Unintended Consequences

I was intrigued to hear on the radio one day a report about the soon to be unveiled 108 Steps, a work of art by Khan Lee. I live a few minutes’ walking distance from it. I saw the preparations for its installation before I was aware of its future purpose.

And the talk about the glass cladding to protect the work from climbing is what caught my attention most. It’s one of public art’s troubling challenges these days. Democratization of our institutions has brought a lot of progress to our lives. However, a creeping, unintended side of this process can be noticed in the occasional behavior of normal people. One that can be called “lack of respect or appreciation”. I see it as a basically natural behavior. If you can climb something, you will always find someone willing to do that.

But in urban public space this simple human trait invokes a counter reaction. On the one hand that reaction is just as natural as the urge to climb, yet on the other, just as occasionally – misguided, authoritarian or plain stupid. Let’s protect the public (in this case) from climbing.

Nothing of what I have said so far and about to say is in any way intended to dismiss the value of 108 steps as a piece of art. I like it a lot. I’d love to climb it yet I have no intention of doing so.

For the first five meters up the rungs of the sculpture, a tempered glass shield has been elegantly attached. You can hardly notice the glass. But it’s there. I walk along Kingsway admiring the piece. And my thoughts wander in amusement over the concepts of art. The questions that it raises. The debates it evokes. Isn’t the glass part of this art? 

“Glass Ceiling” I think. They brought the glass ceiling to the ground. The term originally symbolized that invisible barrier in the upper echelons of society. Women on their journey through institutional hierarchy, immigrants, minorities etc. This sculpture says no!

The glass ceiling is more democratic than that. The glass ceiling has reached street level. It is now for everyone. It is hard to notice but it’s there.

No one shall climb anymore.

Was that the intent of the artist? I’m sure it wasn’t. But this is Art

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