AWDB Spotlight: Interview with curator Jenn Ellis

AWDB speaks with Jenn Ellis, curator and founder of Apsara Studio and co-founder of the virtual gallery, AORA Space. Having conceptualised and presented numerous collaborative art projects throughout the past decade at the intersection of art, space, and context, she often stages her projects in unusual venues, enhancing the viewer experience and harmonising the artworks with the environment.

Having lived in various regions around the globe, including Asia, Ellis has worked with artists from diverse backgrounds including several from Southeast Asia. More recently, for Frieze New York, Ellis collaborated with the Swiss watchmaker Breguet to show the works of Singaporean artist Dawn Ng alongside the luxury brand’s watch display. Using a block of melting ice captured on video and works from her ‘Clock’ series, Ng’s presentation ‘An Atlas of Us’ encapsulates the passage of time and its relationship to emotions and transformation, and is reflective of evolution and change within ourselves.

Dawn Ng, 'Waterfall VIII', 2023, Image Still from Video. Image courtesy of the artist
Dawn Ng, ‘Waterfall VIII’, 2023, Image Still from Video. Image courtesy of the artist

As you have worked on many projects and with a diverse range of artists, what do you take into consideration when working with a client or an artist?

Every project I do thinks first and foremost about the relationship between art, space, and context. As such, whenever considering a project I ask myself: why this, why here, why now? Whether it’s an artist, gallery, foundation or organisation approaching me – there is always this running thread.

Another key tenet is global artistic dialogue. As a person from many places – Colombia, Switzerland, the UK, living in Hong Kong and now London – I am sensitive to creating points of exchange between different voices. I truly believe that art is one of the most empathetic, yet critical mediums to communicate about topics from every corner of the globe and personal experience.

Notably, many of your projects have been presented in interesting and unusual venues, different to the standard white walls of commercial galleries. For example Dawn’s exhibition in St. Cyprian’s church in London and also, the group show, ‘Terra’ in Burgundy, France. As a curator who combines their practice with architecture, how do concepts such as those mentioned, evolve for you, from the birth of the idea to its inception?

As a person and curator I’m very sensitive to space. In my projects and exhibitions I approach it as a medium, one to respond to. Crucially, I don’t want to impose or interfere, but rather have a dialogue with it. Before discovering visual arts I played the piano, did music theory, and did ballet for 14 years. As such, whenever approaching the ideation of an exhibition and where things are placed, I think about harmony, tone, and how one moves through it. There is an innate and organic interdisciplinary as well as site-consciousness.

How a project begins in such locations really depends. For some I try to find the perfect location and create a match. Increasingly, I am offered spaces based on my approach. It’s an incredible honour to increasingly weave history and heritage into my exhibitions, adding to the layers of the curatorial story.

Dawn Ng ‘Into Air’, installation view at St Cyprian’s Church, London, 2022. Curated by Jenn Ellis. Courtesy of artist, Apsara Studio and Sullivan+Strumpf. Photo courtesy of James Retief

Tell us more about the Breguet collaboration and Dawn Ng’s participation at Frieze New York this year. Can you describe the conception of the idea for the luxury watchmaker’s booth? What work did Dawn produce for the installation?

I’m excited to have been invited by Frieze and Breguet to be their curator for 2024-25. This is the third year there’s a partnership between the two, and as their curator I’ll be unveiling four projects responding generally to ‘time’ at each of the Frieze fairs: first New York, then Seoul, London, and finally LA.

My approach has been to address ‘evolutionary change’, the idea being that when change has occurred, one knows that time has passed. This is an indicator for our planet, innovation, the wider cosmos, as well as ourselves. Each fair will unfold and present a new chapter of this journey and focus on a singular artist and their practice, creating an opportunity to go deep rather than wide.

The first chapter in New York is titled ‘An Atlas of Us’ and presents the work of Dawn Ng. A serial collaborator, I am continuously touched by how Ng expresses time using the most ephemeral material available to her in her native Singapore – ice. Starting with creating 60 kg blocks of acrylics, watercolours, dyes, she has a cyclical practice that encompasses photography, painting, light boxes, video, and increasingly, performance. We’ll be showing all of these in New York, including a special live choral ‘breath’ piece by composer Alex Mills, ‘Into Air’, that will be presented at the fair in collaboration with Carnegie Hall. We’re all incredibly excited about this!

Considering that you have worked with a few Southeast Asian artists such as Mit Jai Inn and Dawn, how accessible have you found their works to be in a global art world context?

As a curator with a focus on global artistic dialogue I see it as a driving purpose to connect dots and bridges between different art worlds and scenes around the world. These bridges take time and require observation, travel, and support systems. I truly see, in London and the UK where I’m currently based, a general wave and enthusiasm for looking at artists from around the world, including Southeast Asia. This is not something I saw or experienced when I was studying History of Art, which approached the art world through a more narrow Western lens – so this is a major development. And you don’t just see it at the gallery level, where things sometimes move more quickly, but also on the institutional level – consider Melanie Pocock’s programming at Ikon Gallery, or the recent ‘Unravel’ exhibition at the Barbican.

What’s important though is not just the ‘coming to Europe’ but also the ‘going to Southeast Asia’. Because that’s when true dialogue is achieved. Even if travelling is difficult, or doesn’t align with one’s climate agenda, through the internet and social media we are much more connected than ever, so we can also research, engage, and learn both ways.

Mit Jai Inn. New Oxford Street, London, 2022. Courtesy of Apsara Studio, Silverlens and Ikon Gallery. Photography by James Retief

As a curator with a worldview, how do you think contemporary Southeast Asian art and artists are perceived in the industry as a whole?

I think things have changed a lot in the last ten years. There isn’t this blanket description of the ‘Asian Art Market’ or at least there is a bit more refinement in that definition, understanding you have China, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Asia Pacific, etc. This is still very much a work in process but it helps in thinking about where things come from.

There are then of course moments: biennales, fairs, that highlight art from the region or bring people over. An extremely exciting moment was when Silverlens opened their gallery in New York; a major moment for the map.

That being said, origin stories, especially as artists move around and are from multiple places, is a harder and harder ‘thing’. So perhaps we’ll get to a point where it’s less about where something comes from – that categorising. I think the recent 60th Venice Biennale highlighted that strongly.

Is there any discourse that you hope to encourage through your studio and the work that you do, as the founder of Apsara Studio?

As an independent curator I was always passionate about art, space and context; global artistic dialogue; and committing myself to projects with purpose. A couple of years ago I realised I couldn’t do this alone – and didn’t want to do it alone – so we launched Apsara Studio. I didn’t want to call it Ellis projects as it wasn’t about me, rather opting for Apsara, a buddhist deity, as our muse.

We come together as a guild, where each person contributes their own skill set, so to speak, and are very curator/artist/research led. At the moment I’m joined by two artists, as well as a curator who is completing her PhD at Goldsmiths. We also regularly collaborate with other curators and organisations, bringing together people and places that fit or will make a project ‘sing’.

The notion of a curatorial studio isn’t something I had come across but it’s been incredible to build and see a space for it in our ecosystem. Hopefully recognising us as a thoughtful unit that can provide a balance between curatorial vision, practical requirements and overall care to make some meaningful projects happen.

‘TERRA’, l’Ancien Théâtre, Beaune, Burgundy, France, 2023. Curated by Jenn Ellis & Emie Diamond. Produced by Milena Berman. Photography by James Retief

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