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Both Sides Now

I’ve been an art “consumer” for quite a number of years now. I visit museums and galleries, biennales and art fairs, both in Singapore and overseas. I buy art in a small way and, as my interest in art grew, I even volunteered for several years as a docent at the Singapore Art Museum. As I began to explore works of contemporary art, I have sometimes been required to actively participate in the “making” of the work, for example, with Erwin Wurm’s One-Minute Sculptures at Art Basel Hongkong in 2018. But I’ve always been very clear about my role – about which side of the fence I sit on – I am a member of the audience. I am not an artist. I do not make art.

Following a set of instructions by the artist, members of the public are invited to participate in the making of artist Erwin Wurm’s One-Minute Sculptures.

So I was intrigued when I saw OH! Open House‘s open call for hosts/homeowners some time in November last year, inviting local hosts to collaborate with artists, share their personal stories and co-create an art experience! Some of you may already be familiar with OH!’s signature art walks, like OH! Emerald Hill, where they’ve presented art in homes in various neighbourhoods in Singapore. But this was pushing the envelope even further. This time, the hosts would be called upon to actually participate in the conceptualisation and creation of the art experience. I’ll admit that, for a moment, I even thought about answering the open call myself. For one reason or another, I never got around to doing anything about it, but when the good people at OH! offered me the opportunity to talk to a couple of the hosts, I jumped at the chance. Who, I thought, were these brave souls who were not only willing to open their homes to a bunch of strangers, but were also prepared to share their (perhaps deeply personal) stories in the service of art?

Host, Lim Xiou Ann. Image credit: OH! Open House

Meet Xiou Ann …

Hosts Chew Pei Ying, Ganesh Bharath Kumar, Ryan Lawrence and Lisa Borghini, with Muffy. Image credit: OH! Open House

… and Pei Ying, pictured here with her co-hosts – husband Ganesh and flatmates Ryan and Lisa (and little dog, Muffy) – two of the six hosts in OH!’s PASSPORT, which begins this weekend and runs for the the next two weekends in March.

Xiou Ann is Malaysian and first got involved with OH! because she thought that volunteering might be a good way to meet people and make a home for herself in a new city. To my surprise, I was told that the first volunteer opportunity she considered was auditing MRT toilets – yes, people, it’s actually a thing! That she eventually decided, instead, on quite the polar opposite, being a volunteer guide for OH!’s art walks, says something about the interesting mix of head and heart that Xiou Ann is.

A former journalist whose background, training and current job with a ratings agency requires her to be precise, meticulous and, in her own words, “quite pedantic”, it’s perhaps not surprising that Xiou Ann would be fascinated with the notion that, here in Singapore, someone actually came up with a checklist of items with which to rate our public toilets including, believe it or not, the way they they smell. But she’s also someone who has always been passionate about the arts. Before coming to Singapore she was active in the KL arts scene, where many of her friends are artists, musicians and singer-songwriters. Ultimately, her heart won – the desire to make Singapore “feel a bit like home” led her to pick OH!

Like Xiou Ann, Pei Ying, too, has been involved with OH! previously, as a volunteer guide. However she, and her husband Ganesh, confess to not having had very much prior exposure to or experience with the visual arts. What, then, I asked, prompted their interest in being hosts? Pei Ying says:

“I thought it would be nice to be part of the process and see how art is created.”

Image credit: OH! Open House

The theme of PASSPORT, which deals with issues relating to identity, belonging and home, also resonated with Pei Ying and Ganesh. Ganesh, originally from Chennai, India and now a Singapore permanent resident, is a seafarer who goes on 3-month long voyages, making him a semi-nomad of sorts. During these long periods of separation, Pei Ying has their housemates Lisa, who is French, and her partner Ryan, who grew up in Dubai but is of Indian descent, for company.

Pei Ying compares the ease with which her Singapore passport allows her to travel with the cumbersome processes Ganesh faces when applying for visas. She also thinks about the children they may one day have and wonders how life will be different for them, being of mixed-race parentage. PASSPORT, she thought, would be an opportunity for them to explore these issues together.

How were they matched up with the artists they eventually came to work with, I asked. Essentially, OH! played matchmaker, looking at the artists’ respective interests, body of work and artistic practices and finding hosts whose background and stories seemed a good fit. Xiou Ann was introduced to visual and performance artist ila, while Pei Ying and her co-hosts were matched with artist Nature Shankar.

Xiou Ann and ila. Image credit: OH! Open House
Nature and Pei Ying. Image credit: OH! Open House

Laughing at the memory, Nature and Pei Ying recounted how they were first introduced and, sitting side-by-side, signed the artist-host agreement that OH! had prepared, much like a signing a marriage certificate. The process of getting to know each other and exploring issues that resonated with both host and artist involved outings and group dates (in the case of Pei Ying and her co-hosts), with activities suggested by OH!, the expert matchmaker.

While Nature’s dates with her hosts included spending time at the National Gallery Singapore’s Minimalism show, Xiou Ann and ila bonded over long walks in the Tanjong Pagar neighbourhood, where Xiou Ann lives in a shared apartment. Xiou Ann moved to Singapore five years ago:

“I actually had a terrible start in Singapore. I came with hope that there would be a new start, because I had secured a new job and I was in a new relationship. New independence, new life, or so I thought, but it all turned horribly, horribly wrong.  The CEO was abusive and then the relationship didn’t work out. Without the support of family and friends it was very difficult – I was in a new place and I was newly single.”

Having also quit her job, Xiou Ann found herself with plenty of time on her hands and began to explore ways to find comfort within the city. She started running, often for hours at night, walking and practising photography. Her story resonated with ila, who, after she had her first child, felt that she had lost her sense of who she was and suffered from post-natal depression. As a way to cope, she started cycling, taking long rides and trying to find some measure of peace and calm.

A photograph of a dead pigeon encountered by ila and Xiou Ann on one of their walks. Image credit: ila and Xiou Ann.

ila and Xiou Ann arrived at the central idea for their art experience, a walk through Xiou Ann’s neighbourhood, almost right from the start:

“It was always going to be this – the only thing was to figure out where the stops would be, and what people would be doing. There was never a question of whether we should do something else and then scrap the idea. It was always going to be a walk.”

The process was a little less linear for Nature, Pei Ying and her co-hosts. In fact, when I spoke to them about a week ago, they were still making little tweaks to the experience. Nature started to laugh when I asked about this and explained that, as Pei Ying has probably learnt by now, she is likely to suggest something new every time they meet. Pei Ying, however, seemed completely comfortable with this,  explaining that she has frequently been confronted with change in her own life and is therefore well able to “roll with the punches”, as she puts it. Ultimately, all the tweaking, re-thinking, changing and re-working was something they were all prepared to do, in order to craft an experience that is as meaningful and personal as possible for visitors.

One of the activities involved in ila and Xiou Ann’s art experience. Image credit” OH! Open House.

Xiou Ann and ila’s multi-sensorial walk invites audiences to uncover and claim sacred, quiet spaces within our busy city – not just physical spaces but also spaces of peace and comfort within themselves.  As ila explains, “We spend so much time outside, in public places. How do we make these public spaces as comforting as our own homes?”

Part of the instructions I received via email yesterday for Nature and Pei Ying’s art experience.

Similarly, Nature and Pei Ying spoke of wanting to create a safe space for the audience to delve deeper into their own personal thoughts and emotions. Their invitation to guests includes a request to bring an object that has significant meaning but which they are now willing to release and let go of, in the hope that they will find it a cathartic experience.

As I listened to Xiou Ann, ila, Nature, Pei Ying and Ganesh describe their journey in shaping these art experiences it was clear, to me at least, that these are indeed collaborations in every sense of the word. The hosts have, in a process facilitated by OH!, crossed the divide that separates artist and audience, becoming creators and makers themselves. I can only imagine how exciting it will be for them to finally be able to share these experiences with guests as PASSPORT opens its doors this weekend.

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