188 words of inspiration stolen from Night Festival

From ‘Stolen art pieces paint ugly picture of society’, 10 Sept 2013, ST Forum

(Aw Yang Kang Ming): I WAS disappointed to find out that people would actually steal pieces of an artwork at the Singapore Night Festival (“More words of art go missing”; Sept 2). The installation by artist Karen Mitchell featured 365 wooden panels that were supposed to represent the shared aspirations of everyone.

Why would anyone want to remove an artistic installation that was supposed to inspire people?

Removing the panels is akin to downloading licensed content from the Internet without permission from the author; it is theft and a clear sign of disrespect to the creator. It also showcases the dissolute side of people; what would foreigners think of our society?

Perhaps the 188 panels went missing because they were not affixed onto any permanent structure.

Did any one of these say ‘FREE’?

When artist Karen Mitchell made her woodwork installation to be of the interactive sort, she didn’t expect viewers to ‘assimilate’ her work so well that they decided to take them home. Clearly, some people still don’t grasp the concept of street art. When they see others playing with these wooden slabs like how one browses wares at a flea market, but don’t see anyone around collecting money, they assume that it’s a free-for-all jamboree like those cheese samples promoters dish out at NTUC supermarkets.

Respect for the artist is one thing, but taking something that clearly doesn’t belong to you from public space is the fundamental no-no which we were taught as babies. I don’t see any practical use of Karen’s panels anyway, unless they were swiped by parents too cheapskate to buy spelling cue cards for their kids. I would, however, pay her if she could craft a sign for me that says ‘SILENCE’ or maybe ‘TOILET’. If anyone did surrender pieces of her work to her eventually, they deserve a gift panel with the word ‘CHAMPION’ on it.

The term that describes such ugly behaviour in the local context is ‘itchy fingers’, and Karen isn’t the first artist to suffer from a meddlesome public. A dragon sculpture displayed at a square near Chinatown Complex vanished completely in 2000 (So who stole the dragon? 15 May 2000, ST). In the 2001 Nokia Singapore Art exhibition, Tay Bee Aye’s 179 small fabric cushions shaped as lips gracing the pillars of Suntec City were nicked. Wikipedia explained away the theft by mentioning that her work was ‘too well received’. You could say the same thing if my sculpture of a famous politician built entirely out of gold tooth fillings got amputated overnight, that it was ‘overwhelmingly popular’ with the public. Sure, these petty looters ‘appreciate’ your handiwork. Like how a starving mongrel ‘receives’ a gourmet butcher meat display perhaps.

Even artistic attempts to spruce up our streets by government agencies are not immune from grubby hands. In 2009, STB introduced flower ‘totems’ to brighten up Orchard Road, but decided to move them to Sentosa instead because people were stealing flowers.  I wonder if in this instance such anti-social behaviour would have been considered vandalism instead, though you’re more likely to be charged for defacing public property than taking a piece of it with you. Spray-paint over the Cenotaph and you’ll go to jail, but I doubt you’ll be punished the same way if you chisel off a bit of staircase as a souvenir. For a country so paranoid about CCTV surveillance that we have them set up to catch people taking a piss in lifts, we still don’t seem deterred from messing around with someone’s livelihood in broad daylight.

Perhaps Karen, and anyone aspiring to be a street artist in Singapore, could learn from this experience and come up with immovable themes instead of designs that easily come apart encouraging people to ‘interact’ with them like a pack of wolves descending on fallen prey. Otherwise, rig each detachable piece from your work with an electric charge so that people will be conditioned to keep their hands to themselves once and for all.

As the Bee Gees famously sung,

‘It’s only words
And words are all I have
To take your heart away’

In Karen’s case, her WORDS, not the audience’s HEARTS, were the ones swept away.

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