They say all that glisters is not gold – unless of course, you’re talking about the works of Singapore’s latest artist- enfant terrible, Priyageetha Dia. Dia made a glittering debut (yes that’s right, watch us overuse the gold references) in 2017, when, as a shiny graduand from LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, she decided to gild the 20th storey staircase of a Housing Development Board (HDB) block with thin pieces of gold foil. Titled rather prosaically, The Golden Staircase was quite something to behold. We visited it on a particularly gloomy day, wandering around Block 103, of Jalan Rajah quite, quite lost.
The Golden Staircase
Suddenly, out of the grey stillness of a random HDB lift landing, we saw it:
Literally, it was a shiny golden staircase, glowing softly in the evening sun. It was frankly, bizarre, but we just couldn’t stop staring. It was a lovely fleeting moment full of unexpected quiet surprise, in an unexpected quiet corner of the country.
And then, just as quickly as it had come into being, it suddenly ceased to be.
Under the orders of the Jalan Besar Town Council, which alternately referred to the work as a hazard (was it slippery?) and a potential act of vandalism (wasn’t this a public space?), the work was removed and Dia very gently admonished to inform the relevant authorities if she ever wanted to do something similar again.
But what was the harm done here?
The particular HDB block that she had selected, was well-serviced with lifts and it seemed unlikely that the 20th-floor staircase would have been put to much use if any. It was rather poetically, a little-used, ephemeral stairway into the sky.
Logical arguments were made on all sides of the fence – detractors questioned Dia’s right to impose her artistic views on an unsuspecting, taxpaying public (some of the classier comments can be found on this charming portal) while supporters championed her courage in pursuing a form of authentic public art in a country known for its intolerance of vandalism. Yet another school of thought offered the view that perhaps public sentiment shouldn’t matter – that public spaces are meant to provoke critical thought and that discursive tendencies should be encouraged (especially if they are not in accord with one another) because such provocation is required for the development of an engaged and intelligent citizenry. (See a selection of reactions here).
It was a curious position for Dia to be in. The self-described art school introvert tells us that she was “never the person to raise her hand,” when she and her classmates were asked if they wanted to become artists.
Absent – Present
Fast forward to 2018, and Priyageetha Dia is at it again.
This time, in a work called Absent – Present, she hung 24 golden sheets from the parapets of the same block of HDB flats (i.e. Blk 103 Jalan Rajah – clearly the new hot address in town)! The flags were eventually removed by the authorities and destroyed. Members of the public had evidently complained that the work reminded them of inauspicious joss paper offerings.
As a compensatory gesture, Dia was then given new blankets – ten of which are on show on at local gallery Art Porters, in its exhibition Upgraded. These new blankets have been emblazoned with red tags such as “Liberal”, “Midas” and “Provoke” amongst others, which represent the many different kinds of interpretations of Dia’s work. These allow for a kind of re-enactment of the work in a private gallery space:
The idea of presenting artistic blankets in public spaces is certainly not a new one – in 1987, the NAMES Project Quilt, better known as the AIDS Quilt, was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington DC, in the United States of America.
It featured approximately 2000 panels of names of AIDS victims and occupied the space of two football fields. As Peter Hawkins in his essay Naming Names notes,
“the Quilt’s provocative appearance on the Mall gave the project’s leadership an opportunity to denounce the country’s indifference to the AIDS epidemic and to rally for greater attention to research and support. For others, it offered a way to suffer intimate losses in the public space in America, to leave behind the ghetto and closet, to bring mourning from the margin to the centre.”
The use of fabric was also significant– the fact that “cloth fades and frays with time, its fragility, its constant need for mending,” — these aspects tell the real truth about material life.
Taking the “public” out of public art?
Art Porters’ intervention into Dia’s latest work certainly adds a new layer of meaning to Absent – Present– that provided by the private gallerist, and the use of the art exhibition itself as a site for discussion.
What does this mean?
Simply put, the act of placing a work within a space known as an “art gallery,” is itself an act which changes the artwork. It connotes that the work is in some way “worthy” of display within a kind of hallowed space, and confines the work within the gallery’s consumerist walls. In whisking Dia’s work out of the public domain, one might argue that Art Porters has changed the very nature of the piece. Is a piece of public art still authentic or effective if it’s no longer in the public domain?
Or has gallery owner Guillaume Levy-Lambert simply expressed his legitimate critical views as an art professional, choosing an artist to work with, in the ordinary course of his business? Has he, in fact, saved an artwork which was in danger of being lost forever?
Like many artists, Dia’s ethnicity plays a part in influencing her art – she’s unafraid to state that “yes, it’s a stereotype that Indians like to wear gold,” and proceeds to quite firmly and decidedly own that stereotype given that her family used to actually be in the gold business. Her public expressions are imbued with a sense of her own private identity and her intention for this particular work, was to simply “provoke” the HDB space, inviting viewers to consider whether the sheets were flags or blankets. The gold mylar sheets may even bring to mind images of Syrian refugees, wrapped in insulating emergency blankets. In an international context, these blankets represent protection in the face of trauma. In Singapore however, Dia’s work was taken down because feedback had been received that the blankets resembled inauspicious gold joss paper.
Dia herself observes that it was “funny how a material associated with war and suffering, was associated instead with joss paper in Singapore.”
Between the Alternative and the Mainstream
Art historian and academic Alan Wallach disputes the idea that alternative or unusual art spaces achieve very much in their own right. He’s commented that they are ‘alternate’ only insofar as they augment the number of available art spaces within a community. When displayed works are already conceived of as art, they will be experienced in exactly the same way as if they had been hung up in a gallery.
He explains that “a real alternative requires a critical examination of all existing categories of art and artistic experience.” Sandy Nairne expands on this idea further by identifying an obvious contradiction in how artists seek alternative display spaces, while also hoping that mainstream curators and dealers will eventually choose to purchase or promote their work. Indeed, this is exactly what seems to have happened in Dia’s case vis-à-vis Art Porters.
Does it detract from the value of the work though? We’re not convinced that it does.
While it isn’t clear how long Absent – Present had been up for, before being outed by the press, it seems that there was enough of an element of surprise that viewers were unlikely to have immediately associated her works as being “art.” To this end, it seems evident that Dia’s work has succeeded in transforming an HDB block into an unexpected art display, avoiding the trap that Wallach warns of.
Is Hindsight 20-20?
Brian O’Doherty investigates avant-garde art displays and gestures outside of traditional museums or galleries in his essay The Gallery As a Gesture, and in so doing highlights that when such gestures are made, there are in fact two audiences – an original audience who might well be bored or restless “by its forced tenancy of a moment it cannot fully perceive,” while actually experiencing the work, and a subsequent audience who may view photographs or relics from the original gesture. The latter audience may view past events in a distorted manner, having been given a chance to “re-create” and re-contextualise the original work, with the benefit of hindsight.
Applying some of these ideas to Dia’s work, we did feel slightly ridiculous walking between the giant mylar blankets, fluttering politely in the civilized air-conditioning of a contained gallery space. Rather than providing us with an opportunity to over-intellectualise the art, the sheer size of the blankets dwarfed us. They reminded us of the scale of the original work, and the fact that the blankets were meant to be hung unfettered from HDB parapets, soaring into the sky and visible to all from great and lofty heights.
The golden blankets in the gallery space felt curiously isolated, cocooned away from the judgemental masses and sequestered amongst a safe community of art-lovers.
Perhaps the work has indeed changed – and perhaps that’s what audiences are meant to think about.
We certainly hope that this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Priyageetha Dia and her shiny interventions into public spaces. As Dia herself assures us:
“Gold is also a metal which is resistant to many things.”