Since 2020, experimental design studio Supper House has served up a carefully curated slate of art and fashion exhibitions and programmes. Headed by founder Ashley Chiam, the independent arts platform creates opportunities for creatives of all stripes — from visual artists to scent makers — to converse and collaborate.
While Supper House has recently moved out of its space at Tagore Lane, it remains committed to its cross-disciplinary, no-holds-barred approach and mission to connect artists and publics. This month, the studio has popped up at GR.iD with 日舍 Nothing but a Day Dream, a four-week artist residency and open studio for Singapore Art Week. Chiam looks back on Supper House’s past few years and tells us what’s next.
1. So you’ve decided to close down Supper House at Tagore Lane because of rising rent — tell us a bit about that decision. Your tie-ups with Starch made the district an art venue in itself, and with your departure, the vibrancy of the district seems diminished. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I certainly think the whole approach [about the rental situation] was wrong from the start. The landlord’s representative kickstarted our negotiation with a non-negotiable rate, which I politely declined. Eventually, when I indicated that did not wish to renew my contract on those terms, things suddenly became negotiable again, though a significant hike would still be imposed.
As with any difficulties and hurdles, it would have been possible for us to deal with the rental hike and make do eventually, but fundamentally, I did not agree with the landlord’s approach. It was predatory. To give the landlords the benefit of the doubt, they probably didn’t know about the amount of work that goes into the running of the space. [The impression is that] we are hip and happening, and therefore we must be profitable! Unfortunately as with everything, there are always two sides of the coin, and in this case, despite our social status and brand equity, I just did not see why I would have to work doubly hard to line the landlord’s pockets.
From the very beginning, I saw Supper House as an experiment of sorts. Personally, I feel that the only kind of permanence is impermanence itself. That was also the reason why Supper House was framed as a monumental “black box,” spilling its [artistic] contents. It is after all, a “box” that is meant to be placed and displaced. It was also why I didn’t choose to name the space after a person, or a place. I felt that it should be a place marker on its own, and from that perspective, perhaps it was only a matter of time before physical displacement took place.
Where it sits doesn’t matter to us anymore. What initially was meant to give our visitors that sense of space, and the journey here, set the tone. What is now left, is a reminder that nothing is ever permanent given the pace of development in Singapore.
2. Tell us about the new project at GR.iD, and how it will be funded? What are your personal guiding principles for the funding of Supper House?
Supper GR.iD is a residency aimed at re-introducing artists, what they do, what they are passionate about, to the public again. Supper House has always strived to be a bridge between the arts and the public. It seeks to re-present art as an all-inspiring but contentious element of life. Artists are very unique and brave individuals who somehow have learned to communicate the intricacies and ironies of life through their own distinctive methods of self-expression. Each artist has a cause to fight for, a reason to live, and an ideal that is worth championing for.
Frequently though, artists are not understood. Supper House is that space where they could be re-introduced in a more palatable manner, to facilitate conversations.
This really is the principle for me, when funding the shows at Supper House out of my own pocket. Except for Singapore Art Week 2023, all shows have been funded by the various businesses of Supper House. We do this all in the name of sharing.
3. What are the other businesses / jobs that you handle that fund Supper House?
Retail design, residential design, and retail visual merchandising guides form the bulk of the everyday things we do to fund the space. But of course, the more interesting (and famous) side gigs I have done are Grab driving, fishmongering, and waitressing!
4. Why did you decide to embark on hosting art residencies instead of looking for another permanent space for exhibitions?
In my various roles across different industries, pop-ups and takeovers are common. Retail environments often have different temporary locations, to serve different purposes. This is also prevalent in hospitality, and the F&B market. So why not in the arts?
After my second show in Supper House, I had felt limited by what I had built. Infrastructure is also a double-edged sword. Even though it worked, it was tiring, at least for me after a while. I started to think if I could change things, and tweak this and that, but I was also constantly limited by the physical space that was so emblematic of Supper House.
Through our shows, I started to realise that a community had organically grown around us. It is not a gallery environment that I am after, I’m really looking for more of a marketplace. And so, I started to wonder, what if we [turned Supper House into a] residency?
At the same time, various partners enquired if I would be willing to create open studios to combat “gallery fatigue” amongst art audiences. So that’s how we turned into a pop-up residency.
5. The GR.iD residency project is 4 weeks long – what will happen after the 4 weeks for the artists taking part in the residency ?
The whole idea is about the concept of things being temporal. Hopefully, artists will take away a sense of camaraderie and community built over the three weeks, while working together to exhibit tangible outcomes, in the final Open Studio week. Whether the artists bond or not, I leave it to them. But the choice of artists has also been specifically curated such that there are some social agitators, some who are more avant-garde, and others who are less controversial.
The whole idea is to take them out of their comfort zones, and place them with new friends, and old friends, while giving them the space to connect with one another. At the end of it, I do hope they will go back to their own spaces, with new friends and collaborators, and a new way of thinking.
6. And what about Supper House? Will there be another pop up project? Or will you be looking for another permanent space?
2024 will be focused on pop-ups and temporal setups. We are currently also working with the ArtScience Museum for an intimate evening out, with more details to be shared later.
We are also talking to a couple of galleries and malls to see if something can happen in the second half of 2024. We hope to be able to re-open in a permanent space in early 2025.
7. Name your most memorable experience at Supper House in Tagore Lane. (It can be anything, from an artwork, to a show, to a specific encounter with a person).
I remember very vividly that during Singapore Art Week 2023, when I was sharing Joanne Lim’s A Hot Cup of Tea with one of the visitors, I was immediately told that I should be ashamed of myself for censoring Joanne. I had been sharing that the works in Supper House generally have deeper meanings, and that Joanne’s work reminded and prompted us to engage in healthy conversation.
However, the visitor immediately pounced on [the interpretation that] gay rights were being denounced and the traditional family setup favoured, expressing that, as an art space, we should do more to push boundaries.
At that moment, I was really astounded that I, as a gay man, was being challenged by a presumably straight member of the public on my rights. If society is so quick to judge and eager to preach for social justice, where is the space to speak, much less communicate? This encounter reinforced my determination to continue producing and creating shows that are thoughtful, engaging, and, more importantly, balanced.
8. Do you have any lessons to share from your experience with Supper House’s physical space at Tagore Lane? Is there anything you would have done differently knowing what you know now?
I think I would have done the same thing, in hindsight. The experience gave me a lot of insights, taught me humility and confidence, and gave me the awareness that these two concepts do not have to be in conflict with each other. I have no regrets building the “black box” of Supper House. I would have still chosen the same location and done the same things, because they made us into what we are today.
日舍 Nothing but a Day Dream takes place at Level 7 of GR.iD, 1 Selegie Road, till 29 January 2024. This weekend’s open studio runs from 3-10 pm daily. Follow @supperhousesg on Instagram for the latest updates.
Header image: Interior view of Supper House hospitality space.