How to keep heritage stories alive with steel rod sculptures


  • Arts
  • Saturday, 02 Oct 2021

Malaysian design outfit Sculptureatwork’s 'Juxtapose' exhibition at Art Macao 2021 can be viewed online. This new steel rod sculpture is called 'Drunken Dragon' (welded steel, 2021). Photo: GEG Foundation

When you wander the charming cobblestone streets of Macau, you soak up a bit of its culture and rich history.

For Tang Mun Kian, art director of design outfit Sculptureatwork based in Kuala Lumpur, this was the spark that led to the creation of a new series of steel-rod art sculptures currently on display at the Juxtapose exhibition at Art Macao: Macao International Art Biennale 2021.

This edition of Art Macao, themed To Create For Well-Being, runs until Oct 31. It is also available to view online here.

The Juxtapose exhibition, commissioned by the GEG Foundation, pays homage to the history and heritage of Macau through 11 sculptures, collectively titled Stories In Steel. This project, created by the Sculptureatwork team, started with a trip to Macau in 2019.

“I explored the city, walked from the Border Gate to A-Ma Temple, visited museums and made some ink and watercolour sketches. The 11 sites where our stories are based still exist today, even though some are abandoned.

In a white gallery, each work has to look complete and be able to stand alone. It must be detailed so the viewer knows what location or setting the work depicts. Photo: GEG FoundationIn a white gallery, each work has to look complete and be able to stand alone. It must be detailed so the viewer knows what location or setting the work depicts. Photo: GEG Foundation

“For these sculptures, I combined the travel sketches and journal with a comic narrative, by mixing pictures, words and stories. It is a bit like a graphic novel, but in steel form, hence the name Stories In Steel’, says Tang, 52, the head of the team.

He adds that being a former Portuguese colony for over three centuries, Macau boasts a unique integration of Chinese and Portuguese influences.

Where East meets West

It is this “juxtaposition” and contrast between East and West that is presented in these installations.

“The topics for Juxtapose cover the diverse cultural and artistic characteristics of Macau, from iconic monuments like the ruins of St Paul Church to forgotten trades like the Naamyam singers, boat makers and the firecrackers industry. Macau is small but its history is rich. There are so many stories one can tell. These 11 pieces are just a fraction of those stories,” he says.

Tang is hard pressed to choose a favourite piece as they are all part of his travel journal.

But he singles out two pieces, Drunken Dragon and Battle Of Macau, noting that they depict a combined force of Macanese, Chinese, Dominican friars, Jesuit priests and African slaves united in driving the Dutch away.

“I like the disorderliness, madness and foolishness of these two works,” he says.

In Malaysia, you might have seen Sculptureatwork’s steel-rod installations around George Town, Penang, under the “Marking George Town Project”, launched in 2010.

Among the many pieces are Cheating Husband, located on the wall of a shophouse facing Love Lane; and Escape, installed under a window at Gudang Acheh, which was originally built as a prison.

A work titled 'Submarine' (welded steel, 2021), which is part of 11 new steel rod pieces created by Sculptureatwork in KL. Photo: GEG FoundationA work titled 'Submarine' (welded steel, 2021), which is part of 11 new steel rod pieces created by Sculptureatwork in KL. Photo: GEG Foundation

But although the Marking George Town and Juxtapose sculptures both utilise steel rods, the approach adopted for these two projects are not the same.

“The Marking George Town sculptures are outdoor site-specific works, so if you take the artwork out from the site, it will lose its meaning. The city is my canvas: I scout the city, find a suitable wall where the work can be installed, get the owner’s permission, then only start working on the story.

“Unlike Marking George Town, Juxtapose is shown in a white gallery space as part of Art Macao 2021. Each work has to look complete and be able to stand alone. It must be detailed enough so the viewer knows what location or setting the work depicts.

“It is complemented by multiple components like the characters, dialogue, story and text. The text is in traditional Chinese, which adds to the complexity. The Marking George Town works are simpler,” says Tang.

The virtual edge

The steel-rod sculptures in Juxtapose have a lively vibe about them. Even viewed online, you can almost feel the movement and energy radiating from them.

For Malaysians who cannot travel to Macau, the exhibition’s online option is the next best thing.

As you jump into the online experience, you will find an “effect” that is supposed to mimic a hand-drawn sketch.

“A hand-drawn sketch is always lively and full of emotion because you are visualising what you are drawing. The challenge here is to translate the ink drawing to steel drawing. The steel rod has to be carefully heated and bent to mimic the drawing and the lively strokes.

Sculptureatwork’s art director Tang (left) points to his steel rod sculpture at the corner of Transfer Road as part of the Marking George Town project in Penang in 2010. Photo: Filepic/The StarSculptureatwork’s art director Tang (left) points to his steel rod sculpture at the corner of Transfer Road as part of the Marking George Town project in Penang in 2010. Photo: Filepic/The Star

“The sculptures are installed 10cm away from the wall, and the shadow case on the wall creates a ‘blur movement’, like the smudging of an ink or pencil drawing,” he explains.

Tang also shares how setting up an exhibition during a pandemic came with its own set challenges. Travelling abroad was out of the question, so they prepared a comprehensive list of instructions and videos for the Macau-based team to assist with the artwork installation.

“We did additional preparation on our side, like customising installation accessories and packing the sculpture with corresponding codes, to ease the installation process in Macau. Fortunately, the sculptures arrived a week before the exhibition was scheduled to start and the installation was completed in two days, ahead of our five-day allowance,” he concludes

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