Last Friday Priyageetha Dia’s golden staircase at Jalan Rajah appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. Amazed, I decided to see it with my own eyes. Fortunately the weekend was nigh.

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 jalan rajah golden staircase art law vandalism

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: are the golden stairs 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 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 by-laws in place and she 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, the artist 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 her art work up 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 she had removed the foil, save for a little memento.