WHAT does the average Malaysian know about good public art? Not as much as he knows about good satay or roast chicken (the favourite metaphor of painter-educator Jolly Koh when talking about the subjectivity of art).
While artists have long blamed this antipathy on a lack of emphasis on art education, StarMag’s street poll and related research show that government authorities – those who hold the people’s purse strings – don’t seem to give either the public or artists a say in what artworks are put up at their favourite hangouts and funded by public money.
As a result, Joe Public has little interest in whether the works are of high quality, awesome or officially protected for future generations.
Just how does a local authority decide on where, how and who to put up a public piece of art? Despite its importance, answers were hard come by from the municipal councils contacted.
The need for a process
Among other advantages, having such a process, or some semblance of it, helps a council to select the best artists it can afford, get residents opinions on works selected and work out a better pitch for (perhaps more) funds from government and corporate bodies.
As it stands, senior artists say no local council in Malaysia has ever consulted them or art historians in putting up public art works. Not only that, former National Arts Gallery director and artist Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal has alleged that his sculpture, Taman Puncak Purnama outside Menara UMBC in Kuala Lumpur, was modified without his consent.
“The town councils never consult artists or specialists. They don’t even have a committee,” says well-known artist-educator-critic Redza Piyadasa, 67.
“At best, members of the local council will get together and pick an artist that they happen to know, or is a relative or friend. Worse, I think that in some cases, the council members simply come up with the designs themselves,” says Koh, 65.
Common folk, too, get left out when councils alone decide on what goes up. Consequently, folk hardly feel interested – a shame because for people like Saraswathy and Norainib (the gardening and cleaning ladies of last week’s story), artworks in public spaces are their only exposure to good art.
So, whether you look at it from an elitist “what-do-common-Malaysians-know-about-art?” or egalitarian point of view, it’s not useful having councils arbitrarily decide on public artworks.
Getting the public involved
“For public art to be public, the public has to be involved from the beginning,” says Singapore-based art historian T.K. Sabapathy.
But for this to happen, we have to consider what sculptor-educator Yeoh Jin Leng, 77, asks: “Who’s history and who’s pride are we talking about (when it comes to deciding on what public artwork goes up)? Do the public know what they want? Even in Singapore, the public artworks are mostly done by non-Singaporeans.”
With more educated Malaysians and a growing emphasis on accountability, it is hard to believe that most taxpayers wouldn’t want to have a say in what public artwork goes up and whether such an expensive object is being well cared for. What’s more likely is that authorities’ disregard of public opinion has compounded the problem of getting common folk to take an interest in public art, much less other visual art works in galleries.
Sabapathy concurs: “The public here hardly have a say in what goes up and so, understandably, they have little concern for so-called ‘public art’. Public art, in the true sense of the word, should be an intimate part of everyone’s lives and should not be elitist. Our colonialist past brought in the European way of appreciating artwork: Painting, sculpture and carving were pushed into buildings called art galleries – a way of arts appreciation that ordinary folk were and are still not used to.”
Sabapathy stresses that more should be done to take art out of designated buildings and into the streets and lives of everyday people again.
Piyadasa calls for authorities to bring back the healthy “open competitions” that were used to select the mosaic murals A Brief History from 1643-1945 and Malaysian Handicrafts for Muzium Negara in 1962, and the mosaic mural for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (by Ismail Mustam).
According to Piyadasa, these murals came about through government-organised competitions that were announced in all the major newspapers of the day – a way of “identifying the best works of art public money could buy”. These open competitions disappeared with the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971 – a step Piyadasa proffers contributed to the decline of “public artworks of quality”.
“During Tunku Abdul’s Rahman time, the Government held open competitions to identify the best works of public art money could buy. I am told that public art commissions these days are usually awarded to the UiTM (Universiti Teknologi Mara) sculpture department and that this is why we see so many archaic keris sculptures in recent years,” he says.
Open competitions, says Sabapathy, are just one answer to the problem of deteriorating public art in Malaysia because public art, wherever it is made, is in a constant state of crisis.
What’s happening is: “The modern artist makes art using a mostly private work method but his work is being looked at by the public eye. Hence, people (often) don’t know why or how the work came to be. I see it as a deep-seated art-related problem that has been made very dramatic because it is the public arena that we are talking about.”
In terms of creating a sense of belonging, this private method used to create modern artworks certainly loses out to Asia’s old ways of creating public sculpture in reverence of the gods. Many huge cave and hillside sculptures such as the 1,546 year-old Yungang Grottoes, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site (listed in Dec 2001) in Shanxi, China, were created by several generations of artists (usually from the same families).
Having watched traditional sculptors create temple statues in India, Yeoh finds that they are moved not by fame or money but by an innate spirituality and pride of purpose – feelings which he finds pulsates throughout their respective (often impoverished) community but not in Klang Valley’s (more affluent) society.
“Appreciation of public art cannot be forced, or for that matter, proscribed. If society is not ready for it and if circumstances do not allow it to happen, you can’t force it,” he observes.
Giving the public the best
Koh says putting up good public artwork is really a simple process: “You just pick the top artist – the one whose premier status is informally decided by a whole group of factors – the National Art Gallery, the commercial galleries, the art patrons.”
Although Koh feels commissioning Malaysian artists is best, he also suggests getting the world’s top artists to produce sculpture for Malaysia.
“Imagine if Picasso was still alive, and we commissioned two sculptures by Picasso to be placed somewhere in KL, similar to what Singapore has done.
“The downside is that it will cost you a hundred times more than a Malaysian artist’s work, and someone might say that the work is not Malaysian. The upside is that it might show that Malaysia is ready to embrace the world’s best in the world, and we are not parochial frogs in the well.”
Koh agrees that the Asean Sculpture Park was a good way of bringing in the works of top regional artists into member countries: “This initiative is a means to an end – to get good sculpture up in public places and to involve the region.”
“Can the region’s many trained modern sculptors be more fully utilised within the public domain?” asks Piyadasa in a pioneering (and possibly only) series of articles on public sculpture published in the now defunct Business Times dated April 29, 1995.
Yes, there’s a strong likelihood they can be. That is, with more awareness and participation from the public in the very genre dedicated to them.
Of murals and muralsIN comparing the Muzium Negara and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) murals in The first and still the best (Arts, StarMag, Sept 3), art historian T.K. Sabapathy was inadvertently misquoted as saying that “... the museum murals are nationalistic propaganda, as opposed to the DBP mural which is non-narrative and a deliberate documentary mix done in a highly stylised and manneristic way.”
What he meant was, it is the DBP mural that is nationalistic propaganda while the museum’s murals are more documentary in style.
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