How OH! Open House turns neighbourhoods into art galleries

Our favourite art walkabout is back! We speak to the co-founder of the initiative, Alan Oei, and get ready to explore Potong Pasir at OH! Open House

Photo: Gwen Pew

Most of us would think of Joo Chiat as home to rows upon rows of conserved, colourful shophouses. But the neighbourhood holds far more stories – and secrets – that can fit into a pretty Instagram post. And OH! Open House brought those tales to the forefront just last year. Walking tours, site-specific art (most of which are exhibited in actual living rooms) and other pop-up events transformed the entire district into one giant, if ephemeral, gallery.

This month, it’s Potong Pasir’s turn to receive the OH! treatment. Themed ‘Departed Spaces’, this iteration of the festival maintains the same mission: to encourage people to see neighbourhoods in a different light and check out works by 12 artists while they’re at it. We speak to the co-founder of the initiative, Alan Oei, who tells us more.

"I think it’s far more interesting now when the dust has kind of settled and you can see in Potong Pasir this stage of ‘becoming’. It’s becoming more like the rest of our heartlands, and maybe you could also say the residents are more like the rest of us now."

In the blink of an eye, OH! Open House is now in its sixth edition. How has it evolved over the years?

When we started out, it was about finding ways to put art in spaces that aren’t ‘white cubes’, trying to create a different way of experiencing art. But somewhere into the third tour (Tiong Bahru), we realised there was so much more to that. In the six months we were there developing and presenting the tour, so much had changed. I had never encountered gentrification up-close, and we’re proud to have started different conversations here. Before OH!, the media mostly talked about Tiong Bahru as a hip, exciting estate with beautiful, refurbished apartments.

The neighbourhood, its stories, its inhabitants – all these were a way of thinking about the larger Singapore. The neighbourhood is the perfect-sized unit and microcosm of cultural narratives about Singapore. OH! has evolved from a walking tour of art into cultural geography. We get to rewrite some of the dominant narratives of neighbourhoods. For example, Joo Chiat, to the 2,500 people who came for our walkabout, is no longer just about beautiful Peranakan shophouses.

Alan Oei
Photo: Crispian Chan

Are you guys doing anything differently this time?

We’re returning to the HDB heartlands again, so that in itself is exciting. When we went to Marine Parade in 2011, we tried to figure out whether art can exist in our HDB flats. The answer was definitely a ‘yes’. So the question now is: are all of our heartlands the same?

We always like to talk about the kampong spirit in the heartlands, but I feel that’s a cliché. How many of us actually know and love our neighbours? Potong Pasir actually has a kampong spirit – is this going to stay, or is it going away?

Why Potong Pasir?

I’ve been interested in Potong Pasir – this sleepy, stuck-in-the-’80s neighbourhood – for a while now. For a long time, it’s almost like it was a different part of the country that’s stuck in another time. We came to survey the place immediately after the 2011 elections. I think it’s far more interesting now when the dust has kind of settled and you can see in Potong Pasir this stage of ‘becoming’. It’s becoming more like the rest of our heartlands, and maybe you could also say the residents are more like the rest of us now. Yet beneath all the physical upgrading and construction is also a palpable sense of emotional transition.

The neighbourhood itself is visually and experientially very different. You feel it the moment you walk out of the MRT station. And because of its political history, it’s also a place many people know about but have never actually visited.  

What stories have you discovered about the ’hood so far?

A resident told us an interesting one, regarding moonshine back in days when Potong Pasir had kampongs. People used to brew gallons of them in their backyards. But because it’s illegal, they hid the containers of moonshine inside the murky ponds. However, the policemen knew [about these hiding spots]. So whenever raids were conducted, you could see policemen walking around with long poles, poking them into the ponds. If a ‘clunk’ was heard, be prepared to have coffee at the station.

My Name is Joo Chiat by Hafiz Osman
Photo: Mike Lim

Tell us about some of the artists and artworks this year.

Michelle Lim’s work is very meditative. It is a series of excavated and built-up clay mounds in the garden of an old black-and-white terrace house – the artist will essentially build up clay mounds from within. The artist is responding to a lost memory of her ancestors’ graves in Bidadari, but you could read it in many ways: as a ritual of remembrance, as a self-burial, or as a making of an indeterminate future.

There’s also Hafiz Osman, who was last seen in Joo Chiat leading a cycling procession on a very tall bike. This time, he has proposed to do his own version of ‘upgrading’, as an artist providing services for the residents here. There’s all that construction outside, which he’s bringing inside. That forces them to engage their relationship to upgrading in a very intimate and real way. You can’t just close off your doors and hide away.

You launched the Hello Joo Chiat fringe events last year. Are there similar initiatives this year?

This year we did an open call to invite people to propose their own projects. Some are socially engaged, some are wacky, but all in all, we are tremendously excited by the surprising entries. There’s a poetry staircase, a crazy rubble pile that makes lots of cheeky noises as you come close to it, and a crazier housing agent who has an epic monologue on Potong Pasir.

OH! Open House 2015 volunteers, artists and organisers

What’s the future of OH! Open House?

We’ve only just begun our journey. There’s so much potential to our model where we can blur the lines between public and private, and people can tell their own stories of neighbourhoods – that it’s not the urban planners’ but the inhabitants who make a place come alive. We want to work with artists and communities to have creative agency over shared spaces. 



platy r

very informative, hope the potong pasir one starts soon.

Can i ask where are the open adjustable wooden shelves in the Alan Oei picture from?