Art walk through colonial past in Emerald Hill

SINGAPORE - OH! Open House has curated art walks that have taken viewers into the homes and stories of present-day residents of Joo Chiat and other neighbourhoods. Its eighth edition next month, however, takes ticket-holders into the colonial past of the Emerald Hill area, when Orchard Road was known for nutmeg plantations.

Held in the first four weekends of March, the art walk OH! Emerald Hill is a 21/2-hour experience, ticketed at $30, which includes three 30-minute tours and an exhibition. Tours run from 11am to 5pm and begin at Chatsworth International School, continue through Peranakan shophouses in the Emerald Hill conserved area and end at Orchard Plaza.

In all, 22 artists from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and France were invited to contribute art installations and performances responding to Singapore's colonial history. These range from a barbershop quartet and procession around the area, organised by theatre-maker Tan Kheng Hua, to Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong's Open Love Letters, where a replica of the Raffles statue is cut in half and made into a charcoal grill for roasting kueh kapit or love letters. The other half is a cooling rack for the food, which can then be eaten by viewers.

A key theme inspiring many works were the profitable nutmeg plantations started by European colonists in the early 19th century after Sir Stamford Raffles sent nutmeg and clove seeds to Singapore. Many such plantations took over farmland cultivated by local farmers.

While Raffles is seen in Indonesia as a looter, the idea of colonial powers as exploiters is not prominent in Singaporean memory. The Government is even spearheading next year's bicentennial commemoration of Raffles' arrival in Singapore.

Alan Oei, 41, artistic director of OH! Open House, says: "Other countries, when they gain independence, pull down colonial statues and buildings. Singapore erects them," referring to the polymarble statue of Raffles beside the Singapore River. It is a copy of the original bronze statue and was made in 1972.

Oei adds that his own team "wasn't really interested in the colonial" era at first - which is precisely why OH! Emerald Hill was curated to explore and respond to the historical narrative. For example, Singaporean artist Anthony Chin has designed a 4.9m-high sculpture of Prince Albert's foot, Your Touch Turns To Gold. It is treated with heat sensitive paint and changes colour when touched, reflecting the Midas touch and how colonial powers used Eastern countries for profit.

The art experience ends at Orchard Plaza, where art installations inspired by retail consumption occupy vacant shopfronts. On the fifth floor is a "tea shop" designed by artist collective Evil Empire, which specialises in site-specific work. In this work, titled Tea Revives the World, viewers can learn about the history of the tea trade and buy blends such as Oolong Oppression, made by tea merchant Pek Sin Choon. Next door, environmental artist and educator Zen Teh has created a zen garden out of more than 2 tonnes of pebbles and marble slabs. The garden follows the topography of the Emerald Hill area.

Teh, 30, used marble because it is a "luxury stone" and thus suited to a building dedicated to retail. At the same time, her installation, Small Landscape, is meant to offer shoppers and art-walkers a "place of contemplation". "It's a place for you to sit and appreciate the moment," she says.

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