FOLLOWING GEORGE TOWN’S listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the issue of public spaces has received much attention. Be it owned privately or publicly, public spaces allow for people to meet and engage in activities. These can be small corners at the end of streets, or they can be as big as parks. What marks public spaces off from wild spaces, it would seem, is the presence of art. In that sense, sculptures act as reminders of man’s interaction with open spaces. They function as points of orientation, items of memory, and a setter of moods.
The Penang Sculpture Trail
The Penang Sculpture Trail was officially launched in 2010. Despite its beautiful cultural elements, Penang’s urban spaces had not always been welcoming places. When badly maintained, they tended to signal discomfort and even danger, and in fact tended to drive people away. This is changing. To attract people to interact in public spaces, the first step has been to beautify them, and that is easily done through art. And taken as a whole, the intrusion of art into once unmanaged public spaces in Penang is the Penang Sculpture Trail.
Hitori Nakayama, a Japanese artist who has resided in Penang for several decades, initiated the project. Organised by the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) and supported by Friends of Penang Earth Group, this long-term project was no easy feat – especially given its non-profit nature. The idea was to bring renowned Asian sculptors to create works in Penang, and help in cultivating an appreciation for art in the long run. The artists worked voluntarily, while the cost of materials were sponsored by various companies.
The thematic idea was for the sculptures to reflect the artists’ emotions towards Penang. In 2005 the very first sculpture along this trail, “The Winds of Penang”, was created by Japanese artist Katsumi Mukai – who turned a gigantic fallen jati deadwood into an artwork.1 Then followed “A Celebration of Our Blue Sky” by Hitori and “The Rhythm of Life” by local artist Heng Eow Lin were erected at Karpal Singh Drive in 2008. In 2010 Kikuchi Mitsuo’s “Under a Penang Sky” was built in front of the E&O hotel.2 The most recent piece was Low Chee Peng’s “City Walker”, placed in 2018 in front of Sunway Property at Jalan Anson – the only one in a private compound, but still accessible to members of the public.
The Penang Island City Council (MBPP) contributes by providing assistance in terms of evaluation of the sites and maintaining the sculptures. The PSAG contributes to the field of sculpting by starting, with the help of IJM Corporation, a sculpting studio at the corner of the Penang State Museum. Since 2011, therefore, sculptors have been welcomed there to chip away at their works.
Sculpting Urban Conditions
Low Chee Peng is a sculptor inspired by the city’s gradual open public space concept and its heritage status. Before venturing into the sculpting business as a solo sculptor, Low had been training in a sculpture company for nearly two decades – since he was 18. In that time, he accumulated substantial experience in material and practical skills essential to a sculptor. His skills were further sharpened in his participation of a wide range of projects, including large installations for housing properties and public spaces. Still, he managed to find time to create his own works. In 2006 his very first work – “Baby Series” – was created by exploring intimate relations with his family.
"The Rhythm of Life" (left ) and “A Celebration of Our Blue Sky” (right). Photo: Pan Yi Chieh.
Since 2007 Low has grown more involved in public art. In 2010 “Marking George Town” was launched to translate local culture into steel rod caricatures. Artists were invited to collectively interpret local stories; as a result, 52 caricatures were made and placed in various corners of George Town.3 These vividly turn local elements into interactive installations and have become clearly popular touristic attractions.
“Through this project, I realised that public art has meanings that can be instilled in a sculpture to engage with people,” says Low. He has since left the project to pursue a personal career. However, the journey was not an easy one. In the beginning, he had difficulties searching for a direction while sustaining himself. It was during that time when a group of young artists including Ernest Zacharevic, Tan Kai Shuean and Renny Cheng inspired him on contemporary art elements. Since then, several exhibitions further encouraged him to ponder deeply on the relation between urbanisation and art form. In 2015 “Urban Xchange” came along which focused on collaboration between traditional craftsmen and artists; this gave Low a precious opportunity to work with Ban Woh Lee Foundry (萬和利鐵廠), a traditional metalwork workshop in town. Throughout the process, he was touched by the generosity of the owner, the traditional crafts and sadly, the rapid loss of traditional culture. These experiences inspired his “Culture Series” where he memorialised old and passing traditional crafts through sculptures. These reflections extended into the question: “What are the human feelings and conditions which apply in a rapidly developing world?”
His latest works, the “Walker Series”, captured these conditions. Formed with plates of iron and metal, the figures walk on a scrambled and unstable land. With hollow and penetrable bodies, humans are hung from the ground paved with scattered roof tiles. It reflects the unstable urban environment that contemporary societies are situated. Placed in public spaces, it reminds viewers to reflect on our living conditions and relations with the society. Through constant thoughts and concerns for the city, Low aims to continue “speaking” with the society through his sculptures.
Giving Fallen Logs a New Life
Materials are important to a sculptor. They decide the viewer’s emotions in connection to the environment. In Penang there is a recent trend of using fallen tree branches to sculpt and engage with the community.
This interesting trend appeared a few years back when many old trees fell in heavy wind and rain. These century-old trees were very much a part of Penang’s important heritage and image, and letting them rot and go to waste would have been criminal. Furthermore, the local community had become more engaged with the environment. In 2017, after a storm, Lee Khai, the chairman of PSAG, felt that the precious tree trunks could be given new life through art. This idea was supported by the Mayor and MBPP who provided a large space for storage and necessary help for creating sculptures – opening an opportunity for Penang’s urban landscape to be transformed.
Kampung life captured at the newly-launched pocket park at the junction of Jalan Perak and Jalan Free School. Photo: Pan Yi Chieh.
This year, the concept was realised in a newly-launched pocket park at the junction of Jalan Perak and Jalan Free School. Through the support of MBPP and the state assemblyman for Batu Lanchang Ong Ah Teong, the artist manager Tan Chor Whye was invited to spearhead the project. Through discussions with three sculptors, including Min Jason, Keong Yew Teh and Alice Loo, the idea of a childhood playground emerged as the main theme. It somewhat resonated with the rapid loss of kampung culture in Penang. Old trees were thus transformed into five childhood games, namely, Gyro, Jigsaw Puzzle, Wau, Paper Plane and Slingshot. It is hoped that this small greenery will preserve the childhood memories of Penang people.
Throughout the process, the city council provided essential assistance from chopping logs into suitable pieces for sculpting, to transporting them to site. Also, Tan and the artists viewed it as an important chance to exercise their social responsibility.
Through human designing in public spaces, new possibilities are grown and nurtured. In the near future, we may expect more public spaces and experiences to appear.