Iskandar Puteri, formerly known as Nusajaya, is currently undergoing a humungous transformation with many innovative projects taking place there. As it steadily grows into a forward-thinking city, spreading passionate values of sustainability and collaboration amongst its community, the arts have been enthusiastically employed in order to create a place identity. PublikArt is a large public art project born out of such a place-making initiative to increase the liveability of Iskandar Puteri.
Public art is instrumental in defining the character of city; the works take on a life of their own beyond the control of the artists via the contribution of the citizens that live there. Whether a sculpture, a fountain or an outside-the-box structure, it is truly what the work becomes to the people over a period of time that ends up being significant. Public artworks, like old trees, grow in age and wisdom overseeing the situations of the cityscape. They begin to take on various characteristics that range from a harmonious landmark that children grow up with; a teenage meeting point; an unusual object that interrupts our worried thoughts.
Many of these artworks around Iskandar Puteri are facing this state of liminality as they are still being encountered by the public there. Naturally, commissioned installations are aesthetically concerned as they are designed to enhance the urbanised living. Yet it is of great importance they are also thought provoking and endure the test of time. Carefully curated by Intan Rafiza, Lisa Foo, Nani Kahar and Yeoh Lian Heng, PublikArt testifies to both regional and local themes that reflect on history and the surrounding environment.
Within close proximity to Singapore, the location of Iskandar Puteri allows for numerous avenues for growth and development. Boasting two international airports and five seaports, this city is one of South East Asia’s most connected hubs of development and is logically the region’s most enticing settlement. A PublikArt project that ponders on the influx of people approaching Malaysia as a place of opportunity is Chong Kim Chiew’s Bas Pekerja.
In his artist statement, he describes the project as a tribute to the nameless and stateless workers, stating that upon his first visit, the site was teaming with worker buses around the area. Notably, these were transporting workers to and from various construction sites;
“On daily basis, there are many foreign workers coming to Malaysia for work and reversely there are many Malaysian workers crossing the border to work in Singapore. The worker buses not only carry passengers from one location to another gateway, they also carry their dreams and hopes, like a moving bridge. This project for me is about mobility, migration, interchange and communication.”
In the interior of a worker bus, Chong displays his sentiments on the migratory nature of the workers. Deserving of it’s monumental scale, the roads and pathways of Malaysia are mapped out on the seats and the ceiling of the bus. As our eyes and minds travel around the bus, we are challenged to think about these noble, nameless workers and their movements as they navigate themselves across the social, political and literal landscape of Malaysia.
Art History’s long romance with maps has brought many different analyses of what they really represent. When we observe maps, we often assume they are scientifically objective tools formulated to help us journey from point A to B that amount to nothing more but plain, factual truths about the world. However, maps are subjective. As the case with any form of art and design, they reveal stories, unveil the attitudes and ideas of the times in which they were produced.
Interestingly, Chong Kim Chiew believes “attitude” to be a more critical factor in the creation of contemporary art than the method, medium and materials used to create it. In an organic fashion, these necessities are only considered when appropriate to the artist’s thoughts. Following the contours of Chong’s conceptual thoughts in Bas Pekerja, the notion of trace becomes apparent. Not only are we noticing the cartographic tracing or copying but also the idea of seeking and exploring the roots and deeper meanings behind the surface of first impressions.
Every migrant has a story. Beyond the stereotypical search for benefits, what is it that has brought them here? What makes them work so hard to build a country that is not considered their own? How does the meaning of their lives fluctuate like the environment around them? Our city is full of these unknown workers who are the backbone of our society, the unsung heroes of a nation. Staring at the lines that trace their existence along the empty seats, the bus is a witness to those who build our cities and fizzle into the world around us.