UNVEILED TO GREAT fanfare as a symbol of ASEAN solidarity, peace and economic power in 1987, the six monumental sculptures, minus one which has gone missing, in KL, has seen better days.
In its fifth iteration, the works were clustered below the august National Monument (Tugu Negara) at Persiaran Sultan Salahuddin, in a park appropriately christened Laman Asean. The selected artists were Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Dolorosa Sinaga (Indonesia), Han Sai Por (Singapore), Jerusalino V. Araos (the Philippines), Itthi Khongkhakul (Thailand) and Abu Bakar Abdul Rahman (Brunei).
But there are already signs of disrepair, and/or unsatisfactory maintenance, while Dolorosa’s The Gate to Harmony, shaped like a candi bentar, of crushed sandstone, is conspicuously absent.
A few pieces of the marble tiles in Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Growth are chipped, with the surfaces covered in grime in parts with creeper plants growing in crevices, while cracks have been shoddily plastered by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) custodian-caretaker in the pedestal of Abu Bakar’s Asean Dance.
The mock stained-glass multicoloured roof panels of the late Jeri Araos’ interactive Barong-Barong “playground-like” contraption have dulled while part of the bifurcating wooden planks has rotted at the edges. It is described in the plaque as “a modern interpretation of old type architecture existing in the whole of Asean region. This must be used as a bed, toy, table and chair to actualize interaction among the people.”
Clearly, a special committee needs to be formed to oversee and decide on public sculptures... to prevent further abominable disregard for the nation’s cultural treasures.
In one of Han Sai Por’s six encircling pieces of marble slabs and reinforced concrete, four holes stand forlornly as sorry reminders of iron rods supporting concrete balls each. In another, a lone iron rod sticks out like a sore thumb.
The other work is by Itthi Khongkhakul (Progress, a dynamic matrix of unfurling stainless steel pipes) and is relatively unscathed.
What is eye-poppingly baffling is a new fan-like contraption called Wadah by famous local sculptor Ramlan Abdullah surreptitiously snuggled among the other five extant Asean sculptures. Apparently, DBKL wilfully relocated Ramlan’s sculpture from around its building in Jalan Raja Laut to the Asean sculpture park, without informing Ramlan, who learnt about it much later on his own. Loosely translated, Wadah symbolises a wealth of knowledge. There is no signage to indicate what the work is about, by who and more pertinently, that it is not part of the original set of six Asean works.
Except for four signposts with plaques about the Asean works, visitors are left bewildered about the sculptures erected on the edge of the park. It cannot be ascertained if there are signposts for the other three works at all. There are only signposts for works by Syed Ahmad Jamal, Han Sai Por, Jeri Araos and Itthi Khongkhakul.
It is arguable that some materials used for public sculptures might be vulnerable to the tropical attrition of rain and heat, but the maintenance by DBKL leaves much to be desired. In the first edition at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park in 1981, Malaysia’s Ariffin Ismail’s fibreglass work, Taming Sari, disintegrated, and the late Anthony Lau was tasked to put up a replacement sculpture entitled Augury. The same fate seems to have befallen Dolorosa’s work in this instance, but there is no proper requiem nor a replacement sculpture erected.
THEN AND NOW. Han Sai Por provided the original picture of one of her sculptures now with only four holes. (Right) Four holes without the iron rods supporting stone balls in Han Sai Por's sculpture, Towards Peace.
THEN AND NOW. Han Sai Por's original sculpture with the marble ball. (Right) Han Sai Por's work with only an iron stud.
Bruneian Abu Bakar's Asean Dance. (Right) Creeper plants growing in the crevices of Abu Bakar's sculpture.
The shoddily plastered base pedestal of Abu Bakar's work.
More shoddy plastering work made to Abu Bakar's sculpture.
Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal's Growth, from a distance. (Right) Grime covering the sculpture, with the marble tiles falling off near the top section.
Some of the fallen marble chips near Syed Ahmad Jamal's sculpture, Growth. (Right) The signpost for the sculpture. Note the chipped top on the left of the stanchion.
Ramlan Abdullah's Wadah 2, which was plonked into the Laman Asean sculpture park, despite it not belonging there.
Itthi Khongkhakul's unfurling steel pipes.
Jerusalino Araos' sculpture, Barong- Barong with the badly discoloured glass panel "roofing". (Below) One of the wooden planks is badly rotten at the edges.
In the final instalment of the Asean Square Sculpture Symposium in Manila, engineers even ensured that the erected sculptures were earthquake-proof.
This is not the first time DBKL has been found negligent and callous. Take the infamous case of Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Lunar Peaks (Puncak Purnama, 1986) erected at the Taman Wawasan at Jalan Sultan Sulaiman. When the pyroceram slabs came off, DBKL summarily desecrated the work by replacing them with grossly hideous aluminium claddings even though the artist-sculptor, and a National Artist Laurette at that, was alive then. The protocol is to inform the author, and work out a solution together.
Syed Ahmad Jamal eventually took City Hall to the Copyrights Court in a landmark case for the infringement and transgression of artistic rights and integrity, breaching the Copyright Act and DBKL reneging on its statutory duties, and the learned judge Datuk Azahar Mohammed duly awarded Syed Ahmad Jamal compensation of RM750,000 which on appeal, was reduced to RM150,000 – with the caveat that Syed Ahmad Jamal could replicate the sculpture anywhere else. I was one of the two defendants, the other being art historian Professor Dzulhaimi Md Zain batting for Syed Ahmad Jamal’s case.
Without warning, DBKL demolished the iconic sculpture, a paragon of dynamism and Islamic cosmogony, in July 2016!
Significantly, the KL sculpture park celebrated 20 years of the formation of Asean. After Ariffin Ismail (replacement: Anthony Lau) represented Malaysia in the first symposium in 1981, the Malaysians carrying the standard-bearer were the late Zakaria Awang (Chatuchak Park, Bangkok, 1983), Lee Kian Seng (Taman Suropati, Jakarta, 1984), Latiff Mohidin (Damuan Recreational Park, near the Brunei Sultan’s palace, 1986), the late Syed Ahmad Jamal (KL, 1987) and the late Redza Piyadasa (Liwasang Asean, on the fringe of Roxas Boulevard, Manila, 1989).
Lee Kian Seng in later years even had jewellery pendants in silver and gold and in two sizes fashioned after his sculptural form, while the Brunei edition sported a theme, Harmony in Diversity, for the first time.
Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was established in 1967 by Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines; Brunei duly joined when it gained Independence from the UK in 1984.
In Singapore, Brunei had its work by Osman Mohammad belatedly installed at Fort Canning Park in 1988, while Pengiran Sabri Pengiran Mohamad was tasked in Bangkok in 1987.
Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos joined Asean in the 1990s, but none of these countries is represented in the sculpture park. In line with Muslim sensitivities, all the sculptures are invariably in abstract form and spirit.
For the record, the creators of the various works in the sculpture parks are the following:
• 1981: Ariffin Ismail (Malaysia, replacement: Anthony Lau), Ng Eng Teng (Singapore), Vichai Sithiratn (Thailand), But Mochtar (Indonesia) and Napoleon Abueva (the Philippines). Later, Osman Mohammad (Brunei).
• 1983: Zakaria Awang (Malaysia), Chamraung Vichienket (Thailand), Mon Mudjiman (Indonesia), Solomon Arevalo (the Philippines) and Tan Teng Kee (Singapore). Later, Pengiran Sabri Pengiran Mohamad (Brunei).
• 1984: Lee Kian Seng (Malaysia), Wee Beng Chong (Singapore), Nonthivathn (Thailand), Sunaryo (Indonesia), Luis E. Yee Jr (the Philippines) and Awang Aspar (Brunei).
• 1986: Latiff Mohidin (Malaysia), Husna (Indonesia), Haji Marsidi Akip (Brunei), Eduardo Catrillo (the Philippines), Michael Ong Chu Keng (Singapore) and Saravudth Duangjumpa (Thailand).
• 1987: Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (Malaysia), Dolorosa Sinaga (Indonesia), Han Sai Por (Singapore), Jerusalino V. Araos (the Philippines), Itthi Khongkhakul (Thailand) and Abu Bakar Abdul Rahman (Brunei).
• 1989: Redza Piyadasa (Malaysia), Ramon G. Orlina (the Philippines), Brother Joseph McNally (Singapore), Gregorius Sidharta Soegijo (Indonesia), Kamol Phaosavasdi (Thailand) and Awang Sitai (Brunei).
The sculpture symposium project was under the aegis of the Asean COCI (Committee on Culture and Information), which also initiated several other projects like the Exhibition of Paintings and Photography; Youth Painting Workshops and Exhibition; Exhibition of Children’s Art; Asean Photography Competition; and the New Media Arts Competition and Exhibition in Jakarta in 2005 and 2009 (Research and Mapping).
There were also three Asean Workshop, Exhibition and Symposium on Aesthetics, held in 1989 in KL; in 1993 in Manila, the Philippines; and in Singapore in 1995.
Clearly, a special committee needs to be formed to oversee and decide on public sculptures, with representations from relevant institutions such as Muzium Negara and the National Art Gallery in DBKL, to prevent further abominable disregard for the nation’s cultural treasures.
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.