By Kirsten Han
A round ping-pong table was recently spotted at the Sports Hub, looking suspiciously like the work of prominent local artist Lee Wen. In fact, it looked so similar that Lee himself had at first thought he was looking at a photograph of his own piece, Ping Pong Go Round.
Ping Pong Hustle, the 300˚ interactive table, was put up by the Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee (Singsoc), who said that they had not realised it was so similar to Lee’s work.
“This (table) was an activity proposed by one of our vendors, and we were unaware of the similarity. We did not intend to infringe on any rights, and we will work an arrangement with the artist as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the committee told The Straits Times.
The table has reportedly been removed and been replaced with a bouncy castle.
Lawyers approached by The Straits Times weren’t confident that a case of copyright infringement could be made, saying “it is possible for someone to produce a similar table without having seen Mr Lee’s artwork.”
Nevertheless, this episode continues to throw up questions of intellectual property protection and respect for artistic works in Singapore.
Theatre practitioner Ivan Heng shared a message from Helina Chan of iPreciation Art Gallery, which represents Lee Wen.
In the message, Chan said that a proposal had been submitted to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and the Singapore Sports Museum for Ping Pong Go Round to be featured at the Sports Hub for the SEA Games. This corroborates what Lee Wen had told The Online Citizen.
MCCY, according to Ms Chan, had acknowledged the submission of this proposal, yet the round table that had appeared at the SEA Games Carnival bore no acknowledgement of the artist at all. In fact, Lee had not been informed that there would even be such a table at the SEA Games Carnival.
Like intellectual property lawyer George Hwang told The Straits Times, it is, of course, possible that someone had come up with the idea of a round ping-pong table without having been aware of Lee’s work.
But Ping Pong Go Round is not an obscure piece of work presented in a modest gallery somewhere in Finland – it is a long-standing piece of work created by an artist who Singapore saw fit to present our highest cultural award, the Cultural Medallion. A piece of work that has toured the world, been publicised in the press and presented at the Singapore Art Museum and ArtScience Museum. And, according to the art gallery handling the piece, it has even been submitted to the very Ministry involved in the organising of the SEA Games and its fringe activities.
It’s one heck of a coincidence, that’s for sure.
With lawyers arguing that there is no case for copyright infringement, the chance of Lee getting acknowledgement or compensation seems slim. The exhibit, after all, has already been taken down.
This incident is exactly what gets Singapore’s artists worried. No one gets into the arts to get rich, but everyone has bills to pay. How are artists expected to survive and thrive in an environment that might choose not to respect their rights?
“This has been an issue for years related to creators’ moral rights. Institutions should be protecting the creators. Lawyers will argue in whatever way they wish but the rights do belong to the artist,” wrote theatre director Alvin Tan, who started a closed Facebook group to talk about what should be done if Lee doesn’t receive compensation for his work.
Singapore has long claimed its ambition to be an arts hub, and a “Renaissance City”. It’s a project that can never be achieved without the buy-in and active participation of the city-state’s artists. International art fairs and performances might bring a vibrant global aspect to Singapore’s image, but it is the local arts community that perpetuates the spirit of creativity that is needed to establish the country as a centre of artistic merit.
These artists in turn need our support. Some assurances are needed for the arts community to flourish, chief among them the knowledge that the integrity of their work will be respected and protected.