i aspire to be the prime minister. i think pm got CPF.
THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH Alan Oei
Putting the buzz into art
Artist-curator Alan Oei is a savvy marketeer who is making art engaging for artists and the public
Sculpture Square artistic director Alan Oei is credited with 'always bringing something edgy and interesting' to the arts scene. -- PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
A nondescript ash grey shophouse in Niven Road, christened Evil Empire by an unlit blue neon sign hanging in a corner, is the place of a rendezvous with artist-curator Alan Oei.
The building is the headquarters of the popular OH! Open House, an annual art tour he co-founded in 2009, which has since attracted more than 5,000 participants and a loyal following.
The event features works of art installed along a walking trail in a different neighbourhood each year, such as Marine Parade and Tiong Bahru. Its inspiration: to bring art making, art viewing and art appreciation into everyday spaces. Viewers pay a small fee of $20 to take part in the art walk.
The latest edition,held in Marina Bay, was launched over the weekend and runs till Jan 20.
Oei, 36, who greets you outside the nerve centre a few days before OH! Open House, is relaxed and collected. The two- storey unit also houses his art studio and the office of Salon Projects, his arts curatorial and management company.
Before you enter, however, he discreetly suggests a detour to Sculpture Square in Middle Road.
He was named artistic director of the arts centre last September and he has plans for new art residencies, exhibitions and events in the space dedicated to three-dimensional art. The launch will not be until March but the savvy marketer wants to whet public interest.
His plan is to have himself photographed at Sculpture Square for this interview and he offers a quick ride there and back in his shiny red Mazda hatchback. Unable to refuse his earnest proposal, you become a willing hostage.
In just four years as a full-time artist, curator and arts entrepreneur, Oei has earned recognition for adroitly juggling different hats and gained wide-ranging support for his mission of bringing art and community together.
This has allowed him to champion the arts with programmes such as the volunteer-run OH! Open House and art shows in established spaces.
He curated Campaign City: Life In Posters, an exhibition on posters for national campaigns such as the family planning campaign in the 1960s that advocated no more than two children a family and the courtesy campaign from the 1980s. It opens at the National Library in Victoria Street on Wednesday.
Dr Richard C. Helfer, 62, chairman of Sculpture Square's board of directors, says Oei was appointed artistic director because of his "sensibility and sensitivity to the local arts scene", and versatility in working with different forms of art, artists, spaces and audiences.
Oei was also an obvious collaborator for Mr Oliver Bettin, who came up with the idea for OH! Open House.
Mr Bettin, 37, managing director of Deutsche Bank in Singapore, the founding sponsor for OH! Open House, says: "He always brings something edgy and interesting to the arts scene." Blackout, an exhibition Oei curated in 2009 before the first OH! Open House, for example, made visitors experience art in a darkened Paya Lebar warehouse.
Mr Bettin, who got to know Alan through a mutual friend, adds: "He is very engaging and passionate about what he does and it is infectious. This is why he rarely gets stonewalled when working with different parties, he is able to get people on his side.
"You have people who are successful artists or curators or businessmen, but rarely do you find someone with all three qualities. Alan is one of them."
Oei, who has a fine arts diploma from Lasalle College of the Arts and a bachelor's degree in art history from Columbia University in New York City, credits his two years as a National Arts Council manager for teaching him how to organise large-scale art projects.
He managed the 2007 Singa- pore Art Show, a biennial that showcases Singapore art.
He says: "I learnt about marketing, managed the budget, that's probably why I could do Open House, because I have the confidence to pull off a bigger scale event with limited resources."
As for coming up with creative ideas for art projects and shows, he says he simply responds to things happening around him. Some of his plans for Sculpture Square will address what he perceives are gaps in arts practice and policy here.
There will, for example, be art programmes to encourage artists to take risks and explore art freely. The approach reflects Oei's concern that artists here are obsessed with results and prices of art, and his view that the Government "sees art as a tool", a means to achieving an end such as attracting more tourists or becoming known as a global city.
"Art needs its own space to breathe as well," he says. "When you mobilise art to become an instrument of something else, that is potentially problematic. The art that emerges under this sort of constraints is likely to be dull and derivative, and doesn't contest its time and space."
He also plans to launch art residencies that bring artists of different disciplines together to collaborate on a project, making art outside their comfort zones.
He says: "Elsewhere, artists work in the studio and create stuff, then they show. But because of the grant system in Singapore, artists write a proposal, then they make their art.
"But what is the point of doing art if it is so safe, if you always want to know what your outcomes are going to be."
He would like the artists-in-residence to engage the community too. "As long as there are individual interactions between the artist and residents of the community that are meaningful, then that is art engaging the community," he says.
Oei's paintings are similarly enmeshed in the local narrative although his style, mostly portraiture, is indebted to old European masters such as Rembrandt and Diego Velazquez.
Some of his paintings are passed off as works by a fictional Singaporean artist, Huang Wei, born in 1914. The name is an abbreviation of Oei's Chinese name, Huang Zhi Wei.
The character arose from his interest in the Equator Art Society, a group of socialist-realist painters here in the 1950s, who have been largely forgotten. He says: "Huang Wei is a metaphor for this missing part of our art history."
Painting, however, is not a daily exercise for him. In the last four years, he has painted about 40 works and only when he feels a compulsion that usually stems from melancholy.
He says: "I am extra productive after failed relationships. The running joke among friends is that my heart needs to be broken before I can do art."
He is single and lives with his civil engineer father and housewife mother in a semi-detached house in Kembangan.
He has sold more than half of his paintings, priced in the range of a few thousand dollars. He paints commemorative portraits on the side for fun and charges about $4,000 for a portrait.
With his finger in so many pies, friends in the arts scene have advised him to focus on developing his strength in one area. He says: "For a while, I struggled with that as well. I thought, 'Am I stretching myself too thin?'
"But they were giving career advice, not life advice. If I want to be famous and successful and rich, then I have to focus on one thing. But that's not my objective. My objective is to have a life well lived so I want to do all these different things."
He juggles between three and four projects at any one time and he has not had a vacation in four years. The only thing he makes time for is a weekly game of basketball with friends from his secondary schooldays. "People tell me I am a workaholic but I don't think I work hard enough," he adds.
His restless nature surfaces during the interview. One moment, he is leaning into his Chinese wood-carved chair, the next moment, he has a foot on the seat, his knee drawn to his chest. Then, he uncoils and runs his forefinger along grooves on the coffee table, gathering dust into a tiny mound. But he remains attentive to the questions, maintains eye contact most times and gives eloquent answers.
His workaholic streak is the opposite of his penchant for loafing about when he was younger.
The second of three children and the only son, he studied at Tao Nan School, then Maris Stella High School. His older sister, Jean, 38, is an architect in New York and his younger sister, Angeline, 26, is a fashion student in Amsterdam.
He was a rebellious teenager. He skipped classes, failed examinations and ran away from home when he was 16 - he stayed with friends, then relatives, for almost six months.
After his O levels, for which he scored 20 points, he enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic but quickly dropped out. He says: "I mucked around, hung out with friends, played basketball, grew my hair long and tried to start a band."
His mother, Jackie, 60, feared he would become a good-for-nothing so she enrolled him in Lasalle College of the Arts after his national service.
She says: "He could draw well and I felt that art school would benefit him because he was like a lost sheep."
He acquiesced to her wishes to make up for his youthful rebellion but he soon discovered an interest in art. After Lasalle, he attended Columbia University.
His tendency to loaf though, did not go away completely. He dropped out of university for a semester to become "a full-time artist". And in his final year, he lived the life of a flaneur. "Every morning I would go to the cafe, eat my bagel, and do my reading and drawing. Then I would go to the museum. After that, I would go home and paint."
But he wised up after seeing his college classmates land plump jobs in Wall Street upon graduation. He returned home, became a part-time art teacher briefly, then joined the National Arts Council.
He left civil service to start an arts education business with a partner in 2008 but they split up over differences on how the firm was run. Shortly after, he curated his first exhibition Blackout, which proved to be a landmark show and a personal turning point. The alternative art event in a far-flung venue drew 3,000 people over three nights.
He says: "The air was buzzing, there were a lot of people, they were really excited and they didn't want to leave. And I realised, 'Oh, art can actually make some kind of impact'."
Not only has he made a mark with his painting and art shows, he has also managed to stay profitable. He declines to say how much he earns, except that it is more than if he had continued as a civil servant.
Still, his art projects are not without challenges. OH! Open House has been struggling to stay in the black. The first two editions barely broke even but last year, a lack of sponsorship meant a loss of $50,000 and he and Mr Bettin had to dip into their own pockets.
The challenge ahead: To find a way to make Open House sustainable. He is hopeful though that support from sponsors and meeting the target of 3,000 visitors this year will put the event in the black.
He adds: "I am completely invested in Singapore. I think there is some measure of influence in the stuff that I've done here and that, for me, is the most important thing right now, to keep at it. I think Singapore can be more interesting."
Alan Oei at age 16 with young sister Angeline, then six (far left), when he was three or four with his mother Jackie (left), and when he was 23 (right), with his graduating work for his fine arts diploma from Lasalle College of the Arts.
My life so far
"Whenever I am giving artist talks or curator talks to younger kids, I always stress the importance of mucking around. I think it's very important for them to find their balance."
On taking breaks in life, which he has done several times, especially when he was in school
"The first year, I wanted to be a Renaissance sculptor. The second year, I wanted to be an abstract painter. The third year, I wanted to do something more conceptual."
On his artistic journey at Lasalle College of the Arts
"I think I am fairly headstrong so I don't regard that sort of dissuasion."
On whether he faced any discouragement from others in choosing to pursue art
"They are always happy when I'm doing something rather than doing nothing."
On how his parents view his profession as an artist-curator
"I have two rules. One, it's not about me. Two, it's always my fault."
On how he manages to get along with the various stakeholders in the large-scale art projects that he undertakes
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ALAN OEI
LIFE! People, The Straits Times, Monday, January 7 2013, Pg C4
Originally posted by troublemaker2005:
i aspire to be the prime minister. i think pm got CPF.
What you mean he got CPF??? Bloody hell, that family owns the entire CPF!!!
They say 55 years old then you can take out money, you all lan lan wait until 55 years old. They say 60 years old then you can take out money, you all lan lan wait until 60 years old. They say 100 years old then you can take out money, you all lan lan wait until 100 years old.