Art walking tour goes to private spaces in Joo Chiat

OH! Open House will explore the heritage town, showing eight artworks by 12 artists in private spaces

Artist-architect Randy Chan with Madam Maggie Kwek and her cheongsam dating back to the 1940s. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Artist-architect Randy Chan with Madam Maggie Kwek and her cheongsam dating back to the 1940s. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Artists Mike HJ Chang and Mark Thia with their site installation in Fragrance Hotel. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr and Mrs S.S. Tan opened their shophouse for Guo Yixiu’s installation, Ordinary Things (foreground). -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Thanks to a $150,000 seed grant a year from the National Arts Council (NAC) for the next two years, art walkabout OH! Open House returns this month with a tour around the heritage town of Joo Chiat.

Over six days beginning on March 14, visitors can explore private spaces, such as a pre-war shophouse in Koon Seng Road and two rooms at Fragrance Hotel.

Eight artworks by 12 artists, with the common theme of No Man's Land, will be spread across seven spaces on the trail.

The popular programme, which kicked off in 2009, was put on hold for a year. Its last walk was in January 2013.

Mr Alan Oei, OH! Open House curator and artistic director, said: "Due to a lack of funds and the inability to sustain it, we decided to temporarily stop it and see if we could get some support from the NAC."

The previous four editions were in Niven Road at Selegie, Marine Parade, Tiong Bahru and the Marina Bay financial district, attracting more than 5,000 visitors in total.

Mr Oei, 38, said: "The last edition in Marina Bay was very surreal as it is like a ghost town during the weekends. But then, you don't really connect the way you do, unlike in neighbourhoods where there is this sense of history. So we're very happy to go back to residential spaces such as Joo Chiat."

In Joo Chiat, visitors will learn more about the town beyond its wide array of scrumptious eats, rich Peranakan culture and the shophouses in Koon Seng Road.

Mr Oei says: "The shophouses are so famous that they have become representative of Joo Chiat for many. In some ways, that sickens and irritates me a bit, as there is so much to the space than that."

The work SS Nimby, by artist-architect Randy Chan and architectural designers Fiona Tan and Zenas Deng, will reflect the lives of residents in an inconspicuous back alley in between the shophouses in Koon Seng Road and dormitories for migrant workers.

It collects 20 personal items from residents and migrant workers in the area, such as a well- preserved cheongsam dating back to the 1940s, Bangladeshi currency and an old identification card.

Chan, 44, says: "We encounter Joo Chiat in the realm of the personal rather as an architecture of things and buildings, where visitors are transported into the lives of the residents."

Artist Guo Yixiu, 26, created her installation, Ordinary Things, in Mr and Mrs S.S. Tan's pre-war shophouse. They are one of the few families who have lived in Koon Seng Road since the 1950s.

The work leads visitors into the shophouse through the back door via a makeshift garden made of square cut-out floor mats arranged in a line and sparsely decorated with roses made out of plastic bags.

Guo wanted her work to "complement the space, rather than fight against it". For her, the idea of taking artworks beyond the white walls of art galleries presents a different challenge for artists to work with and get inspired by the space.

She says: "OH! Open House provides a different context for artists to explore their works, especially when you want to get more in touch with the audience and the lives of the people in the area."

The shophouse's matriarch, Mrs Tan, is more concerned about Guo's installation being moved around during the event than people entering her home.

She says: "We don't mind people coming into our home. It's a good way for them to learn more about Joo Chiat."

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