Please keep off the artworks

You see a 1.1m-tall sculpture of an adorable bird standing on a public lawn. What do you do?

Admire it? Take a selfie as you pat its beak? Or get someone to snap a shot of you sitting astride it?

It seems the last two options are the most popular when it comes to Local Mynas, a trio of sculptures of the titular bird outside the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

This, despite a nearby A4-sized sign that reads "Please refrain from touching the sculptures" in font size 10, which is just slightly bigger than this story's text size.

The sculpture is among 14 sets of artworks on display as part of an outdoor exhibition called Envision: Sculptures @ the Garden City stretching from The Arts House to Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Launched on Jan 16, it features works by 11 home-grown and international artists. It ends on April 23.

Like Local Mynas, a few other sculptures have had to suffer the same indignity. The results are ugly scratches, cracks, holes - and a group of concerned artists and curators.

A bronze sculpture showing four people seated round a table even had a sticker stuck on the lower half of the work.

German tourist Reinhold Pause, 44, was seen placing his 1 ½- year-old son on top of one of the mynah sculptures on Wednesday.

Why put the boy on the mynah?

"It makes a good photo. The bird is cute," he says, adding that he did not see the sign.

His reaction is like that of many people The Sunday Times interviewed when asked why they touched or sat on the art installations.

Organisers of Envision estimate that at least three of the artworks have been damaged.

The biggest casualty is Road To Fifty, a display of 50 giant saga seeds made of fibreglass.

Three of the seeds sport cracks and gaping holes likely as a result of people lifting, moving and sitting on them.

Indeed, Instagram and Facebook abound with photographs of people doing just that.

Although the organisers had allowed visitors to touch this display, they did not expect people to sit on the seeds.

A 49-year-old man, who declines to be named, posted on Instagram photos of his family of five perched on the seeds in January. He says: "So many people sat on the seeds, I thought it was okay."

Singapore art gallery iPreciation, which is behind the outdoor exhibition, is "disappointed" with the public's lack of respect for the artworks.

In total, there are 15 signs telling visitors to refrain from touching, and four smaller plates, where the line "Please refrain from crossing the barrier and touching the sculptures" is printed in font size 22.

iPreciation's managing director, Ms Helina Chan, says: "The signs are fairly prominent and they are a standard size for art exhibitions in an outdoor environment."

For the artists involved, the public's careless treatment of their works has left a sour taste.

Singaporean artist Kumari Nahappan, 62, who was behind the saga seed sculptures and whose public artworks have been vandalised, says: "I am surprised that this happens time and again.

"With all the exposure that people have had to public artworks over the years, I would have thought their attitude and sense of appreciation for art would have progressed."

She adds: "I'm happy people engaged with the work. But I wish they can see the bigger picture that it should be shared with a larger audience over a longer duration."

Home-grown sculptor Lim Soo Ngee, 54, who created the mynah sculptures, has been touching them up since the exhibition started, applying fresh paint twice to areas where the paint has chipped or peeled off.

He is resigned to people damaging his work, saying: "When people encounter something unfamiliar in a public space, it is only human nature to get excited and want to touch it."

But in the eyes of some people, it is only natural for members of the public to want to touch public artworks, especially when the works are not cordoned off.

Can the public be educated about respecting public artworks? Singaporean artist Karen Mitchell, 42, whose installation at the 2013 Night Festival was tampered with, says that oil and dirt from fingers can cause artworks to deteriorate faster.

She usually sets aside half the amount of money spent on making an artwork towards fixing and maintaining it.

Ms Cheryl Ho, director of private art consultancy Articulate Consulting, says: "People will always be curious about public art and a small percentage will always cross the line. I think that if people understand the value of artworks as well as the tremendous effort that it takes to create each sculpture, they would think twice about touching it."

Veteran artist Lim Leong Seng, 66, who has created more than 30 public sculptures here, says: "I don't think Singaporeans have reached the stage where we are all culturally informed. There are people who still do not cherish artworks."

Artist-architect Kum Chee Kiong, 53, who is not involved in the Envision event, says: "If there is a sign saying the artwork should not be touched, then viewers should follow it.

"Whatever happened with the sculptures is beyond meaningful interaction. These are artworks. It is not a playground."

Lim proposes using reason to inculcate civic consciousness.

He recounts how he once ran into a man who let his elderly father sit on a public sculpture near the Merlion. Lim borrowed a chair from a nearby cafe for the older man and took the chance to educate them.

"I told them it was not good to sit on a public sculpture, which an artist probably took a long time to make. If they were tired, they could always order a drink at a cafe and rest there."

And if all else fails? Mitchell suggests in jest: "Maybe harsher signages such as 'High Voltage' or 'Toxic Paint' would work."

This article was first published on April 10, 2016.
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