Just beside Ambassador Dr Ulrich Sante’s main two-storey residence in Nassim Road lies a small, nondescript whitewashed building that’s about a quarter of the size of a squash court. Within its four walls, you’ll find three racks overflowing with bricks, wood and metal objects in an assortment of shapes and sizes. It’s a stark departure from Dr Sante’s fastidiously neat home, but the makeshift storeroom is clearly one of the ambassador’s favourite rooms. Consider it his garden of raw materials, where he goes to pick out the ingredients he requires before adjourning to his workshop to work on his art pieces.
Many know Dr Sante as a diplomat, and only a select few are privy to his artistic passions. “My parents were wise enough to ensure that my siblings and I not only studied science and mathematics, but also the arts. As young children, they gave us space to be creative. When I grew older and started fixing things around the house, I realised that I liked working with my hands.”
This budding interest in art only crystallised when Dr Sante studied law in Freiburg, Germany. He was inexplicably drawn to the art history module and approached one of the professors, an old whitehaired woman, while she was giving a lecture on French ceramics.
“I told her I was studying law, but I liked her classes,” he recalled, a wistful look on his face. “I asked if she would allow me to participate and write a paper on a specific ceramic that I saw in Strasbourg. It was made by a French artist named Joseph Hannong.”
The professor agreed. And so, Dr Sante went immediately to work. The pursuit invigorated him, so much so that he went beyond the scope of the paper and began not only comparing different types of ceramics from the different regions in France and Italy, but also included his own drawings and illustrations of these pieces.
The professor was impressed by his studiousness and gave Dr Sante the highest grade possible. Inspired by the recognition, he continued taking art history classes on top of his usual law modules, studying in this dual vein for four years.
“Then, my mum asked if I was going to be done with school anytime soon,” Dr Sante reminisced with a laugh. So, he knuckled down and completed his law degree within the year. His artistic pursuits were temporarily put into cold storage to make way for more diplomatic endeavours, but they were never far from his mind.
Art As A Medium
Before Dr Sante puttered around the city in a BMW i3 that baked in the sun, he rode a motorcycle. And it went everywhere with him – even all the way to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he served as the deputy head of mission at the German Embassy for three years from 1996 to 1999. Dr Sante would roam the countryside with his trusty two-wheeler when he wasn’t working. It was on one such trip that he crossed paths with an elderly gentleman.
“He was perhaps, 80 or 85 years old, and in his backyard, there were various cut metal rods; he was supplying the construction industry with this material. I asked him if I could acquire a few of them without having any clue of what I wanted to do with these items. It was a feeling more than anything. He agreed and so I went home, lugging these metal rods,” shared Dr Sante.
Back home, the ambassador laid out the newly procured rods alongside a couple pieces of wood that he already had and started mindlessly fiddling around with them. There was no end goal in mind, only the pleasure that can only be derived from building something with your hands.
Slowly, his piece started taking shape – round metal rods drilled into small wooden cubes, arranged methodically to become a square grid. It now hangs proudly on the main living room wall of Dr Sante’s residence.
“I call it Object No. 1. When people ask me about its real name, I’d say that it’s named ‘Not for Sale,’” joked Dr Sante. Turning serious, he continued, “Object No. 1 was the first art piece I ever made and that’s how my journey into art organically evolved without any firm intentions; where my judicial and political interests intersected my artistic instincts. And I’ve continued walking both paths ever since then.”
For Dr Sante, wood and metal are more than just mere building blocks. They represent the pliable warmth of nature and the unyielding character of humanity respectively. “Humankind always forces its will onto nature, and nature usually allows it. But the relationship between Man and Nature is one of tension, and it’s reflected in all my pieces. It’s interesting to see how the art evolves over time,” he explained.
In some sense, Dr Sante’s art collecting journey has also evolved since his first significant art purchase back in 1991 from a German artist named Reinhard Frotscher. Titled Caida, which means “The Fall” in German, the painting wasn’t even up for sale. Dr Sante and his wife had visited Frotscher’s home to peruse his collection in search of a suitable painting. The good ambassador had enquired about purchasing Caida and was promptly shut down. So, he started browsing the artist’s other pieces.
However, Caida kept drawing him in with its message (see the sidebar opposite) and he kept in touch with the artist in hopes that he would sell the piece. A couple of weeks later, Frotscher agreed to sell the piece to Dr Sante. “When I looked back, I realised that my art collecting journey went through three phases.
The first was simple. When I considered purchasing a piece, all that mattered was whether I liked it or not. The second phase was when my wife and I began considering not only the art but the artist, too. What emotions drove him to create this? What were the techniques he used? How did he come to that perfection? We would meet with the artist before we acquired a piece,” said Dr Sante.
The third phase, and the one he’s in now, is simpler and yet, far-reaching. The piece will have to tell the story of the time he lives in. “We have a couple of pieces that follow in this vein, and I must say that we feel most comfortable now in this path because we acquire pieces where we like the art and know the artist. Each piece also provides a historic dimension to what was around us at the point that we bought it. Our art collection tells us not only how we walked through life, but also the life that we had walked through.”
And, much like the elderly female art professor who taught Dr Sante back in university, art also gave him many valuable life lessons, the most important being his journey to finding himself. “When you are young, you tend to follow others. But the older you get, the more you find yourself. I am convinced everyone has two voices in them. One is extremely loud, and that’s the one we follow first. Then, when we gain more life experience, we feel safe enough to start following the second voice.”
That second voice has now led him to presenting his works at an upcoming exhibition at The Private Museum, from May 21 to June 16. It’s not the first time Dr Sante has exhibited his works; in the late 90s, he presented his pieces at Dachau. But the diplomat was initially reluctant to accept Daniel Teo’s (The Private Museum founder) invitation because he did not want his professional life to be defined by his private passion.
However, after some thought, Dr Sante realised that the art exhibition was, in a way, a perfect vehicle for German-Singapore diplomacy.
“Sure, we represent the German Foreign Service and, in some ways, Germany. But the officers in the service come from all walks of life, with different family backgrounds and different interests. I thought the exhibition would be a great way of showcasing one of the most integral parts of diplomacy: the personality.”
The ambassador picks out three of his favourites.