article by Ong Soh Chin: "Don't destroy, mothball or retire public art; display them proudly"
This article appeared in the Straits Times, 28 June, 2011
Don't destroy, mothball or retire public art; display them proudly
By Ong Soh Chin, Senior Writer
Sculpting a national identity
FROM the mid-1970s to the 1990s, Singapore catapulted itself onto a remarkable growth trajectory, as the country underwent a rapid and dramatic physical transformation which saw old structures giving way to spanking new ones.
Much has been written about the collective loss of place and identity which resulted from this urbanisation. However, this discussion has been dominated by the culling of old buildings like the old National Library, torn down in 2004 to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel despite calls for its preservation from as early as 1998.
Less has been said about the public sculptures that fell victim to the march of progress.
Recently, though, this issue surfaced in a letter to The Straits Times Forum page by Mr Jeffrey Say, programme leader for the Master of Art History programme at Lasalle College of the Arts. He commented on the impending modification of an art installation at Clementi Mall of large metal sculpted in the shape of water droplets by Chua Boon Kee. Some of the droplets will be moved to a shadier spot for fear that the metal would heat up in the sun and injure passers-by.
The letter questioned Singaporeans' cavalier attitude towards public sculptures, particularly when it comes to relocating and modifying artworks as if they were pieces of furniture. He also lamented the loss of many art pieces which had disappeared as public sites were redeveloped.
The discussion on public sculptures is timely, given the recent formation of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review Committee (ACSR). This sets out to find inclusive ways to integrate arts and culture into Singaporeans' lives. An average of nearly $80 million per year will be channelled to new ACSR initiatives, with more than half the funds set aside for arts and culture activities at the community level.
'We must dispel perceptions that arts and culture are elitist, expensive and restricted to high art,' said Mr Lui Tuck Yew, then Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, about the ACSR's mission.
Public art is defined as works of artistic or heritage merit which can be displayed or integrated into a public space.
By definition, public art is not elitist. It is free for all to gaze upon or interact with. It is freely accessible to anyone.
It is largely paid for by the private sector with some help from the Government. The Urban Redevelopment Authority's Art Incentive Scheme for New Developments In Central Area, for example, allows property developers up to an extra 1.5 per cent of gross floor area if they incorporate permanent public art - either integrated or free-standing - into their building plans.
In addition, the National Heritage Board's Public Art Tax Incentive Scheme allows individuals and organisations to get a double tax deduction if they commission or donate public art. They can also make such claims if they maintain or adopt an existing public art work.
These schemes show the Government's expansive and generous stand towards encouraging the private sector's involvement in developing the country's public art environment.
What is lacking in this equation, however, is the meaningful participation of the artist and the general public. The former is usually seen as a mere contractor hired to perform a function. So, when the work has to be moved or altered, the artist is often not consulted because he or she has no legal rights to it after the transaction. Sculptor and 1995 Cultural Medallion recipient Han Sai Por, for example, had no clue that her Goddess Of Happiness statue, once placed outside the Orchard MRT station, had been moved in 2006 to the SMRT Clubhouse in Bishan.
In a more ignominious example, in 2007 at the Singpower Building - now TripleOne Somerset - four of six water sculptures by Romanian-born artist Delia Prvacki were demolished without her knowledge or approval, to her horror.
Artists, however, are learning from such experiences. Recently, some are including in their commission contracts a clause that gives them the option to buy back their works should the owners no longer want them.
But this is provided they can afford to buy them back in the first place. There is also the practical difficulty that a sculpture created specifically for a particular site may not be suitable for a new home. And if the piece goes to a private collector, the public no longer has access to it.
The other constituency in this vital dialogue on public art is the public itself. An entire generation received exposure to public art thanks to two iconic sculptures by the late Ng Eng Teng. Called Contentment And Wealth, they took pride of place at the old Plaza Singapura from 1974 until 1997 when the mall was refurbished.
Many Singaporeans grew up and interacted with those sculptures. They were convenient signposts for people who arranged to meet their friends there. People coined affectionate nicknames for them. Kids played around them. Then, one day, they were retired - unbeknownst to many - to the remote gardens of the University Cultural Centre, the equivalent of sending your aged parents to a nursing home.
Could Contentment And Wealth, long associated with Plaza Singapura, have been retained in their original location as a meaningful link to the past?
As Singapore evolves and new public art is commissioned, there is a need for open discussion on the fate of these artworks when the grim redevelopment reaper comes calling.
It is not known how many old sculptures have disappeared. But one hopes it is not too late to find out where they are.
Perhaps the ACSR or some other relevant agency could consider, as part of its objectives, the retrieval and reintegration of these lost works into the public sphere.
Corporations that commissioned and own these artworks, now mothballed somewhere in their warehouses, should resurface them for adoption.
The public should also be invited to give its feedback on where these works, once located, should be re-sited. It would be a meaningful national exercise to restore the memories of our collective past and refashion them into symbols of our evolving Singaporean identity.
It would also be an effective way to make art relevant to the masses, without forcing anyone to enter an auditorium or a museum.