A Wide Field of Contestation

A Wide Field of Contestation
by Y.S. Pek

Tucked away on the twentieth floor, just in view from the lift landing, a staircase glistened. For seven days.

Two weeks ago, I came upon two Straits Times press photographs of Priyageetha Dia’s “golden staircase.” One taken at its foot, the other from head down. The pictures were made after it had turned dark outside. It looked like a crime scene, whose culprit, caught red-handed, was the image’s dully gleaming subject. In the overexposed whiteness of a third photograph, made and shared by a dedicated blogger, the staircase was, conversely, almost too ethereal, evenly washed out by a postproduction filter.

It must’ve been a thing of beauty, nonetheless. In between harsh camera flash and artificial dematerialization, there would have been something gorgeous about the thing itself, in all its visual excess. Having only seen online images of the work, I cannot laud the staircase – the artist has intentionally left the piece untitled – for how it must’ve shone in the sunlit open balcony. Flakes or sheaths of the gold leaf would’ve pulled off and crumbled with my touch. When I first read about the staircase, I imagined it gradually worn underfoot by those who cared to make the pilgrimage. A symbolically-charged, durational, and site-specific work, I thought. It bridges the everyday and the transcendental; it is ephemeral despite its assertive materiality.

Then, I came to realize, the work of art must’ve anticipated its legally insignificant transgression. Still, this transgression was loaded with artistic gravitas: it foresaw its removal. And therein was the artwork’s greatest work. There was, no doubt, something indescribably personal and intimate in the gesture – or better, process – of gilding a flight of stairs. Yet, Dia’s choice of site was crucial. The moment the work put a toe beyond the private into the collective – a semi-hidden alcove that was nonetheless common space – it so quickly turned into an object of public attention, which even more quickly galvanized the brigade of self-righteous citizenry: Vandal! Litterbug! Out-of-touch artist and her chin-scratching “art”!

As a remote viewer of this work of art, I am left to work with its reception. This inadvertently leads me to see what it is really doing. With the very terms that it set up, the work so stunningly anticipates and disarms its critics – and their all-too-Singaporean “concerns.” How is the laborious, patient, technically-skilled task of gilding anything like a furtive and often spontaneous act of vandalism? When one leaves an object of (material) value behind, is it litter? And against the final accusation cited – that the work has no significance – I contend that the work’s productiveness lies not in what it physically is (or was), but that which it enacts: a wide field of contestation, across which its effects resonate.

How simply we think about culture, Dia’s work of art admonishes, and so often in reductive terms and binaries. A New Paper byline reads, “For [Dia’s] school’s final-year project, she decided to make a mundane everyday thing interesting and attractive.” Is everything that is “interesting and attractive” art – or conversely, is every work of art interesting and attractive? Certainly, the overloaded symbolism of gold suggests something beyond the quotidian. Yet doesn’t it signal so much more than beautification or the generation of “interest” by making the staircase “attractive”? Not to mention the personal and collective significances and symbolisms that the work intimates. How has no one asked more about the stunningly uncoincidental fact that the artist is from a family of goldsmiths, as she has told the press? Or about the ostensible wealth of Southeast Asia’s richest country, a question raised by the dramatic transmogrification of drab concrete into precious metal? Some argue that by “breaking the law” – in this case, a town-council by-law – the work of art is anti-government. Are there no other worthy targets in Singapore against which one might demonstrate resistance? No other contemporary issues with which the gilded object might resonate? (Just to name two, unbridled materialism and the common need for an object of devotion or reverence straightaway spring to mind.) Can’t an act of resistance be artistic, intimate, symbolic, and political – and still not be anti-government?

The responses at the parliamentary and municipal levels have steered public conversation away from what is at stake in Dia’s work of art. This outcome is not willful, I imagine – but it is unfortunate. Such pronouncements stymy conversation about the material matter of culture itself – a local culture, still emergent, still finding its voice and means of expression. A member of parliament’s allegation, premised on the most bureaucratic of hypotheticals, tickled me in a familiar way: the staircase’s daily wash would make it a slippery safety hazard. When the town council publicly schooled a young artist, trained at a government-endorsed modern art program, on what art to produce, how does one parse the many-layered irony? One of Western modernism’s narratives, no doubt fraught, is the story of “autonomous” art that leaves the white cube of the gallery space and enters everyday “life” (the artist has herself cited this paradigm). In Singapore, as we know well, we can preach in safe zones but not practice. In response to Dia’s stairs, local authorities suggested a particularly farcical and facile alternative: go paint a void deck. 

With canny intuition, the “golden staircase” foresaw and staged a confrontation of the “public” and the “private.” Dia’s first extensive statement on her work, posted on Facebook, is striking: “My practice deals with spaces that negotiate concepts on the sacred, secular and the profane. As such, I am intrigued with spaces that I have inhabited over the course of 25 years as a HDB dweller…. But what constitutes public and private space? How does that apply along with the sacred…?” The few who saw the work in person would have found themselves in a space that triggered a contemplation of these issues. But the work knew it would have to go. And the discursive and collective space opened in its wake, physical and virtual, organic and vigorous, must be considered part of the work’s scope. Little wonder, then, that so many flocked to see and to photograph the staircase – to memorialize it, to be seen with it, to lay claim to it, to be a part of it.

Living on in its variously imaged selves, Dia’s work demands that we reconsider, with greater care of thought and language, the profundity of its challenge to our social and cultural mores.


With many thanks to Priyageetha Dia (second and fourth illustrations), Tse Hao Guang (first and third), and Sam Jomato (final) for the permission to use their images. Thanks also to Jee Leong Koh and P.T.B. for their comments on the piece.

Y.S. Pek is a writer and graduate student who lives in New York City.