Low Chee Peng on the responsibilities of making public art

Low Chee Peng on the responsibilities of making public art

Having a particular identity, especially an aesthetic one, gives communities a stronger sense of place and character. For artist Low Chee Peng, public art does just that.

By Eeyan Chuah

A self-taught sculptor with nearly 30 years of experience, Low believes that good public art reflects and reveals its society, humanizes the built environment, and invigorates public spaces.

Born and bred in Penang, 44-year-old Low first took an interest in art as a teenager. After finishing school, he started an apprenticeship with a sculpture company and has never stopped working since. He says he chose sculpture because he wanted to challenge himself.

When he is working on something three dimensional, he must take every angle and side into consideration. Every detail is heightened, and the immersive process encourages self-reflection and is a more rewarding experience.

Low’s works may not be as famous to tourists as some murals adorning Penang’s walls, but his intention is to speak to the locals. Public art to him is not merely decorative, it is a responsibility. After all, his works are going to be placed in public for all to view, for a very long time. It is important for him that each placement of his artworks belongs.

The Last Tree is one of Low’s first public installations, located at the junction of Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Armenian in George Town. It is a sculpture of a life-sized young tree that has been chopped clean in the middle and held up by a baby. This piece was commissioned by George Town Festival 2013 from Low’s collection of personal work. The dead tree depicts the degradation of our natural ecosystem and how the balance lies in the future generation. It represents the unforeseen future of our subsequent generations, which is an underlying theme in a lot of Low’s works.

B-series: The Last Tree (2013)

Growing up in Penang, Low witnessed the many drastic changes George Town went through since being declared a world heritage site. He also saw the overzealous response towards Ernest Zacharevic’s Children on Bicycle mural. This made him wonder if people have been subconsciously engulfed by emptiness from too much white noise. By presenting this tree at the heart of George Town, he is attempting a conversation with them in hopes that they would evaluate things through a wider perspective.

On the other side of town, snuggled within a densely populated residential area, The Bullock Cart is a sculpture consigned by the local state government and materialized in collaboration with Arkitek Permata. It is placed next to a bus stop along Jalan Burma, acting as a public seating area for the curious to climb aboard and feel what it’s like riding a bullock cart.

Bullock Cart (2017)

The story goes: decades ago, before every household had access to running tap water, they used to have bulls carry buckets of water from the waterfall in Botanical Gardens. The bulls would travel from the river along Jalan Burma and this was where residents would come to collect their supply of clean water.

This public sculpture is not only a well-balanced piece in its simplicity and interactivity but is also a statement of reclamation. It takes what would have otherwise been a waste space and turns it into a tribute to the history of the location. The Bullock Cart acts as an example of what a public community space could be if artists are included in conversations with the local council.

Now, if you are a government official working in the National Registration Department, or a student at The One Academy, or just paying some bills at the local TNB Distribution building, you would definitely recognize the hard-to-miss steel sculptures standing in front of the Sunway Property office building along Jalan Anson.

The City Walker is a commissioned installment by the Penang State Art Gallery for the Penang Sculpture Trail, sponsored by Sunway Property. As an assigned artist, one of the hardest balances to strike is one where you are obligated to meet a client’s brief yet still make the commission a distinctive piece of your own. If you are familiar with Low’s gallery works, you would notice a familiar theme along the lines of the metal sculptures’ hollows and curves, as well as the rusty finish which is Low’s most recognizable touches.

Walker Series: City Walker, site specific installation (2017)

Low seamlessly assimilates his cluster of sculptures into its vicinity by using colours that blend in with surrounding foliage. The sculptures also mimic the busy pedestrians on Jalan Anson, ‘walking’ and moving forward as a crowd. It is abstract enough that it doesn’t intrude on its surroundings and yet it strongly depicts Sunway Property’s message of communal living.

Public art can act as a catalyst in building and reinforcing community culture. When produced with society in mind, it activates imagination and encourages people to pay attention and think deeper about their physical and social environment. Low for one, has never taken the responsibility of creating public art lightly and continues to think of ways to interact with society through his art.

Cover image courtesy of the artist.

Eeyan Chuah is a freelance art writer and project manager based in Penang. She co-founded Hin Bus Depot’s art gallery in 2014 and worked as a co-curator for Urban Xchange Festival 2014-15.