Was Priy­ageetha Dia’s golden stair­case art or van­dal­ism? Wrong ques­tion, in my view. Some­thing can be both. Just that this art wasn’t.

Last Fri­day Priy­ageetha Dia and her golden stair­case appeared in my Face­book news­feed. Amazed, I decided to see it with my own eyes. For­tu­nately, the week­end was nigh. Who would have thought this would turn into a dis­cus­sion about art and vandalism.

I don’t believe that any giv­en top­ic is only dealt with con­clus­ively after I have added my two cents. Oth­ers, namely Alv­in Pang and Thoughts of Real Singa­por­eans, have put it into words that say it all for me. Enough said.

Priyageetha Dia's golden staircase at Jalan Rajah

But when I arrived at the site, the Sunday Times was there. The report­er and I admired the art work, which led to a good chat about the arts in Singa­pore, the media in Singa­pore and what not. But she was there to col­lect com­ments from the pub­lic and asked for a state­ment from me too. The res­ult­ing art­icle was pub­lished this morn­ing. It’s very insight­ful indeed. Sev­er­al people have their say about wheth­er the golden stair­case was art or van­dal­ism. And so, alas, here I am elab­or­at­ing on the com­ments I’ve made.

Or? Why Or?

Art or van­dal­ism? Call me petty-minded, but in my view this isn’t an either/or ques­tion. Some­thing can be both. Van­dal­ism is a leg­al term; there’s a leg­al defin­i­tion of it. This defin­i­tion neither includes nor excludes art. It’s neutral.

Thus: is the golden stair­case art and vandalism?

In my view it’s quite unpleas­ant that such a beau­ti­ful real­isa­tion of a beau­ti­ful idea pro­vokes such a dis­cus­sion. But I guess as a soci­ety that could cher­ish the arts a bit more than it cur­rently does we have to go through this. Aston­ish­ingly though (but then again: per­haps not) most com­ment­at­ors seem to have con­ceived an opin­ion without see­ing the object of dis­cus­sion for them­selves. While this is legit­im­ate, it doesn’t really add sub­stance to what many com­ment­at­ors say. (What’s new?)

Apart from the sheer joy of exper­i­en­cing Priya’s art – and as such, let it speak for itself – I love how she walked a tightrope between van­dal­ism and non-van­dal­ism, and between break­ing and com­ply­ing with oth­er rules. Effort­lessly, it seems. And thereby spark­ing the debate.

But the Rules

So there are town coun­cil and HDB bye-laws in place and Priya didn’t ask for per­mis­sion before­hand. And what happened? They endorsed it and sig­nalled their con­sent, as much as they were able to with­in the con­fines of their own rules. That is that.

But bey­ond that, the van­dal­ism dis­cus­sion. Again, Priya didn’t obtain writ­ten per­mis­sion, gran­ted, but the more rel­ev­ant leg­al issue here is wheth­er apply­ing foil had done any­thing prin­cip­ally for­bid­den to the stairs. Because if not, there’s no need for writ­ten per­mis­sion in the first place.

The stairs weren’t, for example, painted. If any­one paints the prop­erty of someone else without writ­ten per­mis­sion, that’s an act of van­dal­ism because the law is very clear about that. Instead, there was foil on the stairs. I could see that it stuck to them. When you stick some­thing to an object, that’s not paint­ing it, but could it be mark­ing it? Mark­ing (whatever this is) the prop­erty of someone else without wit­ten per­mis­sion is an act of van­dal­ism too. I could ima­gine mark­ing means badging some­thing to an object per­man­ently. But what about stick­ing some­thing that’s tran­si­ent? From what I could see the foil was def­in­itely remov­able and, by the way, it seemed that remov­ing it wouldn’t leave any dam­age to the stair­case. It looked like remov­ing it might even be cheap and easy, unlike get­ting rid of, say, graffiti.

Depend­ing how easy and cheap it would be to remove the stuff, one might well argue that the stairs hadn’t been badged with the per­man­ence that seems to be required to con­sti­tute an act of van­dal­ism under the Van­dal­ism Act, sub­cat­egory ‘mark­ing’, the only one poten­tially rel­ev­ant. That was my state­ment for the news­pa­per. Not that I wished the foil to be removed in the first place. Replaced and renewed rather, over time.

Now, all these are leg­al mus­ings (bear with me), about crim­in­al law at that, on a beau­ti­ful piece of art. Hav­ing to have them doesn’t feel great. But yeah, this isn’t about art or van­dal­ism. The same thing can be both, and that’s why there must be this kind of talk. As shown by the fact that there is a debate, the issue isn’t as obvi­ous as some would think.

Counting Not Months but Moments, yet Having Time Enough

Priy­ageetha has sparked the debate for a while, and by put­ting up her art work the way she did, she bal­anced right where it’s rel­ev­ant. Pub­lic art, art in pub­lic or com­mon space, art on pub­lic or com­mon prop­erty – is it okay, when is it not okay. How is it okay.

Because of that, apart from the sheer joy I’ve had see­ing it live and in col­our, her golden stair­case was mag­ni­fi­cent. I am grate­ful to her and glad that I caught a glimpse of it just in time.

Earli­er today Priya informed the world [update: by now, vis­ible to her Face­book friends only] she had removed the foil, save for a little memento.