Theatre of Ships

Artist: Joko Dwi Avianto
Location: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Year: 2013
Researcher: Stella Prasetya

Historically Penang is an island that has a strategic location at the northern entry to Straits Malacca and serves as a melting pot between Arabians, Chinese, Europeans, and Indian Ships for spices trading. Penang Island was known as Prince of Wales Island during the British colonial period and it used to be a trade base for the British East Indies Company. Today the hereditary colonial buildings are remain existed along with other heritage buildings from Chinese, Malay and Indian culture. George Town as the capital island has held annually Festival to celebrate the arts, culture, heritage and community; and in 2013 Joko Avianto was commissioned to create a large scale installation in response to the celebratory concept. Situated at the Esplanade in between Town Hall and City Hall, the installation was covering the façade and rooftop of the Penang City Municipal Council; a one stop bill payment centre. Previously, the building was an old performing Chinese theatre “Sin Hee Tai/New Theatre” that used to have live performances by Bangsawan and Chinese Opera. Now the old building has gone replaced by the Penang City Municipal Council, the old theatre appears to be forgotten by the people of Penang. Joko Avianto in his observation was not able to find records of the old theatre, just after he arrived in Penang he saw a little evident of the old theatre during its heyday in a little shop. Through his installation he would like to evoke the memories of the sites to the people of Penang.

Joko use the ships figure to reflect the cultural aspect of the site as a maritime trading place. The abstract ships set resembles the ships movement that are lined up at the harbour; which also reflecting the movement feature of theatre. Ship also act as the symbol of community and interaction between people in Penang; with its function to transport people from different part of the world to come to Penang as the melting pot by ships. Joko was using bamboo construction with 3,000 pieces bamboo in total to build a 15m tall and 22m wide installation. Joko has been using bamboo as the medium to create his work since 2003 and he also has developed a certain bending technique that allows the bamboo to be weaved and shaped. To join the bamboo together Joko did not use any nail, however he used wires to tie the bamboo poles or interlaced them with weaving technique. All the bamboo materials were first processed, prepared and later shipped from West Java, Indonesia to Penang. The building process took about 41 days of working hours during the night time with the help of 15 peoples from different nationalities. Nevertheless, once the installation was erected the site was successfully becoming the melting pot between the local audiences and visitors from outside Georgetown to celebrate the recreation and public gathering place.

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“Theatre of Ships” installation were commissioned during the artist residency in Penang for the George Town Festival 2013. It was sited between the City and Town Halls on Jalan Padang Kota Lama, Malaysia. The work specifically designed to reflect the history and culture of Penang as sin hi tai or ‘new theatre’ for public space gathering place for recreation and performance as well as a cultural melting pot due to the strategic position as a maritime trading hub.

Joko Dwi Avianto, the artist, was using interwoven bamboo installation to create a boat-like structure to symbolise the importance of the sea in Penang’s identity. This idea reflects the development of Penang since it was founded and trading ships started to come to the island.

The piece is a reflection of the rich cultural heritage, historical progress and prosperity of Penang, as well as to convey the idea of theatre in becoming a public theatre for locals and visitors to come together and celebrate the enduring legacies of travel, trade and cultural exchange.

Joko Avianto had the first approach from George Town Festival in March 2012, after they saw his work at ArtJog; an annually contemporary art festival that is held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Joko was also presenting a large scale bamboo installation at the façade of Taman Budaya Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Cultural Park). Later he was invited by the committee to have a site research at Penang. During the invitation trip, he developed some sketches with several sites options that he consider are able to represent his responses idea towards the festival; few of them are market area and an intersection at the old town area. Later he chose not to use those sites for the reason of public permit to block the area to build the artwork. Afterward he decided to choose the Penang City Municipal Council because he saw that site similar to a bridge in between City Hall and Town Hall and also because the historical reason of the site as an old theatre. The artwork was fully funded by George Town Festival, however they also give a fully trust to the artist to develop their work without any idea interference.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency