Rethinking public art in five murals

Rethinking public art in five murals

Contemporary public art leans more towards making locations Instagrammable. But there is more to public art than meets the digital eye.

By Ellen Lee

Discussing public art opens a can of worms involving propaganda, taxpayers’ money (in the case of government commissions) and the entitlement to public spaces. Here are five public murals that challenge the role of public art and the role of art in society more generally.

  1. Episodes of Malayan History and Malaysian Handicrafts by Cheong Laitong, Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur

Episodes of Malayan History, by Cheong Laitong, 1962
Source: Dave Sumpner at English Wikipedia

In 1962, still flush with Malayan independence won in 1957, there was a palpable need to solidify a national identity. This extended into concerns about how the brand-new national museum of the brand-new Malaya would present itself. The winner of a competition to decorate the facade of the museum was Cheong Laitong, who created two huge mosaic murals made of Venetian glass. Episodes of Malayan History offers a brief pictorial history of the country, while Malaysian Handicrafts depicts traditional crafts such as batik, weaving, keris-making and more.

A year before, in 1961, another mural had appeared through a competitive selection — Ismail Mustam’s The Malayan Way of Life and the National Language — outside the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka building in Kuala Lumpur. Comparing the two murals, the eminent art historian and critic T.K. Sabapathy commented that Ismail’s work was “nationalistic propaganda”, while Laitong’s displayed “a deliberate documentary mix done in a highly-stylised and manneristic way”.

Even if Laitong’s work was more stylish than Ismail’s, Sabapathy did not exactly deny that it was not nationalistic propaganda as well. Public art authorised by the state is bound to have conditions attached to it, especially something commissioned in those earliest days after independence when nation-building was a priority. Laitong’s work is relatively “neutral”. But even that belies the more turbulent “episodes of Malayan history” that were quietly left out.

  1. The Orangutan House by Charles Cham, Jonker Street, Melaka

Source: The Orangutan House

Walking down Jonker Street, in the historic enclave of Melaka, it is impossible to miss the huge orangutan mural on the side of a building. Besides the orangutan, the artist Charles Cham has taken advantage of all available wall space by painting catchy slogans, funny cartoons about “using Malaysian rubber”, and jottings of his own thoughts, almost like a public journal. On one wall is a figure similar to Matisse’s Icarus, surrounded with text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the opposite side of the road is a mural by Fritilldea commissioned by Kiehl’s. It is also bright and beautiful but lacks the personality that emanates from Cham’s murals. Compared together, they strike a contrast between a public artwork created out of sheer desire to create as opposed to a public artwork undertaken for a commission.

  1. Burning by Cloakwork, Ah Quee Street, Penang

Commissioned for the George Town Festival in 2016, Burning, by the graffiti artist Cloakwork, is a noteworthy example of public art causing controversy.

The work’s main feature is its use of traffic poles to add a three-dimensional element. The traffic poles are painted as cigarette butts, and the work’s original message was “Only you can stop air pollution” — a strange and incorrect portrayal of smoking as a major contributor to pollution. A few months after it was finished, it was defaced by fellow artist Bibichun, who sprayed “BULLSHIT” under the work’s message. Bibichun’s expletive and Cloakwork’s message have both been covered up as a compromise, so that the work now reads “Only you can stop”.

Bibichun’s intervention is a challenge to artists and the wider public to think deeper about public art and its messages, especially within the context of Penang, which has become a tourist attraction for street art that is Instagrammable but not particularly thought-provoking. It is perhaps representative of the wider state of contemporary graffiti in Malaysia, in which images are created mostly for aesthetic value or to tag the artist’s name, rather than to convey purposeful messages.

  1. The Lonely Crowd by Poodien, Publika, Kuala Lumpur

Courtesy of Poodien

Art in toilets may be a strange concept, but art in malls — or rather, “art malls” —certainly isn’t, as developers seek to integrate more art into these commercial spaces. The Lonely Crowd is an immersive mural that makes up one of the many murals wallpapering the toilets of Publika, one such art mall.

The cubicle and corridor walls are plastered with scaled-up reproductions of paintings done by Poodien. There are inverted passages from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which can only be read with any ease in the reflection of the mirrors opposite them — a nice example of how an installation can make the most of its exhibition space. Debord’s text is seminal within the punk movement for its critique of the extreme commodification of lived experience, thus creating “spectacles” that people confuse for reality. An apt example now would be how 21st-century citizens engage with the “false” reality of social media more than with their off-screen reality.

The text is accompanied by depictions of the migrant workers who built Publika, based on photographs taken by the artist himself during the mall’s construction. The workers stand with their backs turned to viewers. Mirror or not, you can’t flip them around to face them. Even though the real workers have left (probably to build other malls), Poodien’s work is a reminder to Publika’s mall-goers of the reality behind their “spectacle”.

  1. Pillars of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Courtesy of Pillars of Sabah

Pillars of Sabah is a community public art project that has been promoted (perhaps unfortunately) as “the new tourist attraction in KK” by Tourism Malaysia and “an Insta-worthy tourist spot” by World of Buzz. On the surface, these sound like good qualities, but they can also be cringe-inducing when you consider that Sabah has always been promoted as a tourist hotspot as a way to whitewash its deep-seated political issues. The Pangrok Sulap art collective visualised this issue in their most famous piece, Sabah Tanah Air-ku.

Previously an abandoned site of a prewar building that was destroyed in a fire, leaving only its pillars and foundations, it was a hotspot for graffiti artists and, at times, drug users before the Pillars project. Pillars of Sabah cleaned up the place and invited 30 Sabahan artists to create artworks on each of the 30 pillars. The project rejuvenated the space, making it more vibrant and cohesive as a whole. It has generally been celebrated by Sabahans because it is beautiful and educational, but especially because it highlights Sabahan artists.

A few months ago, the Pillars of Sabah Facebook page announced that a bench-top had been stolen from a bench installed at the site. Various netizens in the comments suggested that CCTV should be installed nearby — a curious suggestion to make for a site that was a public canvas for graffiti artists before the Pillars project. While there are no known plans to instal a CCTV camera, the incident is nonetheless still an interesting case of how public art can inadvertently end up changing the landscape it is placed in — for better (one hopes) or for worse.

Cover image featuring artwork from Poodien’s The Lonely Crowd. Courtesy of the artist.

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.