ART ADE­LINE OOI

Cu­ra­tor, Direc­tor and poly­glot

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Ben­jamin Law

SAY YOU WERE HIR­ING THE NEW DIREC­TOR ASIA AT ART BASEL, THE OR­GAN­I­SA­TION THAT PRO­DUCES THE BIG­GEST YEARLY ARTS EVENT, IN THE WORLD’S MOST POP­U­LOUS CON­TI­NENT. WHO WOULD YOU HEADHUNT?

On pa­per, the per­son who got the job seems to tick every pos­si­ble box. Malaysian-born, Sin­ga­pore and Uk-ed­u­cated Ade­line Ooi has the pedi­gree (BFA from Lon­don’s pres­ti­gious Cen­tral Saint Martins), the rigour (she’s worked as a cu­ra­tor, gallery direc­tor and aca­demic), CV (pre­vi­ous roles in­clud­ing Art Basel’s VIP Re­la­tions Man­ager, South East Asia) and lan­guage skills (Ooi speaks six of them). For all in­tents and pur­poses, it al­most looks as if Ooi’s been pre­par­ing for this role her en­tire life.

Ooi hap­pily scoffs at the sug­ges­tion. “I keep look­ing back and think, ‘My god, how was I sup­posed to know what I wanted to do at the age of 18 or 19?’” she says. “I know this is the way life has been mapped for most peo­ple: you go to col­lege; de­cide what to do in life; then: ‘This is it’. For me, it was re­ally just blindly col­lid­ing into things I wasn’t sure about, or be­ing thrown into sit­u­a­tions I didn’t plan for. Even this po­si­tion.”

In pho­tos, Ooi is poised, el­e­gant and looks di­rectly into the cam­era with an ex­pres­sion that means busi­ness. In con­ver­sa­tion, how­ever, she’s prone to laugh­ing and jok­ing goofily. When asked what trig­gered off her pas­sion in the arts, Ooi acts faux-flus­tered. “Quite a num­ber of peo­ple ask me this ques­tion and I still don’t have the ex­act an­swer!” she says. Raised on a Malaysian palm oil plan­ta­tion and ed­u­cated in Sin­ga­pore and Eng­land, Ooi wasn’t ex­actly sur­rounded by fine art or im­mersed in the in­dus­try at a young age.

Ooi of­fers sheep­ishly, “I mean … I do re­mem­ber tak­ing an in­ter­est in IKEA posters?” She chuck­les, know­ing how pre­pos­ter­ous this sounds: that one of the most in­flu­en­tial and im­por­tant cu­ra­to­rial fig­ures in Asia’s con­tem­po­rary art scene had her artis­tic awak­en­ing at the Swedish mega fran­chise. “I know! It’s a sad, sad story, but it is the truth!” In her de­fence, how­ever, IKEA posters be­ing pro­duced in her teens were re­pro­duc­tions of Monet and Matisse.

By the time Ooi fin­ished school, all she knew was that she didn’t want to go to ‘nor­mal’ school and study eco­nom­ics or ac­count­ing – “what­ever it is a Chi­nese girl should do”. In­stead, Ooi en­rolled in a BFA in Lon­don, even though she sus­pected—even then—she didn’t ac­tu­ally want to be a prac­tis­ing artist. From day one at Saint Martins se­ri­ous pain­ters sur­rounded her, “peo­ple who ba­si­cally ate and slept tur­pen­tine”. Al­though Ooi grad­u­ated with Hon­ours, she says she never had a nat­u­ral flair or com­mand over the ma­te­ri­als. “It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily a sad re­al­i­sa­tion,” Ooi says, more a state­ment of fact.

It was only af­ter Ooi grad­u­ated and started work­ing as an in­tern for pro­fes­sional artists and gal­leries that she be­came fully aware of all the play­ers in the arts in­dus­try ecosys­tem. “Back in the day, I thought there was just: art his­to­rian, artist and de­signer. Then I re­alised, ‘Oh gosh, there’s such a thing as cu­ra­tors, art man­agers and project man­agers!’ That’s when the art world truly opened up to me, and I be­gan to un­der­stand what I was good at.”

Ooi quickly be­came renowned for her abil­ity to mul­ti­task at near-ex­treme lev­els. In her late thir­ties, Ooi has al­ready cu­rated and pro­gram di­rected the Valen­tine Wil­lie Fine Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, and was Art Basel’s VIP Re­la­tions Man­ager for South­east Asia (cov­er­ing In­done­sia, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and Viet­nam), whilst si­mul­ta­ne­ously di­rect­ing Rogueart, the Malaysian-based cul­tural agency she co-founded in 2009. It didn’t phase Ooi that by the time she was hired as Art Basel’s Direc­tor Asia in late 2014, she only had three months to pre­pare. “It was very much hit­ting the ground run­ning, jump­ing off the deep end—which­ever metaphor you want to use,” she says. “I ba­si­cally had to learn to catch every ball that came my way.”

For her first Art Basel show, Ooi says she didn’t come into it with an ex­plicit mis­sion state­ment. “The only mis­sion state­ment I gave my­self was re­ally to watch, ob­serve and learn,” she says. “I still needed to un­der­stand quite a bit of how the in­ner me­chan­ics of the show; how the en­gine worked.” Now that the show has fin­ished, to much ac­claim, Ooi is think­ing ahead to 2016’s show and be­yond. What she’s keen to ex­plore is how to best show­case Asia, a con­ti­nent Ooi feels is home to cul­tures far more frag­mented, di­verse and alien to each other than out­siders might as­sume.

“When we say ‘Asia’, it’s such a broad sweep,” she says. “What do we mean specif­i­cally? Are we look­ing at North Asia? The Mid­dle East? The Asia Pa­cific?” Then there are the cul­tural speci­fici­ties of the coun­tries and cul­tures them­selves. “It’s ex­actly like Europe, from the French to the Ger­mans to the Swiss to the Ital­ians. There are cul­tural at­tributes that dif­fer from one an­other. There are stereo­types. We think we know each other, but we re­ally don’t,” she says. “Even as a Malaysian, I feel there is still so much about Myan­mar, Cam­bo­dia, Laos, that we don’t know about, and we are, ge­o­graph­i­cally speak­ing, a stone’s throw away.”

As much as cul­tural and geo­graph­i­cal bar­ri­ers chal­lenge Ooi in her work, the re­gion’s his­tory of porous­ness is one of her per­sonal ob­ses­sions. Sto­ries of mi­gra­tion and jour­neys are of­ten at the heart of con­tem­po­rary Asian art and it’s an el­e­ment Ooi adores. “Com­ing from South East Asia, I was al­ways fas­ci­nated with our his­tory of the re­gion,” she says. “The no­tion of voy­ages; the old days of coloni­sa­tion and the East In­dia Com­pany; the way peo­ple have moved from land to sea and other parts of the world. The sto­ries of spices; how prod­ucts and peo­ple and plants have moved. Glob­al­i­sa­tion, even be­fore one knew what was ‘glob­al­i­sa­tion’.”

Part of this fas­ci­na­tion, Ooi ac­knowl­edges, is per­sonal. Ooi’s own story is one of non-stop geo­graph­i­cal shifts. How­ever, she also notes that to be a good cu­ra­tor, one has to be aware of their per­sonal tastes and bi­ases. As Ooi points out, Art Basel Hong Kong isn’t about her. It’s about the artists. “I know this may sound corny, but it is about mak­ing Asia proud,” she says. “It is about high­light­ing the breadth of what we have in this part of the world: the best gal­leries; the best tal­ent; and our au­di­ence, as well. It is a very new au­di­ence, gen­er­ally speak­ing, in Asia – the whole no­tion of art col­lect­ing is quite new.” Ooi points out that 15 to 20 years ago, a cul­ture of col­lect­ing con­tem­po­rary art in Asia was rel­a­tively rare, with the ex­cep­tion of ter­ri­to­ries like Aus­tralia, Tai­wan and Ja­pan. Now, with the gen­er­a­tion of new wealth and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, the re­gional arts in­dus­try is boom­ing.

Which, of course, means more work for Ooi. “I don’t see work as work, though!” she says. “Every week is a dif­fer­ent week for me. It is de­mand­ing and all-con­sum­ing, but you’ve got to re­ally love it.”

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