Golden staircase: Is it art - or not?

A golden stairway on the 20th storey of a Housing Board block in Balestier has sparked debate over whether it is art or vandalism. Lasalle fine arts student Priyageetha Dia, 25, spent five hours covering the steps next to the lift landing with gold foil. However, she had not sought the permission of the authorities. The Sunday Times speaks to the artist, her neighbours and those on both sides of the fence.

The "golden staircase" on the 20th floor of Block 103, Jalan Rajah. Ms Dia's work earned her praise from netizens, but the Jalan Besar Town Council pointed out that it was not permissible under the council's by-laws.
The "golden staircase" on the 20th floor of Block 103, Jalan Rajah. Ms Dia's work earned her praise from netizens, but the Jalan Besar Town Council pointed out that it was not permissible under the council's by-laws. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

It's art

Poet Alvin Pang, 44, is firmly in the "it's art" camp. After making his way to Jalan Rajah to view Ms Priyageetha Dia's work last Wednesday, he said:"We can generally tell when someone is doing something disruptive, and when someone is trying to beautify an area. There is work that treads that line, but I don't think this is that kind of ambiguous work. This is very clearly an attempt to make something beautiful."

In 2012, "sticker lady" Samantha Lo generated controversy when she stencilled "My Grandfather Road" on several roads and pasted stickers bearing captions such as "Press Once Can Already" on traffic light buttons.

Mr Pang said that while he appreciates Ms Lo's work, Ms Dia's piece was different. Ms Dia had executed her piece on the 20th storey of the block where she lives, out of sight for most people.

The debate surrounding the work by the third-year fine arts student at the Lasalle College of the Arts started last Monday when pictures of Ms Dia's work first circulated online.

Ms Dia had pasted removable gold foil on the eight steps next to the lift landing of the 20th storey without the permission of the Jalan Besar Town Council.

Ms Dia said in a Facebook post last Tuesday that she did so to beautify the area and to provoke thought on what constitutes public and private space.

"The intervention of the gold finally reverberated against the ever lifeless and grey architecture," she wrote, adding that she believed her work was not vandalism, as she did not deface anything.

Mr Alvin Tan, 42, creative director at design firm Phunk, agreed. "It is a beautiful piece of art because the intent was to create art, and not to vandalise or destroy public property," he said.

Lawyer Patrick Dahm, 42, said: "I love the foil stairs because, unlike some other art on public property, it is in no way insulting to anyone. To me, it exudes kindness. I don't consider it an obvious act of vandalism either, because the foiling seems to lack the permanence required to constitute 'marking' under the Vandalism Act. Not that I wish the foil to be removed in the first place."

Cafe manager Felicia Ng, 28, took it a step further.

She said Ms Dia's work would still be considered art even if the artist had covered the steps with black or red paint, instead of the more aesthetically pleasing gold. "Whether foil or paint, there is a certain message the artist wants to convey, even though it may be subjective," said Ms Ng.

Retiree Sam Peh, 59, who lives in the area, yesterday checked out the gold-covered stairway after reading about it in the newspapers. "The artist should have asked for permission as the stairway is a public area, but I don't consider it vandalism as no damage was done. She was just decorating the area," said Mr Peh.

The Jalan Besar Town Council had said Ms Dia's artpiece was not permissible under the town council's (Common Property and Open Spaces) By-laws. However, Jalan Besar GRC MP Lily Neo said the town council appreciated her work and hoped to work with Ms Dia to exhibit her work elsewhere, such as through wall murals.

Illustrator Cherryn Yap, 29, said getting approval from the authorities would not make Ms Dia's piece "less of an artwork", as long as it still provokes thought or appeals to people.

"But what is precious about this artwork is its spontaneity. If she works together with the MP to channel her creativity elsewhere, she can still create art - but because the artwork may be subject to regulations, it may have a very different effect."

It's not

The artist may mean well, but there is a time and place for the expression of creativity.

Town councils and members of the public who weighed in on the debate said they are not making a judgment call on the aesthetic value of the gold foil-covered stairway but noted that when it comes to public space that is shared, permission is needed.

Pushing boundaries in art is what artists do, but breaking the law cannot be the defining quality of art, Professor Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC), told The Sunday Times.

She added that Ms Priyageetha Dia's work is a creative site-specific idea in a public space, and the artist should have received permission first.

"NAC is supportive of art in public space and will facilitate the contribution of artists, especially our young people, to enliven spaces and our lives in this way. I have asked NAC to reach out to her to have a further conversation with this young artist," she said.

But platform services executive Toh Zu Mei, 26, was firm. "It's still vandalism at the end of the day, no matter how pretty it looks. Otherwise how do we draw the line? It doesn't mean that only ugly art pieces constitute vandalism," she said.

Logistics manager Alvin Tan, 45, said Ms Dia's work looked nice, but added that residents may be concerned over whether it made the floor slippery. "I suppose it would be better if she had done something on her own property, instead of at a public area."

When The Sunday Times visited the block, the staircase did not appear to be heavily used as the lift stopped at all 25 storeys. The gold foil also did not make the covered steps slippery.

The Jalan Besar Town Council managing the area had earlier said that the art was unauthorised under the town council's by-laws, but that it would like to work with the artist on other ways to express her creativity.

Such consultation allows the authorities to work with the artist to take into consideration factors such as public safety, which is the main concern, said Nee Soon Town Council chairman Louis Ng.

Last month, his town council had to take down a pagoda-like tower of toys, figurines and knick-knacks, over fire safety concerns.

"There are other avenues for residents to express their creativity. In my ward in Nee Soon East, we have dedicated walls for students to draw murals," said Mr Ng.

Mr Baey Yam Keng, chairman of the Tampines Town Council, said it was a challenge for the authorities to draw a clear line between art and vandalism as it was subjective, and could set a precedent for vandals to claim their work as art in the future.

Reiterating his statement delivered in Parliament last Thursday, Mr Baey, who is also Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, said he hoped young artists would not be discouraged, and work with the authorities to enliven community spaces.

A spokesman for Lasalle College of the Arts said Ms Dia had intended to encourage discussion of what constitutes public and private space.

He added that while the school believes that a function of art in society is to "question and critically reflect on what can sometimes be taken for granted about social and cultural norms", it does not condone any act that may cause harm to the public.

"Art should never compromise the safety of the artist or the public," he said, adding that the school would like to work closely with Ms Dia and the Jalan Besar Town Council to achieve a constructive solution.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline Golden staircase: Is it art - or not?. Subscribe