Mall Art

I am not a good window shopper. And I do not regard mall-ing as a very culturally enriching experience save only on two conditions: Books Kinokuniya and my mission of the day — the search, the aim, the inquisition — the art gallery as a newcomer to the mall experience.

As the escalators pulled me up, floor by floor, I was lulled by the feel-good spiral of consumerism. The imagery at KLCC made me wonder if all urban experiences were likewise. The manipulation, the attraction and the relentless signs are becoming indispensable elements in our commercially saturated environment. How does the hitherto ‘dignified’ art gallery, participate in the war of images in a shopping complex?

Jolted from my daydreaming at the end of the escalator, no sooner did I land myself on the 3rd floor. Galeri Petronas; my first destination. By her side, with not a trace of thematic coherence were mini galleries of Nusantara-esque furniture, sedikit atas kraftangan, the usual usual, but well-stocked to service the tourist demand.

Galeri Petronas: Corporate outlook

Boldly stepping into the corporate grays of the gallery, I anticipated a refreshing current exhibition. On display ‘today’ was The Petronas’ Trans Himalayan Expedition. My cynicism prevailed as I suspected that Petronas, owing to the absence of any other scheduled exhibitions between a large time gap, could not resist the self appraisal. Or perhaps, the Malaysia Boleh staple is growing rather stale for my appetite. Nevertheless, the gallery is theirs.

I had to admit that the gallery’s contemporary ambiance leaves a good, first impression. Wedged into the exact floor plate of the Twin Towers, Galeri Petronas makes no qualms of its corporate outlook, a testament to Malaysia’s largest GLC and its contribution to the art industry.

The current exhibition comprised a sequence of still images with corresponding text on the left, at an uncomfortable distance. I believe that the old adage, that “a picture says a thousand words” rings true and that the text, although meticulously written were of little effect.

Relatively, the exhibition spaces here are generous and are more conducive to larger exhibitions compared to the other mall-bound galleries I would be visiting later. The main ambulatory opens into smaller rooms for AV displays and is adequate for talks by artists, which happens regularly enough, and usually sharp after work at 5.30pm. Unfortunately, a resource centre, rather small, unattended and closed at my time of visit, is unnecessarily hidden from view by a wall, on the way out.

As I walked out I could not resist a glance at the gallery shop, which despite its strategic position, was rather small and had the occasional souvenir paraphernalia on display. I reckoned that they could have extended their merchandise to include not only ‘post cards’ from previously featured exhibitions but books and reproductions from important and current works throughout the world. But do not fret, however small the collection, Books Kinokuniya offers a reasonable substitute and is a mere 5 minutes walk from here.

The only staff members I saw were all centred at the front desk. I assumed that the rest were busy at work elsewhere. Similarly, I was dismayed to have noticed only one other visitor to suffer my loneliness. However, I am sure this is not the usual scenario, especially during other exhibitions.

Turning around to capture a photograph, I asked myself, if indeed people would care to drop by a gallery once in a while, as they would if they were to go for a movie. Could it be that this gallery escapes their notice? Moreover, with no entry fares to dissuade visitors, it really does not hurt to drop in.

City Square: Forgotten corner

Compared to KLCC, City Square is no eye candy. But we are told not to judge a book by its cover, aren’t we? The question is: does the content make it?

Some of the galleries here have been around for some time. Not more than ten galleries litter three storeys of City Square. While a few galleries are endowed with deeper spaces, most of them snug in either thin or small rectangular shapes. Hence, galleries choose either a ‘legible’ display of works by being more selective, or settle for a more cluttered layout. Some qualify for the ‘cute’ category, like the Gajah Gajah Gallery.

As I strolled around armed with a camera, I sensed the emptiness of the walkways and the piercing quick stares by loitering strangers. I pondered on the lack of variety that unfortunately plagues this somewhat forgotten corner of bustling Ampang. With an absence of variety, the mall attracts less window shoppers.

Location is an important factor, but it does not typically promise a loyal following. Continued patronage is awarded to galleries whose collections are of a high standard and who possess strong relationships with prominent artists. That was what the galleries here told me.

Easily enticed by the iconic wide white background, I was attracted by the two larger galleries on the 2nd floor, Artfolio and Artspace. The right proportion between display and background is of great benefit to the viewer’s concentration — at least for the works by veteran artists Ibrahim Hussein and Eng Tay which furnished those white walls. On the other hand, the scarcity of space and income makes the acquisition of a ‘perfect fit’ an economic challenge, which many other galleries cannot afford. Upon my second visit to City Square, I chanced upon a small exhibition of abstract works on the ground floor organized by Masters-A art gallery. Evidently, even with two shop lots, the exhibition could not fit into their respective properties.

It appears that competition is not really an issue despite their numbers. Each gallery has a niche-following by focusing on specific genres or works by key artists. Even so, galleries do work together from time to time on specific projects whether or not the work is displayed within their premises or is transported to a larger exhibition space.

As with my journey out of Galeri Petronas, I left City Square with a sense of regret; that while the lure of lower rent keeps galleries here happy, I imagined that much more could have been done to improve the image of the vicinity. It would be a most opportune partnership, if these individual galleries could conglomerate into a brand of art houses, in order that a larger audience might take notice.

Star Hill Gallery: Exclusive establishment

Currently the crowning jewel of all YTL’s properties, Star Hill must be congratulated for its re-branding exercise. When one was dressed in a shirt and corduroy pants as I was on that day, one truly felt that one did not belong here. To add more salt to the wound, my minuscule spending power assured me I could not afford anything as well. Well, that and the surveillance assiduously provided by the respective floor concierges.

True, one is left in no doubt that this is an exclusive establishment, but I question if the added ornamentation could have been more subtle and less superficial. The advertised ‘newness’ of this place is amazing, because apart from tacky woody column-dressings, paddy field-like planter boxes on balconies and new pieces of furniture, the design has not changed much. But it is the new ‘image’ that really counts.

The Muse floor, where almost ten galleries are located, sits on the top floor. There has been much publicity about Star Hill. I think I should be forgiven then when I had expected the Photographer’s Gallery and the Loft Gallery to be much larger than they are. Paintings and Photographs 1954-2005 was currently on show during my visit. The layout was reasonably well spaced and was large enough to cater for small talks and more visitors. Unfortunately, as my luck would have it, the front desk was unattended to again. I was left to communicate with a brochure of the current exhibition and the adjacent guest book.

Moreover, my patience was not rewarded after returning again to an empty desk an hour later. Many galleries still advertise for a full time assistant, which is normally perceived as a boring job. A gallery manager who related this to me dreads the search of finding an enthusiastic apprentice.

The Photographer’s Gallery departed from the normal white tones and was instead rendered in red. But the balance achieved between the colourful red and the monochrome photographs did much to placate my worries that the wall could overwhelm the displays themselves. As mentioned before I thought this gallery should be much larger. Then again, we are not privileged enough to have many talented artistic photographers in Malaysia (I read some article about this a while ago), as most tend to be commercial photographers. While I expected more variety and space from both galleries, I was reasonably satisfied at the end after weighing it in light of the forgone lettable area which is crucial to the success of Star Hill’s boutique ambiance.

One should not be too critical of YTL’s involvment, no matter how small. In many ways, under the leadership of Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, YTL has proven to be a strong supporter of Malaysian talent, and one can only expect their patronage to grow stronger in the future.

Aside from these two galleries, I managed to walk into other galleries such as Art Seni and The Gallery@Star Hill. The other galleries seem to either be unmanned, in which case a number was given, or their staff seemed too shy and hid behind their interior walls, even upon my entry.

One person told me that the average number of visitors on a given weekday numbers not more than five but numbers do not really matter. There will always be onlookers who are content not to buy anything; the kind who say “…very nice, very beautiful…” statements which do not materialise into purchase. By contrast, there are always some permanent clients who return to buy works from a specific artist time and time again. I was delighted to have had a very long and meaningful conversation with a lady from one of the galleries here (she didn’t want me to quote her) who has been in the business for nine years.

What about the shoppers?

Visiting galleries and much less, shopping for art, are not common in Malaysia, especially the latter. Like any other product, no investment means less demand and vice versa. Not surprisingly, there are not too many full time artists around. Most are forced to take part time jobs to nourish them with an income with which our purchasing habits do not secure.

We, the public have an enormous responsibility to patronise and provide healthy criticism for art. Smaller galleries also await our patronage and our purchase, because, after all, art is a profit making enterprise. If it is not, how can we demand more from the artist?

Though the current lack of enthusiasm for art is not the province of galleries alone, it does not preclude the responsibility of galleries to open the eyes of the general populace to the importance of art as a necessary manifestation of a civilized society. By meticulously crafted methods of ‘enticement’, the patronage of these galleries can gradually encompass a wider audience and not just the assumed ‘educated’ and privileged few.

Firstly, no business in a mall overlooks the importance of an attractive façade. The gallery’s context within a shopping environment necessitates a more engaging theme, something which will entice a shopper. Also, a tourist or any other shopper at KLCC would have no clue on what’s on at Galeri Petronas; an unnecessary predicament due to the lack of clear and attractive signage anywhere else but within their own premises.

While the contrasts may seem utterly huge, galleries in a mall could learn a thing or two from IKEA, that great gallery of the art of lifestyle. The one lesson that can be learned from these places are that shoppers are great multi-taskers. It is imperative that people feel that they can kill more than two birds with one stone. The galleries could really use a good ‘cafe’ besides a good ‘bookshop’ and a children’s area for kids to enjoy art as well.

Regular lunch-hour talks with refreshments in the gallery and at the concourse level would be a good idea. [How about getting artists to engage with the mall in their works? – ed.] They should comprise leading or upcoming artists, product designers, thinkers, philosophers, architects, designers etc. The objective could be to broaden the horizons of what the public considers to be ‘art’ and how it is influenced by ‘life’ in all its complexity. Hence, a huge part of a public gallery’s responsibility to the public involves the motivation to ‘educate’. And while our education system has largely failed our youngsters, where nurturing talents are concerned, there is great scope for art galleries to provide an antidote to these worsening conditions.

Our galleries, whether for public enjoyment or for commercial purposes need to be more radical in the face of public indifference. In many developed countries, galleries have taken the opportunity to reinvent themselves, not as tombs to the past, but living temples of artistic expression. The contemporary gallery of today should be a successful amalgamation of great architecture, recreation, education, social criticism and great art.


Postcript: On the evening of 4 Mar 2006, Star Hill Gallery’s Muse floor was officially opened by the current Director General of the National Art Gallery. In a brief 15 minute opening speech, he elaborated on the threefold purpose of art as seen through the lens of the Malaysian government. According to him, art should not simply be encouraged as a form of entertainment, but an economic activity, an archive of ‘history’ and lastly a means by which a society develops culturally. But alas these statements opened up more questions than mere aims, especially where loose terms like ‘history’ and ‘culture’ are concerned. I am tempted to believe that it instantaneously highlighted exactly where the National Art Gallery had failed. If anything, this should provide enough impetus for galleries in malls to be pioneers in aspects where government controlled institutions have been indifferent to. A good start in that race would be the thorough interrogation of the aforesaid three points and their repercussions. That way, in the future, we may have the fortunate chance of not having certain works censored or declared in absentia by authoritative figures in the ambiguous name of ‘cultural incompatibility’; another euphemism for a selective history of art.

Further readings: Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas.


Zhin Teng is a trained architect.

First Published: 05.04.2006 on Kakiseni

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