Public sculptures burn people

From ‘Treat sculptures with greater care’, 15 June 2011, ST Forum

(Jeffrey Say): I WAS disappointed to read that sculptor Chua Boon Kee was asked to relocate his stainless steel sculptures near Clementi Mall because of concern that the metal could potentially burn people (‘Open-air sculptures feel the heat’; last Wednesday).

This raises the larger issue of our attitude towards and regard for public sculptures. A public sculpture is created to be in dialogue with the site and the environment. Relocating a sculpture compromises both the intent of the artist and the integrity of the work.

Mr Chua was understandably ‘unhappy’ at the request to move his sculptures to a ‘shadier area’ as it would disrupt the aesthetic cohesion of the sculptures.

My own research has found that a substantial number of public sculptures – from the pre-war period to the 1970s – simply disappeared without any trace, especially when a site or old building had to make way for a new development. Even sculptures done in the 1980s and later are now untraceable after being moved from their original locations.

Public sculptures are meant to be seen and enjoyed. In the case of Mr Chua’s sculptures, an advisory could have been put up to allay safety concerns.

…Indeed, beyond their aesthetic and decorative value, public sculptures can be a source of civic and communal pride and identity.

The art scene is definitely heating up

It’s ironic how much time and money Singaporeans spend on education, subjecting ourselves to holiday tuition and enrichment classes, and yet lack the common sense to know that metal gets hot under the sun. Public art aside, how about cars then? Do we move them from open air carparks because they pose a hazard to kids who want to touch them? We can recite the elemental and transition metals in ascending atomic number but fail to apply metals’ conductive properties to real life experience. If someone gets a third degree burn from being ‘itchy-fingers’ and touching a piece of metallic art, would he sue the artist, the National Heritage Board, or, by golly, the sun? That aside, it’s easy for us to take public sculptures for granted if we pass it by everyday, blending into the background like the sight of a MRT track, or a Starbucks in a suburban mall, but yet flock in droves to FREE, fashionable events like the Biennale, feel all artsy and cultured about it on one hand, and complaining about our locally designed public art scalding our idiot children on the other.

It’s a shame that these are being tossed around from one venue to another, with some, like Ng Eng Teng’s work, having as much nostalgic resonance as the Merlion itself. But you wouldn’t consider moving the latter would you? On a personal note, I remember Plaza Singapura’s ‘Miss Wealth’ sculpture fondly (see below, Guide to our Public sculptures, 24 September 1984), and looking at the gaudy, forgettable mall it has become today it’s unimaginable that PS has been around since 1974. Miss Wealth has since been relocated to NUS, effectively removing it from the lay public view and into a more academic sphere where people are supposedly smart enough not to touch hot sculptures.

Which leaves another Ng Eng Teng work, Mother and Child, one of the few remaining public sculptures in the heart of town, though also moved from its birthplace outside Far East Shopping Centre (see below, Mum and child in Orchard, 14 July 1981)  to Orchard Parade Hotel, a less bustling area relatively safe from public molestation. Like Bukit Brown cemetery, I suppose the only way to get Singaporeans to take notice of heritage icons is to threaten to destroy them. Bring forth the ‘Sculpture Tours’. Perhaps this calls for a job for MCDYS minister Major Chan Chun Seng, who, instead of asking for ‘wild’ ideas like commissioned graffitti on HDB walls, should look towards preservation of such sculptures instead. And oh yes, ‘Do not touch’ signs too, please.

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