Review of New World’s End and a conversation with Alan Oei

New World’s End walks us through the storied streets of Jalan Besar in Singapore, marrying encounters with art in unexpected sites and spaces with a dive into the neighbourhood’s layers of history. ART SG reviews this audio tour, and speaks to Artistic Director Alan Oei about art and storytelling in the city.

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

By Tan Siuli

Every year there is one particular event in Singapore’s art calendar that I look forward to: Open House. As its name suggests, Open House’s guided art walks invite the public into the homes of strangers to encounter artworks specially commissioned to respond to the site as well as the neighbourhood’s social and cultural histories. Open House offers the general public and art aficionados alike a unique way of experiencing art outside of more conventional museum or gallery visits, while satisfying the voyeur in us all by promising a glimpse into the homes and lifestyles of others. Additionally, even in a country as small as Singapore, there are always new pockets waiting to be explored, and Open House has charted neighbourhoods as diverse as the charming ‘hipster’ enclaves of Tiong Bahru and Joo Chiat, to the rather grittier surrounds of Potong Pasir, the longest-held opposition ward in Singapore.

Covid and social distancing however, brought a screeching halt to these convivial home visits, and the Open House team has pivoted to a new experience which relies on an audio tour to guide visitors through a specific neighbourhood. New World’s End, billed as their “first permanent immersive art experience”, ventures out onto the streets of Jalan Besar, a corner of Singapore that once throbbed with the lights and gaiety of nightlife –  a heady mix of modern cosmopolitanism centered on the famed New World Amusement Park:

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

It was a place where there was dancing, people came to experience new things. People just came to have fun, fall in love, eat, go to the cinema, go to the theatre – it was all there. There was a real sense of coming together….people just assembled and enjoyed themselves. I was attracted to that and the idea of the ‘new world’, which is self-created[1].(Kaylene Tan, playwright, New World’s End)

Across the road from the pleasures and reverie of the amusement park however, reside much darker memories. It was there that the Hotel New World used to stand, a building that collapsed dramatically in 1986, in an incident that shook the psyche of the nation. At a time when Singapore’s economy was charging ahead and progress visible everywhere in the infrastructure that sprung up in the cityscape, this tragedy suggested a weakness, a vulnerability the possibility of dreams and aspirations coming apart.

New World’s End walks us through these largely forgotten histories, the twin poles of pleasure and loss echoed in the story of Kiran and Rosa, whose romance leads audiences through time and the streets and sites of Jalan Besar, in the process unfolding “hidden spaces of art”. In between the actors’ exchanges, local thespian Lim Kay Siu’s mellifluous voice guides visitors out on the streets, alternately painting a picture of Singapore through the decades and sounding a note of caution at busy traffic junctions.

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

It is an easy circuit around the streets of Jalan Besar (with a slight foray into the hectic fray of neighbouring Little India, via the 24 hour emporium-of-everything known as Mustafa Shopping Centre), and while the audio tour is available throughout the day, the evening is truly when the area comes to life, awash with lights spilling from shops and streetlamps, the occasional foray down a dingy back alley necessitating some manoeuvering around diners at street-side tables enjoying their food. “There’s something about the night that makes you think about all the stories out there, waiting to be told”, says Kiran, the cinema projectionist of New World’s End, and indeed, the night is an apt setting for this work of Singapore noir.

New World’s End draws on the formula that found success in Open House: marrying encounters with art in unique sites and spaces, with a dive into the neighbourhood’s palimpsest of histories and micro-narratives. This time round however, individual artworks take a backseat, as they are embedded into the narrative arc as elements of a larger, living theatre ‘set’. For someone (like myself) accustomed to Open House’s singular, immersive artworks, New World’s End did not quite match up, although in fairness it is imagined as a rather different kind of experience, and as Executive Director and artist Alan Oei points out in the following interview, there are good reasons for this approach.

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

One of the most eye-catching sets is the red-light cabaret façade installed at the box office, which the visitor encounters right at the start of the audio tour. It suggests the gaiety of the New World Amusement Park and the dancing halls of yore, of which the protagonist Rosa was a regular denizen; at the same time it conjures up some of the seediness of the streets that make up the neighbourhood – as the narrator of New World’s End recounts, “flesh has always been sold here”.

Most of the artworks are concentrated in a small apartment, accessible after scaling four flights of stairs in a narrow passageway many of us missed at first pass. There is also an element of surprise contained within this space, with visitors walking through a wardrobe to discover an inner passage taking them into the realm of the surreal. This space, akin to a dream sequence, contrasts vividly with the realistic evocation of a lived-in habitus of the rooms outside, with their disheveled cushions on the floor and cigarette butts in an ashtray.

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

Experience-wise, New World’s End is relatively passive for the audience, who are directed by the narrator’s cues. At times, I found myself turning in circles, trying to get my bearings whilst taking in the abundance of visual stimuli from the curated tour as well as the busy streets, doing my best to avoid getting knocked over by human as well as vehicular traffic. There is also limited audience agency here, unlike that of UK-based collective Blast Theory’s (somewhat similar) city exploration Rider Spoke, where audiences actively participate in the making of their own experiences.

That said, New World’s End was conceptualized more as an alternative to conventional guided tours through neighbourhoods, where their histories are narrated textbook-fashion. This is also the Open House team’s first foray into crafting a new kind of experience, one which thoughtfully peels away the shiny lustre and layers of history in a cityscape, allowing new resonances to emerge. In a city that is constantly reinventing itself, perhaps what is needed are artists and authors to revisit its pasts and previous ‘endings’, and to remember its ghosts and former selves.

[1] “Back alleys and cabaret performances inspire Jalan Besar’s new night walk”, Silverkris Magazine, 4 June 2021. https://www.silverkris.com/open-house-night-walk-in-jalan-besar-singapore/

A CONVERSATION wITH ALAN OEI

Photo of Alan Oei
Image courtesy of PORTFOLIO Magazine

TSL: “When did the idea for a permanent immersive art experience come about? Was it something the OH team had been mulling for a while, or was it a necessary pivot because of Covid and the logistical difficulties that presented in terms of volunteer-led tours and of course, visiting people’s homes?”

AO: “It’s been brewing for at least 8 years! To think about how we could bring our brand of art and storytelling on a permanent basis. But it also comes from frustration with tourism — when you’re on holiday, and even with personal guides, it tends to be very light on history, and their role seems to be about guiding you to photo-ops. I’ve always felt there’s a far bigger appetite for deep dives into not only history but also stories about people and place. So really New World’s End is part of a future suite of experiences we call “OH! Stories” to change how people and tourists can experience cities, and specifically neighbourhoods.  

That it coincided with Covid was a lucky break for us since now we can operate even under H2A phase, since it was always imagined to be something you do alone or with another friend to really immerse yourself, so a “socially distanced” experience. “

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

TSL: “Why Jalan Besar? Was it a question of available spaces to host this experience? Or was it the palimpsest of histories here? How did the OH team find the spaces to anchor the experience on, and how long will New World’s End run for?”

AO: “It was driven largely by the writer and director Kaylene Tan. She was interested in exploring how to evoke New World Amusement Park and Hotel New World — both of which were located in Jalan Besar, and New World Amusement Park in fact was once the heartbeat of the neighbourhood and drove a lot of the infrastructural development in the area. 

It will run for about 2 to 3years. Perhaps a refresh for content/story may add longer shelf life, I’m not sure at this point. Finding space — we pay commercial rent — is actually what delayed the project: we secured the first site by Jan 2021, and hoped to launch in April but getting a suitable second site proved immensely difficult because of licensing and zoning issues with conservation properties.”

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

TSL: “How was the ‘dream team’ assembled?”

Kaylene Tan really was the starting point — we had been talking to her for more than 2 years to develop the project. She is a theatre director and writer that I’ve worked with often (most prominently, we did “These Children are Dead” with Low Kee Hong about the fictional postwar painter), but she had done a lot of audio-led experiences. It was exciting for her since we would up the ante: scale, film, music, sets, etc, and the challenge was always about how to weave this seamlessly with the environment. Once she developed a rough script, then she chose the other collaborators whom she had worked with before, and who would bring their own artistic experience and personality.

TSL: “I’m used to seeing a lot of art installations during an OH tour. This time round it struck me that there seemed to be less art, in terms of standalone installations or artworks, but more like the art was integrated into each site, functioning more like a theatre set. Would you like to comment on this?”

AO: “I would call New World’s End (NWE) an artwork, singular. And OH! Art walks are, well, many art works. So I would say one is singular, and the other is a plurality of different artistic voices. The art walk is designed for you to encounter people and places through the rich layers of a neighbourhood, it’s about reality (you uncovering culture and history), but also about representation (artists making interventions in space or evoking particular histories). On the other hand, NWE, it’s that constructed mix of reality and unreality that’s interesting, that immerses you in another world.”

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

 TSL: “I would also like to hear how you felt creating ‘sets’ rather than standalone works, although I note there is a painting on an outdoor wall that’s part of the tour.”

AO: “The question you ask is interesting because there are different cognitive, physiological experiences related to looking at, say, a painting, versus watching theatre, versus watching film. And so, if there were ‘sovereign’ artworks within NWE, that you stop, and you do a close reading, you unpack it, you think about it, it takes you more than a moment to ease back into the arc of the experience, then I think that would be disastrous! So everything is really in service to the narrative, and whether it’s the paintings, films, or sets, they can create their own mystery and wonder but they all have to occupy the same experiential frame.”

TSL: “You mentioned you would be creating more works….will these be added on to the NWE experience? Will there be more artworks and sets added over time?”

AO: “The experience right now is whole and complete, but after seeing how visitors/voyeurs process the spaces, we think there might be clearer ways to articulate and signpost some of the key narrative elements. That’s mostly about set design, and I guess I won’t call it artworks.”

Image courtesy of OH! Open House

TSL: “Your art has always been interested in unpacking histories, and hauntings. Was there something in Jalan Besar’s histories that fascinated you? Are there any ghosts of its past that are still resonant today?”

AO: “If you wrap Little India into Jalan Besar — that’s something quite different from national representations of heritage or tourism — then it’s an incredibly complex and impenetrable space, primarily because of the migrant labour population. We can only approach the space as outsiders, strangers – just like these migrants are strangers to our land. That this kind of liminal space exists also brings with its equation a secret fear, and thus this is probably the most surveilled, policed neighbourhood even as it escapes easy definitions. These are the kinds of themes and stories we will be approaching when we stage OH! Jalan Besar in September 2021, which is your usual art walk.”

TSL: “How do you think the OH! Stories experience might develop in future – do you think there could be a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ kind of experience in the pipeline? Are there any particular sites or neighbourhoods you would love to work with?”

AO: “Yes I am developing 2 more OH! Stories. The first looks at Huang Wei, the postwar painter and thinking about the horrors of war on a national and individual psyche. The second will be a more contemporary existential piece about how we cope with loss of meaning.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: TAN SIULI

Tan Siuli is an independent curator with over a decade of experience encompassing the research, presentation and commissioning of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Major exhibition projects include two editions of the Singapore Biennale (2013 and 2016), inter-institutional traveling exhibitions, as well as mentoring and commissioning platforms such as the President’s Young Talents exhibition series. She has also lectured on Museum-based learning and Southeast Asian art history at institutes of higher learning in Singapore. Her recent speaking engagements include presentations on Southeast Asian contemporary art at Frieze Academy London and Bloomberg’s Brilliant Ideas series.

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