ideas of curiosity do you plan to shed light on with this exhibition?
AL: It would be best for the audience to find out themselves as they experience the works. What we, as curators, want to create are spaces where people can freely inquire and ask questions without reservation. I believe answers are supposed to be found, not told. In a world where information is overwhelming and sponsored content is omnipresent, our ability to stay curious is truly, truly vital.
This interview was conducted by Dan Thy of Nguyen Art Foundation, Mar 2022
About Ace Le:
Ace Le is an independent art researcher and curator. He is the Founding Director of Lan Tinh Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the archiving, research and exhibition of Vietnamese art. He is also the Chief Editor of Art Republik Vietnam, and a founding member of Of Limits curatorial collective – recipient of 2020 Platform Projects Curatorial Award by NTU Centre of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Ace is the Vietnamese representative in the International Arts Leaders 2022 program by the Australia Council for the Arts. Ace holds an MA in Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices, and a Master in Media and Communication from Nanyang Technological University, and a BBA(H) from the National University of Singapore.
About Lan Tinh Foundation:
Lan Tinh Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Ace Le in 2021 in Singapore, aiming to support the research of Vietnamese contemporary and modern art. Its main projects include an archival database of private collections, exhibition making and publishing, and the Lan Tinh Fellowships for emerging researchers. In the scope of this project, Lan Tinh Foundation will provide support for the outreach program, including webinars and workshops.