SOTA student’s ‘impromptu’ art installation bearing former teachers’ names removed by school

SOTA student’s ‘impromptu’ art installation bearing former teachers’ names removed by school
Photo: Mark Rozells/Facebook
Published: 12:55 AM, May 19, 2017
Updated: 4:00 PM, May 19, 2017

SINGAPORE — An art installation of folded paper planes, each bearing the name of a former teacher, placed in the crevices along concrete floor tiles appeared outside the general office at the School of the Arts (SOTA) on Tuesday (May 16).

The installation was short-lived. A day later, it was removed by the school. However, a photo of the work was posted on Facebook by a former SOTA teacher, Mark Rozells, on Wednesday, who described the piece as “heartwarming”.

The Year 6 SOTA student behind the art installation is Calleen Koh.

The 18-year-old’s work has since been making its rounds on Facebook. Rozells' post garnered over 1,400 reactions and 580 shares within a day.

Speaking to TODAY, Rozells, who is currently the Head of Languages and Literature at SIM International Academy, said he had posted it on Facebook as an acknowledgement of the student’s expression of gratitude.

“I thought it was very heartwarming... I am a bit surprised at the reach of the post but I think it does suggest how art has a role beyond just aesthetics,” he said.

Rozells also felt its swift removal likely contributed to the post going viral.

“The intelligence, emotion and sincerity of the artwork contrasted against how it was handled by a place that supposedly values itself on being a space for creativity. The irony there probably struck home,” he said.

Many netizens also praised the installation.

“It is such a poignant piece… I wished or hope that it will be made more permanent,” wrote Facebook user Nor Salman.

Facebook user Jeffrey Loke wrote: “There is simplicity in its implementation. Yet the message is powerful. It asks the question: why did so many SOTA teachers leave?”

Some, however, questioned the school’s decision to remove the artwork. Facebook user Chew Yi Wei found the “censorship by an arts school” ironic.

Koh created the site-specific piece as part of a performance art masterclass. She told TODAY that she was overwhelmed but “thankful for the response it has gotten under such a short amount of time”.

“As I was part of the Teachers’ Day planning committee for half my SOTA life, it saddened me whenever a teacher has to leave for whatever reasons they had as I felt that these educators played an integral part of nurturing the students in SOTA,” said Koh.

When contacted, a spokesman for SOTA clarified that the artwork was removed because Koh did not comply with the school’s guidelines.

The spokesman noted that Koh had wanted to “express her feelings of loss, so she chose to create a tribute to the teachers who have left SOTA over the years. Unfortunately, as the installation was put up without the school’s knowledge, and no one knew what it was initially (there was no explanation next to the artwork), it was removed”.

“At SOTA, we encourage our students to express themselves creatively, and our school grounds form part of our students’ canvas and performance platform,” said the spokesman, adding that the school’s visual arts faculty has provided guidelines for students to take note before displaying their artworks.

“For instance, to provide the description for the artwork, the display period and safety considerations.”

A total of 32 paper planes with names of former staff teachers, teaching support staff and adjunct staff who had left SOTA over the last five years were removed.

According to the school, two of the teachers named on the paper planes are still working in the school and have expressed surprise at the inclusion of their names, adding that there has not been an increase in staff attrition. 

"In 2012, the staff turnover rate was 12 per cent under the founding principal. The rate remains the same under the current principal," the spokesman said.

"SOTA is progressing into its 10th year, and inevitably, over the years, teachers and staff have left due to various reasons. For example, some have taken on new positions with other organisations, resettled in other countries, returned to the Ministry of Education after a secondment, and for other family reasons such as caring for aged parents and young children, etc."

SOTA’s spokesman said the school has subsequently clarified the matter with the teacher-in-charge and Koh, adding that no disciplinary action will be taken against her.

However, as the artwork was crafted as a “spontaneous response to an exercise”, the school has no plans to reinstate the work.

Koh also acknowledged that she was aware of the school’s guidelines for art installations on the campus. But “being an art intervention, it was part of the process that it was to be left in the space, open to any outcomes the audience might take on it whether it was to engage, to be removed, etc”.

She added: “From what I see, it created a platform of discourse for many of the parties involved, and opened up emotions I have never seen before in some.

“It is a very heartwarming experience for me and it brought a lot of feelings of gratitude amongst the SOTA community, past or present. This experience reminds me how important art is and how it is able to impact people.”