Exhibiting Art in Singaporean Homes

The art conversation largely pivots around the artworks and artists themselves. The venue, however, has largely been secondary. The venue in which art is exhibited should be awarded more attention, for it frames and unframes the artwork's message. "Exhibitions are the primary site of exchange in the political economy of art, where signification is constructed, maintained, and occasionally deconstructed," the book "Thinking About Exhibitions" explains. 

In Singapore, the art exhibition institution has been stretching itself far and wide. Aside from the traditional museum and gallery, there has been a noticeable surge in hosting art exhibitions in unexpected places. For one, there is the restaurant SPRMRKT, where visitors dine in the presence of artworks. Singaporeans have found themselves bumping into sculptures in shopping malls, airports, paintings in hotels like Lloyds Inn and co-working spaces such as The Great Room. The institution has been on an evangelistic move — luring individuals and converting them into patrons of art.

Another case in point is the annual OH! Open House art exhibition which takes the seasoned and unseasoned eye through this very quotidian art trajectory. The arts organisation was founded in 2009, where the exhibition was held in six shophouses along Niven Road in the vicinity of Rochor. Local homeowners in the district were invited to open up their house for the artists' use. Selected artists will then drop by the house to first negotiate their creative intentions before installing their artworks in these homes. The houses eventually opened for guided tours.

In subsequent years, the art exhibition found its way to the eastern estates of Marine Parade and Joo Chiat, central Tiong Bahru and Holland Village amongst others. The idea was to place local artists' artworks alongside the storied histories of these neighbourhoods — provoking questions, and raising current issues for debate.

In certain areas such as Tiong Bahru, the art pieces called out the implications of gentrification. In particular, the artworks explored the tension between an influx of expats and independent cafés run by a younger generation, and the long-time residents of the vicinity. In 2016, the art exhibition arrived at Potong Pasir, and politics was brought to the table. "We went to the neighbourhood one year, and it used to be held by a known opposition party. They talked about what had and had not been developed in the neighbourhood," Aliza Knox, a patron of the art exhibition recalls.

This year, OH! Open House took their exhibition to the Emerald Hill district that sits off the shopping belt, Orchard Road. The artworks explored the subject of colonialism. While the previous instalments of the exhibition saw an average of 2,000 attendees, the footfall doubled this year. 

The organising team began planning the exhibition last June, where they knocked on the doors of these houses along Emerald Hill, negotiating and matchmaking artists to homeowners. While most of the homeowners rejected them, the ones who did shared their their experiences with T — in particular, the differences between viewing art in galleries and viewing them in homes.

Aliza Knox

OH! Open HouseThe British Prince Albert's (1819 – 1861) imposing shoe filled up the entire of Knox's living space.
The British Prince Albert's (1819 – 1861) imposing shoe filled up the entire of Knox's living space.

The organising team approached Knox "six or seven months ago". She readily agreed, in full support of the local art industry. "The exhibition only works if people are willing to donate their space in the neighbourhood."

To Knox, the draw of exhibiting art in houses is its fertile context — when art is embedded in a home, it interacts with the homeowner's personal possessions and life. 

In her living hall was an imposing shoe that filled up the entire space, from floor to ceiling. It was a piece by the 49-year-old Singaporean artist, Anthony Chin. Titled "Your Touch Turns to Gold", it was a replica of the British Prince Albert's shoe. Upon touch, the surface of the shoe turns to gold — a play on the Midas' touch. It was a commentary on the haughty and imposing legacy of Britain's colonialism around the world.

OH! Open House

"We had no living room. We even had to take off the ceiling fan," Knox laughs. Her family promptly lived with this massive shoe for almost three months. 

Knox and family were home when the guided tours took place on the weekends. As thousands of people streamed through her place, Knox would hear the debates and discussions surrounding the art pieces. "We live in a shophouse with a courtyard. Even when I was upstairs, with the windows open, I hear all these people discussing. You were getting so much discussion." 

Although Knox herself has a collection of artworks, the experience of hosting an art exhibition changed the way she perceived art. For one, she was with the artist in every step of the way, from idea to installation. "Every time I see it, I see something more. Sometimes I think about the meaning of the piece — colonials stamping on the locals. Sometimes, I think about the actual construction. Every day I go, "That's new. The artist has been painting."


Neima Sitawi

In Sitawi's living hall was a series of fantastical beasts, titled
In Sitawi's living hall was a series of fantastical beasts, titled "Love Land" (2017) by Singapore-based, Jeju-born artist, Ju Ae Park.

"I do collect art — sculptures and pieces from around the world when we travel," fashion designer Neima Sitawi quips. "Art became a part of me. Its presence affects my daily life and somehow I feel that the pieces are evolving with me, breathing in new experiences and bearing witness to my secrets."

Yet, to Sitawi, appreciating artworks in galleries and living with art that she does not belong to her are two completely different experiences. "The work has been in my home for a total of four weeks. The art takes different form and meaning throughout the course of the day as the light changes. The experience in the gallery is different. You can experience it only during that snapshot in time. At home, you can feel the work and its reflections throughout the day." 

Felicia YapTitled
Titled "Daughter of the Soil" (2018), Singapore-based Danish artist, Mamakan explored the issue of women's lives in the 1800s, and how Agnes Joaquim, the cross-breeder behind Singapore's national flower, did not get her credit due.

Take, for instance, this exaggerated and deconstructed crinoline sculpture by Singapore-based Danish artist, Mamakan. Titled "Daughter of the Soil" (2018), the skeleton of the crinoline was constructed from steel, and the lace that partially covers the dress was tainted with soil from the gardens of the late Singaporean-Armenian Agnes Joaquim — the woman whom Singapore's national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim was named after. 

"That was supposed to be a dress. The bell-shaped crinoline that women wore back in the days. It was the story of the woman, Agnes, who invented the hybrid of orchids which became the national flower of Singapore," Sitawi explains. More than a mere hark back to history past, the sculpture was a commentary on women's lives in the 1800s, particularly how "they were restricted from education, from learning and experimenting. Agnes was a scientist at heart. And she came up with this wonderful thing that she did not get credit for." It was only in September 2016 that the country edited the national records to give Joaquim her credit due. 


Lisa Robins

Mike LimSingaporean artist, Robert Zhao Renhui's mixed-media installation in Robin's home.
Singaporean artist, Robert Zhao Renhui's mixed-media installation in Robin's home.

"There are many ways to appreciate art — formal institutions are but one. Galleries are there to share, but also to sell. Museums consolidate, curate, explain, and expose [art] to the broad public. As collectors, we choose what we enjoy and get energy from. Having an artist create a work for a space brings a new dimension to how we think about the space in which we live and enjoy a different perspective," notes Lisa Robins, who sits on the board of the OH! Open House organisation. 

"My husband and I believe that integrating art in daily life is important to society," she adds. "It is an opportunity for the public to see both young and more established artists in informal settings — making art accessible." 

Mike Lim
"As They Grow Older and Wiser" (2016) by Singaporean artist, Ang Song Nian.

Lorenzo Rudolf 

The concept of exhibiting art in homes is not new. "It was first in America, Miami — at least in Miami beach. From the beginning, it was all these collectors showing in their homes. Every art lover loves to see private collections. There is a certain curiosity about how somebody lives with art. It became something like a trend all over the years, with collectors exhibiting in their houses," Lorenzo Rudolf, the co-founder of Art Stage explains. 

Felicia YapA series of stones, etched with images punctuated Rudolf's living hall. The artwork was titled
A series of stones, etched with images punctuated Rudolf's living hall. The artwork was titled "Garden State Palimpsest" (2017) by Singaporean artist Zen Teh.

Rudolf noticed that the crowd that came through his doors were largely unfamiliar faces. "80 percent of them were not the classic gallery goers. There were many people. They are people whom I don't think go to gallery or museums. I never saw them there." The exhibition introduced a new crowd to the local art industry. "I think it is because there is no fear. It is not like entering a gallery — "what shall I see, who shall I talk to. I'm not a professional, I don't know the work." Here, it is a totally private home. This approach is easier. They began to ask, and were not afraid to ask questions. There are no silly questions," he concludes.