Melanie Pocock (born 1987) is a curator and writer working at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK. She holds a MA Degree in Curating Contemporary Art (with Distinction) from the Royal College of Art and her writing has appeared in numerous renowned art publications from Frieze, Ocula, ArtAsiaPacific, Eyeline, Kaleidoscope, The Financial Times to Journal of Curatorial Studies, and others. Pocock previously held curatorial positions at Modern Art Oxford, Art Scene China, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. At the ICA, she organised over 60 exhibitions with local and international artists and curated critically acclaimed exhibitions such as Dissolving Margins (2018–19), Native Revisions (2017), and Countershadows (tactics in evasion) (2014).
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How has your curatorial practice developed over the years? Are there particular research questions that drive your work?
MELANIE POCOCK: I’ve always been interested in how art moves us. This is often referred to as the affective dimension of art – i.e. how art makes us feel. Historically, western, rationalist discourse has marginalised this dimension. As a curator, I’m driven by how the space-time of an exhibition can engage viewers on a personal and emotional level. It’s a privileged situation that, when steered with care, can give artists and viewers the most beautiful gift; the feeling of being emotionally transformed through an encounter with art in a public space.
My desire to make these kinds of exhibitions reflects how my practice has developed over time. I try more and more to let myself be led by curiosity and feeling, without the frameworks that might guide a more overtly politically- or theoretically-driven practice. Building meaningful relationships with artists, and allowing these to lead to new and unexpected lines of thought and encounters with other artists, is important to me.
By virtue of my mixed heritage (British and Malaysian Chinese) and lived experience in Southeast Asia, I have, and continue to be drawn to artists from the region. Questions regarding diasporic identity, intercultural encounters, and conditions of production, and how these complicate streamlined notions of globalisation and Southeast Asian art have driven much of my previous and current work.
LŠ: You previously worked for ICA Singapore, where you realized exhibitions such as Dissolving Margins (2018–19), Native Revisions (2017), and Countershadows (tactics in evasion) (2014). You mentioned how the notions of education are ever present in your curatorial work. How were they activated through your work at ICA?
MP: The ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in Singapore is part of LASALLE College of the Arts. The programme while I was there was structured around two axes: projects with staff, students, and alumni of the college, and curatorial projects with artists from Singapore, Southeast Asia, and further afield. This formal context of education was something that the curatorial team and I fed into, through teaching students and artists processes of exhibition making. But it also fed into the curatorial projects that I worked on, and how important it is to continue learning through making exhibitions. In other words, the very point of making an exhibition is to challenge yourself (as the curator), the artist, and the audience. Yes, an exhibition is the culmination of much thought and work, which arrives at a thesis of sorts. But for me, once an exhibition opens, the learning continues – sometimes the exhibition isn’t quite what you thought it would be, or an audience reacts differently to certain aspects, which in turn teaches you something new about what it is you think you’re doing as a curator. I sometimes think about exhibitions years after, in relation to what’s happening now and in the sphere of curating, and see new relevance and faults (!) in them.
LŠ: In 2020, you curated the exhibition of the leading contemporary artist from Thailand, Mit Jai Inn at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. We already discussed how the exhibition, Dreamworld, looked at Buddhism as a helpful philosophy that encourages the act of letting go of control. Could you tell us how you developed the exhibition in conversation with the artist?
MP: I first met Mit Jai Inn in 2017 on a visit to Chiang Mai. At the time, he was still working at a fairly modest scale. Whilst recognised as a “grandfather” of contemporary art in Thailand, his significance as an artist in his own right was still not fully recognised, largely because of years of working collectively and anonymously, as well as giving his work away. I continued to research his work, often through talking with curators and artists who had worked with him or who knew his work well. After joining Ikon, I invited him to present a solo exhibition in 2021, which we largely developed remotely. Fortunately, I was able to conduct one last studio visit in February 2020, as the world was starting to lock down. Over lockdowns, we were able to use tools like 3D renders and scans of the galleries to give Mit a sense of Ikon’s architecture and scale. Prior to the exhibition, we were fortunate to be able to fly him and his partner to Birmingham for a short residency at Birmingham School of Art, where he connected with local artists and made a number of works, including sculptures for his #dreammantra series. These works, coupled with work shipped from Thailand and the Philippines, formed the basis of his exhibition.
LŠ: Ikon’s upcoming exhibition Horror in the Modernist Block will focus on the subject of architecture. How will it be mediated?
MP: Horror in the Modernist Block is an exhibition that explores the relationship between horror and architectural modernism. It takes Birmingham, a city renowned for its brutalist architecture, as a starting point for thinking about the troubled history, impact, and legacy of modernism around the world. I was keen to look at this subject through the lens of contemporary artists (as opposed to architects) because of the way they engage with buildings and space aesthetically. Crucially, the exhibition explores the affective legacy of modernism and the role of the artistic imaginary in shaping its “brutal” image. In many ways, the artists in the exhibition evoke the very real violence and horrors of modernism: its social violence, political instrumentalization, colonial and neo-colonial roots. Yet they also evoke its fictions – how the framing and consumption of images and films drawing on modernist architecture stigmatised it.
In the first section of the exhibition, four film works are projected in a timed sequence. This format directly references tropes of horror (suspense, darkness) and increases the audience’s sense and perception of their own bodies within Ikon’s galleries. Other artists such as Laëtitia Badaut Hausmann have created works that respond directly to the gallery’s architecture, such as existing walls and niches. Ikon’s neo-gothic building also chimes with the theme of horror, a genre that originates in Victorian gothic, its ideas of the uncanny, and the haunted house.
LŠ: Krištof Kintera’s 2020 exhibition THE END OF FUN! at Ikon Gallery addressed the environmental emergency we all face.
MP: The sheer amount of detritus and found material that Krištof Kintera is able to source and recycle is astonishing. His work exposes the fallacy of digital technology as “immaterial” by showing how many physical components it takes to operate. Metal and plastic casing, microchip boards, internal wires, hard drives – all of these things are physical, and often not recycled. At the same time, he gives them a new lease of life as art objects. His works of course consume energy, but their impact perhaps makes us think twice about throwing away such objects, or how their constituent materials might be repurposed. Not necessarily for something functional, but for something creative and poetic, such as art.
LŠ: Étude Op.25 N.10 in B minor, Homage to Chopin by Italian artist Mariateresa Sartori at Ikon Gallery addressed the strong bond between language and music. Is there a strong impression that stayed with you from the exhibition?
MP: Sartori’s work made me think about how music often expresses emotion better than words. The intensity of two people “speaking” Chopin’s music to one another was enhanced by the display of Sartori’s work in Ikon’s Tower Room. A small and intimate space, it accentuated the dual feeling of two people speaking at and past each other – as if they were communicating into a void.
LŠ: Are there curators who influence your work?
MP: I’ll never forget Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s edition of Documenta in 2012. It was at the same time expansive and detailed, structured and poetic. Despite having no theme, each artist’s practice resonated through a kind of critical and aesthetic mass. Stephanie Rosenthal’s exhibitions are always ambitious, but not in a way where the theme or framework overshadows the art. The shows she curated whilst Chief Curator at Hayward Gallery like Art of Change: New Directions from China (2012) and MOVE: Move. Choreographing You (2010) was the first of their kind in the UK, and really sought to give context to these vital geographies and (in the case of MOVE) artistic tendencies. They were also curated for a wide audience and used the labyrinthine format of Hayward’s brutalist gallery well. I’ve also been really inspired by all editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a refreshing example of what an artist-driven biennale rooted in a region can do.