Photos by Priyageetha Dia

By Alfian Sa’at
I love this artwork by Priyageetha Dia, though I don’t know which one I prefer, the first one where a whole staircase was plastered with gold foil, or the second one, where the gold foil has been removed by the artist herself, and a square remains as a memento.
In the original artwork, the profane was given the touch of the sacred; think of the Kinkakuji Zen temple in Kyoto, the Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. A simple layer of material, to make us imagine all the kinds of cultural symbolism we attach to this soft, effulgent, malleable element. (Another cultural symbol: eight lucky steps.)
Also: dare you step on something so precious? But what makes it precious? Because of the gold foil, or because it is an artwork? Because it is fragile, because your interaction with it will degrade it, because it is the product of five hours of labour (what then of the labour of those who built the staircase?)
When I saw the first few photos, that was what I thought. What a precious thing. Precious because it is doomed. And leaving gold in a public area — of course it would be bait. Not so much for thieves, but the ensuing discourse, already overdetermined, of whether it was authorised, legal, permissible, safe. MP’s and Town Council officials weighing in, sandpapering the gold with their pronouncements more than the slipper-soles of the residents who actually use the staircase.
(Why did we turn to those discourses? Why not wonder instead, how the artwork looked like in the morning, bathed in gentle sunlight? How this has resulted in placemaking and mythmaking–‘The Golden Staircase of Jalan Rajah’, with the royal sheen of that name? Why do we ask whether it will slow us down and not ask if we would slow down for it?)
The artist is invited by the Town Council to ‘work together’, in the same breath that it is announced that ‘the case is under investigation’. Nobody is fooled by this attempt at let’s-be-pals paternalism, this insistence that one must go through the proper channels. What is demanded is that any attempt to engage the community must be made through them, because they are the Town Council, the RC, the CC, the real owners of all public spaces.
How threatening to have any Singaporean not displaying the usual permission-seeking behaviour. Artists like that should either be co-opted (let’s co-operate on a mural!) or put under surveillance (no sudden moves, we’re watching you now, your name is on a greylist). Any kind of intervention must be made under their watch. Not under their noses. All that glitters must be controlled.
The final form of the artwork: like in a reverse-Midas scenario, anything the officials touch turns from gold to grey concrete. Look at that square of gold in the corner. Probably all the beauty we really deserve. Or all the space we’ve resigned ourselves to. This isn’t just a memento, it is a monument to a certain habitual Singaporean mode of thinking.
This was first published as a Facebook post by Alfian Sa’at

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