'Ah pek' to rebuild Yishun tower of toys at The Substation

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter
Flowers, figurines and toys are among the items that Yishun resident Or Beng Kooi hopes to use for his installation at The Substation. (Photo credit: The Substation)

Yishun’s short-lived psychedelic tower of toys and knick-knacks will be making a comeback of sorts, as it will be recreated by 75-year-old resident Or Beng Kooi for an upcoming art exhibition.

National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award recipient Li Xie is collaborating with Or to rebuild it as an interactive installation for The Substation’s closing exhibition “Discipline the City”.

Originally built by Or at the void deck of Block 108 Yishun Ring Road late last year, the previous installation reportedly featured baby dolls, Astro Boy, Humpty Dumpty toys, rubber duckies, old trophies, pink plastic flowers and religious sculptures. The tower of items gained traction and fans, but it was taken down earlier this year after authorities expressed concern about fire safety.

Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore, Li said, “I wanted to provide a safe space for him to create without fears, being judged or penalised, but to create with joy, pride and being paid for his work too. Also, to invite Singaporeans to offer something in the collective process.”

Earlier this week, Li posted on Facebook about a collection drive at The Substation and some blocks around Yishun for ornaments and old toys from the community from now till November 26 when the exhibition closes. “Let’s build it together with uncle Or. It’s our tower too,” she said of the sentiment behind the collection drive.

Or, known to some Yishun residents simply as “Ah Pek” (old man), will be visiting the site during the exhibition and adding onto the installation. “It will be a work-in-progress. Uncle Or will be there to build his tower till the end of exhibition,” the freelance theatre practitioner explained.

Space for creativity

The artist, who admitted that she regretted not having a chance to view his original work, said whether the tower will be an exact replica or not depends on the uncle as he has “total freedom to do as he pleases.” She described the Yishun uncle as “friendly, kind and honest. A real fighter.”

“He is 75 now, less mobile and physically weaker, but he truly cares about his community.  It’s ironic and sad too that we need a legitimate arts space to ‘sanction’ creativity and arts. His work was dismissed as fire hazard and trash in the void deck, yet now, an art work in this exhibition,” she said.

According to Li, Or wanted to make the void deck, their communal space, cosy and beautiful for the elderly and residents. “He may not be able to articulate his vision, but he has his quirky, humorous and unique aesthetics too,” she said.

Co-curator for the exhibition and artistic director of The Substation, Alan Oei, believes  the story of “Uncle Or” — trying to create a communal space in HDB, and his work not recognised as art — happens precisely “because he is out of sync”.

“Imagine if he was a young entrepreneur running an app to promote community meet-ups and was framed as a ‘disruptor’; I imagine his work would be much more welcome by the authorities,” he noted.

He hopes that visitors will come away with a more nuanced understanding of community and public spaces. “My hope is that Singaporeans will be able to participate more in shaping our spaces. There is governmental urban planning, but we also have to work to keep our voices heard,” Oei added.

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