BY Chloe Stead AND Nadia Egan in Interviews | 19 DEC 22

Renan Laru-an on Curating Exhibitions that ‘Embrace’ Audiences

The incoming director of SAVVY Contemporary shares his plans for the Berlin-based not-for-profit

BY Chloe Stead AND Nadia Egan in Interviews | 19 DEC 22

Renan Laru-an, independent curator, researcher and founding member of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network (PCAN), is the incoming artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary. In January, he will take over from curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who founded the influential Berlin-based institution in 2009. Spending much of his practice challenging established curatorial norms, Laru-an has developed a unique and inclusive approach to exhibition making that foregrounds honesty and communication. Frieze assistant editor Chloe Stead and editorial trainee Nadia Egan spoke to Laru-an about what he hopes to bring to his future role at SAVVY Contemporary.

Renan Lau-an. Courtesy: Singapore Art Museum

Chloe Stead Why did you decide to accept the position of artistic director at SAVVY Contemporary?

Renan Laru-an For a while now, I have been looking for an institutional role where I could cultivate my research practice and share the wealth of tools and networks to which I have access. But, after many years of working as an independent curator, I came to realize that there are organizational models that do not align with how I work. SAVVY proposes another idea of institutionality, which means that the organization remains very flexible and agile. I had already collaborated with SAVVY in 2016, when I co-curated the exhibition ‘From Bandung to Berlin: If all of the Moons Aligned’, so when the position became available, despite having faced a number of personal challenges during the pandemic, I jumped at the chance to work with them again.

Nadia Egan What are your main areas of research as a curator?

RL One area of interest is what I call the ‘exhibitionary’. Last year, I wrote an essay for the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled ‘Exhibitionary Heritage: the Grid’, which was an initial attempt to index some of my thoughts and theories in terms of exhibition-making. It evolved out of my hesitation to subscribe to what has been standardized in curatorial practice. Exhibitions today can be very dogmatic, and many have lost their commitment to the fantastical and the imaginary. Instead, they have become convenient spaces in which to access information and facts. This can be a good thing, of course, and there are a lot of institutions doing a great job in this sense, but an exhibition doesn’t have to look like the editorial room of Al Jazeera: it can also be a space of wonder. Exhibitions offer a way of contextualizing stories and subjects that is very different from, say, academic texts or films. I am searching for multiple heritage in exhibition-making that can bring together, meander through and sit with our conflicting emotions.

The Rene Villanueva Project, undated/2022, installation view, Biennale Matter of Art Prague, 2022

CS Is there an exhibition you’ve worked on that you feel got close to this sense of wonder?

RL Earlier this year, at the second edition of Biennale Matter of Art in Prague – which I co-curated with Rado Ištok, Piotr Sikora and – we included a body of work by the Filipino children’s author and playwright Rene O. Villanueva, who was active in the 1980s and ’90s. I found out through a conversation with his family that he also produced these book-like objects, which were created during storytelling workshops with different communities and some indigenous groups in the Philippines. They were graphic representations and visuals that he used for storytelling, which abstracted translations and constellations of indigenous folktales because he didn’t have access to the original language. The Czech Republic has a long history of children’s literature and puppetry so, through subtle contextualization, we were able to facilitate these books communicating with a new audience without telling them how they should read the work. It’s about having faith in artists.

CS Can you give us any hints about your future programme for SAVVY?

RL What I can say is that I will be working closely with colleagues, peers and previous collaborators to devise an exhibition programme that embraces its audience. I always ask myself: when was the last time I was embraced by an exhibition? And the reality is that, since the pandemic, a lot of people no longer feel convinced by the promise of exhibitions. The concept and current models of accessibility have been challenged by the effects of chronic anxieties and long-term illnesses. I’m also keen to promote what artist Lee Lozano termed as ‘new honesty’ in an organization or, in the words of the artist and arts organizer Brenda Fajardo, who profoundly situates the work that we do as public service: ‘how do we teach art creatively as if we are breathing it naturally?’ I’m going to be giving careful consideration to our ethical position as an institution and examining how that translates into our output. I don’t want SAVVY to be an organization that says one thing but does another.

SAVVY Contemporary library, Vulnerable Archives installation, 2021. Courtesy: SAVVY Contemporary; photograph: Raisa Galofre

NE What are you most looking forward to about the role?

RL This will be my first regular job for a long time, so I’m excited to get back into the rhythm of day-to-day operations. But I’m also just excited to be around art in a city like Berlin. During the pandemic, I moved back to where I grew up to be with my parents: it’s a rural village in Sultan Kudarat where no one knows what I’m doing and no one cares about contemporary art [laughs] – although that is also refreshing, in a way. Something I have already discussed with the SAVVY team is that I am very keen to attract people who would not ordinarily choose to be in an art space. Another issue I want to address is that, despite being an organization dedicated to conviviality and sharing, there are still many communities in Wedding, where SAVVY is based, who don’t know we’re there. We need to be reaching out more and in different ways.

NE What qualities do you think are essential to being a successful curator?

RL I think curators must be patient. They need to question their relationship with urgency, to ask themselves what’s important and fundamental. It seems so easy to practice patience but it’s one of the most difficult things to do both in art and in life – particularly at the moment, when a lot of uncertainty and formlessness lies ahead of us.

Main image: SAVVY facade with installation by Bili Bidjocka, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and SAVVY Contemporary; Photograph: Raisa Galofre

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 

Nadia Egan is a writer, editor and critic. She is based in Berlin, Germany.