Friday, February 24, 2012

Business Times : Art from the heart on Tiong Bahru trail

24 Feb 2012
Business Times
GIVEN how hip Tiong Bahru has become over the past year or so, (what with all the indie cafes and stores that have popped up in the area), it was only natural that OH! Open House, an art trail, would swoop in and explore the area before its rich history is lost forever.
By the time ticket sales started at 3.30pm last Saturday, a long queue had already begun to snake across Tiong Bahru CC where the tour was to commence, despite the sweltering humidity brought on by an earlier shower that day.
Splitting us up into groups of a dozen, volunteers quickly ushered us to our friendly guide who was to lead us to six of the postwar apartments spread across the area. The flats had been transformed into miniature galleries to present works by 15 commissioned artists.
It was the third edition of OH!, with the first being at Niven Road in 2009, and the second at Marine Parade, which drew 1,500 visitors in its run last year.

The idea was to bring art out of the conventional gallery space and into the heartlands for the average person to enjoy. Even better, you get to interact with artists who sometimes join you on the tour, as well as the homeowners, some of whom meet you at the door to invite you in.

It's an idea that worked out pretty well. The audience, drawn in by the novelty of this unique, adventure-like concept and the old-school charm of Tiong Bahru, were of all ages and showed genuine interest in the area and the art works.

My group, for example, included people who defied all odds to attend the tour, namely four elderly Caucasians, a very pregnant lady with her husband, and an energetic woman with her toddler on her back throughout.

The first stop was the modernised home of an expatriate who had lent her bathroom out to artist Isabelle Desjeux, an ex-scientist who uses her training in Molecular Biology to create art.

Titled Waste Management Laboratory, the work refers to the less glamorous parts of being a scientist. While it had little to do with the heritage of Tiong Bahru, many (though not all) of the others did, which tied in nicely with the cultural vibe of the district.

One such piece was by artist Jying Tan who turned one of the homeowner's bedrooms into the installation, Heimlich. Replacing real furniture are pieces of cling-wrap furniture - that is, a bed, cupboard, desk, and even a working lamp made solely of cling film.

The furniture, however, was designed to look vintage, so as to ignite memories of the past, while the cling-wrap signifies the preservation of the memories.

Sweet on history: Stephen Black's ' I'm a kway, you're a kway' (left and right) featured edible samples of traditional kueh of Singapore, particularly those found in Tiong Bahru

Another was I'm a kway, you're a kway, by Stephen Black who had researched the traditional kueh of Singapore, many of which were found in Tiong Bahru, and re-created and re-invented into edible samples for visitors to try.

Mother Tongue by Green Zeng shouts at you from the second-floor balcony from a flat, with large, red Chinese characters that urge people to speak more dialect and less Mandarin - a reference to Singapore's Speak Mandarin Campaign.

Of course, the fact the Tiong Bahru was once famous for housing mistresses of rich men wasn't left untouched. Artist Marc Gabriel Loh couldn't help but create Den of Beauties, an installation telling the story of a pair of Siamese twins who had run away from the circus to be with a married man.

In sharp contrast to these creative works so full of cultural influences are the beautifully renovated interiors of the hosting houses, the hip coffee joints that you pass while walking from flat to flat, and the strikingly clean walkways once filled with illegal pushcarts selling street food of all sorts.
It's an unsettling feeling, knowing that while the buildings are being preserved, the culture isn't. Which, perhaps, makes it timely for curator Alan Oei to bring OH! here - before the hipsters fully take over the neighbourhood.

As you approach the end of the exhausting 90-minute tour (the four elderlies had given up by this point, though the two mothers trudged on like heroes), you find yourself at Singapore's first Monkey God temple, with a site-specific artwork right next to it.

Titled Matter and Principle, by Singapore-based French artist Gilles Massot, the installation reflects on how a traditional icon like the Monkey God still has a place in a contemporary and urban environment, which makes you think, or hope, that all is not yet lost for Tiong Bahru.

Oh! Open House continues this weekend, starting from Tiong Bahru CC. Tours are from 4 to 9pm; last tours leave at 8pm. Tickets for adults cost $15; children aged 12 and below, $10. Get your tickets at the door on Feb 25 and 26, starting from 3.30pm. Log on to

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