Golden stairs: 2 views on the issue of art on public property

The "golden staircase" is on the 20th floor of Block 103 Jalan Rajah.
The "golden staircase" is on the 20th floor of Block 103 Jalan Rajah.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The golden flight of stairs made by Priyageetha Dia in Jalan Rajah in Balestier has triggered a lot of debate.

While many people appreciate the allow artists room to create, others have also raised questions about safety and respect for public property.

Here are two different takes on the issue, one from Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng and one from poet Alvin Pang.

Space for art, but artists need to understand other considerations too

Mr Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

First of all, I believe the artist, Priyageetha Dia, has good intentions and I don't see this as a case of vandalism. 

But probably she, being a young person, may not know some of the other considerations.

I also run a town council so I understand the town council's concerns. Even though she might have thought the project might beautify the place, there is meaning behind it, and residents welcome that, but town councils also have to think about maintenance.

Town councils have to sweep and wash the floor regularly. How would that affect the artwork? And they also don't want to be caught in a situation where they are asked: "Why are you destroying the artwork?"

Sometimes, it's just more engagement. It is important for artists to engage the  community on community artworks and the town council is a community stake holder that they need to talk to. In fact, I just spoke to Dr Lily Neo, the chairman of Jalan Besar Town Council and she said they are keen to explore with the artist on an appropriate location for her to execute her artistic concept.

So the authorities are open. It's just that we need to engage them from the onset to explain ideas and allay any concerns. 

In my speech in Parliament yesterday, I mentioned another artist Jaxton Su, who worked with a property owner, and in fact got funding from the National Youth Council, National Arts Council and the Singapore Turf Club to do this mural, involving students and migrant workers in the process. So in fact, authorities are more than happy to support good projects, even financially. 

These are two different ways of doing artwork so I hope young artists are not discouraged by this incident. They just need to understand how things could be done and this would result in a better outcome.

 Miss Priyageetha Dia, a final-year fine arts student at Lasalle College of the Arts, took five hours to turn the staircase on the 20th storey of her Housing Board block at Jalan Rajah in Balestier from grey to gold. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

It was the most affecting artwork I've experienced this year

Alvin Pang, poet

This morning I went to see Priyageetha Dia's effort on the 20th floor of Block 103, Jalan Rajah (off Balestier). I'm no art critic and I lack the technical language to describe what I saw, but I'll try to find words for it. Quite simply, it was the most affecting artwork I've experienced this year, and in a long while. It is, to my mind, a work of remarkable faith, in both the sacred and secular senses. In the dim light of the HDB stairwell, the goldfoiled steps seemed of a piece with the household altars elsewhere on the corridor.

It is the thin, tatty gold of everyday ritual; of temple ornaments; of paper offerings burnt for the dead, of New Year decorations left on doors for lingering good luck; not treasure but a wish for treasure. Not the better thing itself but hope for better things. But it also suggests faith that the very sight of this golden surprise might trigger in us all our associations with that luminosity -- with memories of playing on the stairs as children, of religious rites, of festive joy and family and moments of beauty and wonder that stand out against years of drab routine. And if the gold flakes off or is removed: is not the transience of mortal works a core tenet of most belief systems? Has it not always been the case that nothing gold can stay (Frost), and certainly not in Singapore's relentless urban reinvention of itself?

After all, the work is no more a hazard than the random assortment of chairs, shelves, bicycles, old newspapers, tiles etc. that we let be on our own corridors. Come on, we grew up with this stuff. May have stubbed our toes on some of these splinters. The tiled lift lobby seems more slippery than the stairs lah. While I was there, a young woman jogged upstairs, stopped to noticed the gold, then kept going. This work does no material harm. The neighbours, it's been reported, have no problem with it either.

Yes, it's technically against the rules, but that is, along with the variety of public responses, part of the conversation it seeks to generate -- which has been really quite civil. The town council, to its credit, has had to highlight the prohibitions it's obliged to observe, but they are not, it appears, adopting a punitive stance. They get that this comes from a good place. (Recall also that art in the corridors, albeit permitted beforehand, was a welcome feature of OH! Marine Parade some years back). In this case, the artist has no doubt taken bold risks, and not just in terms of the potential repercussions. Any investment of significant artistic effort (this took 5 hours) is a leap of faith: a testament to belief in the value of the creative process and its seldom certain outcomes.

Nor does the work, for all its supposed glitter, call to itself in a way that confers primacy on its transgressiveness ("Look at me! This is so rebellion!"). Instead, it acts, to me, as an understated yet poignant reminder that art, that beauty, are possible in life, wherever we are and whatever our station.

That some extraordinary, 'unnecessary' things may be worth investing time and resources in. It's worth recognising and accepting -- without constantly needing the endorsement of external authority -- that we are always, in different ways, trying to make more of our lives and ourselves; trying to introduce and share our own ideas of beauty and grace. So too do potted flowers and greenery spontaneously appear, and are tended to, in every HDB block across the island. Some things are worth giving ourselves permission to love. Like country. Like home.

This is a paen to Singaporean place and life and longing. Thank you, Priyageetha, for your labour of love.