Mall Culture: Art Meets Mart in Kuala Lumpur

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Alex Yong

Can a shopping mall really turn retail into a cultural pursuit?

That's the goal at Publika, framed in edgy black steel and set within the Malaysian capital's 7-hectare Solaris Dutamas commercial cum residential development. It's also symbolically located across one suburban boulevard, and Malaysia's generational divide, from Kuala Lumpur's new Syariah (Islamic) Court.

Opened three months back, the five-story, 31,000-sq-m arcade is filling with arts-oriented tenants like Galeri Chandan, the adventurous sponsor of the Malaysian Emerging Artist Award; the Bee, a restaurant, music and performance space; and Wondermilk, merging cupcakes with clothing and graphic design. These outlets for the cultural consumer freely overflow into surrounding areas that are adorned with murals and sculptures. An outdoor piazza features a teak-trimmed stage for rock or agitprop, and regular events are held at the White Box and Black Box — massive spaces run by the development's Making Art Public initiative, which offers unfettered exposure to experimental dancers or new fashion designers.

"In Asia, the social agenda has to be driven by the private, not the public, sector," says Tong Kooi Ong, Publika's developer and a tycoon with business interests stretching to media, technology and finance. "Our mall is a setting for expression, for liberal ideology, not just consumerism — an experience that will set it apart."

Lofty words aside, Publika is also a smart marketer's way of tapping into an emergent, young Malaysian sensibility that doesn't mind sales pitches when they're wrapped in the language of self-discovery. Go and buy, and get a glimpse of the imagination nation to come. For more information, see