Teluk Intan's leaning tower inspires Malaysian artist's award-winning work


'I also wanted to encourage the public to consider how their own perspectives and memories contribute to our collective understanding of the history of Teluk Intan,' says Zulkefli Jais about his 'Temporary Marking' project. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

A boy can leave a village but the village will never leave the boy. That saying is heard often enough.

In Teluk Intan, Perak-born Zulkefli Jais’ case, the emerging artist has gone a step further by taking one of the landmarks from his birthplace – the Menara Condong Teluk Intan (Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan) – places through his Temporary Marking installation and documentary project.

The famous leaning (clock) tower now has a “tour” schedule, involving stops in Kuala Lumpur and South Korea, which will take up most of Zulkefli’s year.

His busy schedule began earlier this month, when he went back to Teluk Intan to receive the major prize at the Bakat Muda Sezaman 2023 awards (Young Contemporaries award), organised by the National Art Gallery, for his Temporary Marking work. He bagged RM30,000 and also plenty of goodwill from his hometown people.

With approval and support of the Teluk Intan local town council, Zulkefli presented an on-site exhibition and video project at the Menara Condong Teluk Intan tied to community stories surrounding the tilted tower and the town centre.

Temporary Marking was open to the public in November and December last year. A short film was cut at the Menara Condong square to accompany the exhibition last September.

A view of Zulkefli’s 'Temporary Marking', an installation and short film project, that is currently showing at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat A view of Zulkefli’s 'Temporary Marking', an installation and short film project, that is currently showing at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

The new format – based outside galleries – of the Bakat Muda Sezaman art prize is to encourage young artists across the nation to introduce new art locations/spaces, engage local communities and to document the work.

“The Bakat Muda Sezaman (competition) requirements were perfectly aligned with my plans for such a project. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. My job was on home turf, which was both exciting and daunting. But I’ve always wanted to explore unconventional narratives and alternative mediums to tell the stories – a mix of fact and fiction – of Teluk Intan, and to create a work involving the local community,” says Zulkefli, 28, who is based in Klang, Selangor.

“To win the (Bakat Muda Sezaman) main prize was amazing, but to be honest, I barely had the time to soak things in,” adds the artist, a UiTM Shah Alam art graduate, who majored in sculpture.

Zulkefli cites Francis Alys, a Belgian artist based in Mexico, as an inspiration when it comes to operating in an interdisciplinary space of art, architecture, and social practice.

In recent years, with his close links to the Perak art communities (notably Kapallorek and Percha Artspace), he chose to work with video art, installations and performance-based mediums, which have largely gone on to inform his Temporary Marking series.

On the move

Weeks before receiving his big prize, Zulkefli was already working hard trying to recreate the Temporary Marking project for an exhibition at the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Kuala Lumpur. His work was picked as NAG’s latest installation for its Hanya Satu Single (Single) series, a showcase held at the main lobby area of the national gallery.

Temporary Marking, which will be showing at NAG through May 31, has been reimagined by the artist as a striking 10m-high hanging installation (hexagonal in shape) featuring 600 neon vest jackets.

It makes for quite a sight to welcome visitors to NAG.

In September, he will be taking Temporary Marking to South Korea, where this project has been chosen as Malaysia’s representative at the Gwangju Biennale.

“I wanted to create the ‘presence’ of the Menara Condong at the National Art Gallery, and the neon vests which played a major role in the Teluk Intan installation return to symbolise the essence of the landmark, forming a mass object,” says Zulkefli, who is aiming to expand the series for its upcoming South Korean appearance.

The short film of the project is also part of the NAG exhibition, giving viewers the background and performative element of the series.

Last September, Zulkefli, born in Sungai Manik to a padi farming family, went back to Teluk Intan with a small team (video crew and assistants) to shoot the film part of Temporary Marking.

The participants in the short film came from a cross-section of society in Teluk Intan. Photo: Zulkefli Jais The participants in the short film came from a cross-section of society in Teluk Intan. Photo: Zulkefli Jais

“We put up a simple banner around the Menara Condong area to invite people to participate in the ‘performance’ planned. We just wanted people to show up, no social media was used. Luckily, we decided on a pasar Sabtu (Saturday market) date and to get the public’s help before the market was set up. We only had about 20-30 minutes to get things done, the team was running on adrenaline!” recalls Zulkefli.

The artist invited passersby (85 people in total) to be a part of the audience to stand in front of Menara Condong Teluk Intan, to create an outline of a barge or “tongkang” which portrayed an ephemeral marking. They also sang the state anthem and Negaraku, with the artist allowing the project’s narration to be incomplete and open-ended.

Art and community

The young man recalls the participants were very “sporting”, and there were old people and some on a wheelchair who volunteered to be part of the short film.

His parents also came out to support him (their only child), serving refreshments to the participants. It was a special day, with Zulkefli reconnecting with his roots and learning more about where he came from, admitting he used to cycle past the Menara Condong during his school days without noticing it.

Zulkefli says 'Temporary Marking' is his first work tied to his hometown, and he enjoyed the experience of reconnecting with his roots. Photo: The Star/Art Chen Zulkefli says 'Temporary Marking' is his first work tied to his hometown, and he enjoyed the experience of reconnecting with his roots. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

“Once you leave home, you appreciate it so much more. There is so much truth in that. I’m glad I found my way back to the Menara Condong. This pagoda-like structure, built in 1885, has so much history to it, its various roles (water tank to watch tower) from the British colonial days and the World War II era to being today’s tourist attraction.

"But I also wanted to encourage the public to consider how their own perspectives and memories contribute to our collective understanding of the history of Teluk Intan. Being a local boy, I can say ‘our’ proudly,” says Zulkefli with a laugh.

His other references – used loosely in the project – include reflections on the war memorial “Batu Tenggek” (the Perched Rock) in Teluk Intan and the town’s early history, going back to the 16th century.

Temporary Marking is an art project, the premise of the exhibition is wide, as it explores the intersection of oral history, folklore and documented facts. In revisiting my hometown stories and community, I’m discovering anew the essence of who I am and where I come from – a journey that I hope not only resonates with me, but with all who walk through the doors of the (NAG) gallery,” he concludes.

Zulkefli Jais’ 'Project Temporary Marking' is showing at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur till May 31. Open daily, free admission.


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