by Alif Ibrahim
Rain has finally fallen in Jakarta this past month, alleviating the drought that has stricken the country for months. Clean water shortages in September triggered states of emergency in cities across Java and Eastern Indonesia, with the Badan Meteorologi, Klimatologi, dan Geofisika (BMKG) reporting that an estimated 70% of Indonesia’s population was severely affected by this period of prolonged hot weather. In August, Jakarta had the worst pollution levels in the world, with civil servants being mandated to work from home for a month. Images of pollution indices were shared across social media and personal chat groups—maps of the capital shrouded in a cloud of red overlays. We didn’t need these indices to know the severity of the situation, though. Formerly healthy family members fell under frequent spells of illness, public transport commuters started masking up again, and personal stories of those affected by ISPA started to spread. Today, the drought has disappeared from the front pages of the news.
Perhaps M. Irfan’s Terpisah Dari Hujan (2019), a vertical HD video loop of a luscious waterfall nested upon a mound of brown soil, suggests that this cyclical issue of climate and nature is nothing new at all. Continuing Indonesia’s rich history of works related to water and land rights, Irfan presents an image of abundance and fertility, alluding to the two elements crucial to agriculture. In the conception of this work, along with almost a dozen other sculptural pieces exhibited in 2019, Irfan spent five months travelling across his home island of Sumatra from Lampung to Sabang to reconnect with the situated knowledge handed down across generations in the region. On 9 October, 2023 in Bandar Lampung, the city’s BPBD team distributed 112,000 litres of clean water to alleviate the clean water crisis caused by the drought that affected 867 families in the region. Underlying this work is a suggestion that communal concerns cut across generational lines and permeate to the present, that the same material needs and relations are formed as an interaction between cultural-geographical practices and natural phenomena.
Lampung itself is the origin of a subgroup of Kain Kapal called Kain Palepai, a large ceremonial textile with motifs of seafaring journeys on large ships. Signifying their belonging to their ethnic group and used in family ceremonies of life, deaths and transitions, these textiles were never made to be sold but are created as heirlooms for families of high social standing. The cloth is no longer made today; its weaving tradition dwindled in the early 20th century. Though the exact reasons are unclear, some researchers suggest that the deaths after the eruption of Gunung Krakatau in 1883 or the forced labour of textile workers to create military uniforms during the Japanese occupation might be the main factors as to why this tacit knowledge wasn’t passed down to the post-independence generation.
It’s speculated that these ship motifs captured the journey of the Dongson people who made their way across maritime Southeast Asia by sea, people who might be potential ancestors of the people in the region. They traverse waves that leave a thread across history and geography that might serve to contextualise the works in this exhibition. This migration involved navigation by wind, an application of seafaring techniques via manipulation of waves and currents to reach a destination. Similarly, visual art can be seen as the application of technical practices as a way to manifest an idea in the physical and ultimately visual world. It is known that the unseen—drought, heat, pollution, dust, wind—affect us materially. What might a transposing of an artist’s technical practice, of things done outside the work itself, onto another reveal to us about their work? What unseen forces lie outside the frame? Perhaps they are unseen because they happened in the past, or perhaps because the work itself captures a potential history, a suggestion about the future. From the personal and present to the pervasive and historical, we take a look at how imagining the unseen can help us evaluate art beyond aesthetics.
In the most tangible sense, Drummers Gonna’ Drum (2017) by Julian Abraham “Togar” provides the clearest way of what the unseen can tell us about history in the form of sound. The first in a series of works that connect the colonial history of places with their current form, Togar hits his drumstick against built and natural environments in Yogyakarta in this six-minute video. Wielding drumsticks that match the colour of his trainers, he steadily drums against tree stumps, tunnel floors, archways, and roof tiles. Passersby walk past him, unbothered by his actions. In one striking frame, he stands against a replica of the Kaaba, an image that reminds us of the beating of a drum before a call to prayer.
“In the hands of a percussionist, any object can be used as a sound source when tapped on,” Togar formerly said. As he taps away on objects and elements of significance within the city, he uncovers the sonic quality of each material, producing soundwaves that inform the viewer about its characteristics. His action is reminiscent of an archaeologist wielding a pick, unearthing parts of history with each repetitive action. However, rather than an archaeologist’s discovery or reveal, Togar’s drumming is creative; sound generation is the centrepiece of his work. Inherent in this work is the idea that a place is connected to the past, and that Togar’s artistic practice creates this link to the past. Togar himself has expressed a similar thought regarding his work as he asks: “is sound matter?” implying the relationship between the unseen and the material, and here he explores the unseen events of the past through the surviving structures of the present.
In its method, Togar’s work is not unlike the practice of weaving textiles: a series of algorithmic actions that creates an impression of the whole. Weaving itself is something implemented directly in Kokok P. Sancoko’s Dari Seberang Kolam (2023), a 2-metre tall banner of woven canvas strips. In the painting, the weaving technique is imperfect, and the banner appears unfinished and tattered. Even within a single row, a canvas strip sometimes layers over two columns, while it is woven over a single one in another segment. The painting appears to be a combination of several, smaller paintings which are then cut and rearranged together. Peppered across the painting are motifs of white rounded squares painted over a dark background, while clear segments of purple and blue dominate certain segments. In other parts, shades of ochre-like olive green and yellow appear.
Unlike textile, where individual elements are weaved together to form a coherent structure, this painting strips multiple coherent elements that are weaved to create incoherence within the completed piece. The intelligible is disintegrated and recombined to create new meaning, perhaps a statement about moving away from a singular canon narrative. If our lived experiences are often incomprehensible, are coherent narratives truly possible? Or does engaging with history require a weaving of tattered narratives that does not make a single whole? Within this work, as we’ve seen, is a reference to one of the oldest forms of image-making in Indonesia. In the case of the aforementioned Kain Palepai, a deep sense of meaning and an element of history creation is embedded within the textile. Simultaneously, Dari Seberang Kolam also mimics the way that digital cameras work. As images are captured, rows and columns of photosensitive modules record light as electrical signals and lines of data, which are then processed to be represented on a different array that is then perceptible by the human eye via a display monitor. In Kokok’s work, it is this rupture in the process and representation that creates meaning that is perhaps imperceptible visually, but are embedded within the original constituents, reanimating the potential that these initial images have.
If Kokok’s and Togar’s work are punctuated by their recalling of the past, Maharani’s work positions itself staunchly in the present. The simultaneity of her paintings and the nature of her “vibe” images, along with the reference to the way we experience digital images, is analogous to the way that she approaches her painting. Maharani paints from photographs she takes and prints, previously likening them to a “freezing of a mood”. In another sense, Maharani paints to answer the question of whether what is captured in a photograph—be it a mood, a scene, or a point in time—can be preserved when translated into another medium. Photography, rather than being a finished document, is an event that precedes and succeeds a further series of events. The public has become increasingly aware of the subjectivity of the photograph as a standalone document, that it merely records a potential series of events. Maharani’s paintings reference this notion, that a photograph does not merely encompass the moment where light is recorded onto the medium but is an event that can be reinterpreted. Its importance lies in the potential it creates. If we return to the unseen, the “present” within Maharani’s painting incites a question of “What happened before?” and “What will happen after?”
Cinanti Astria Johansjah (KENI)’s series of still-life paintings also reminds us of the potential within images. In the For Your Highness (2023) series, KENI paints small, fragile objects like a statuette of Jesus and an asthma inhaler standing on the edge of the table. The objects appear as if a nudge would cause them to fall, as if an understimulated cat might paw them off in boredom. There’s a mischievous air to the paintings, a suggestion that a small creature might find joy in creating tiny moments of chaos. The draw that these still-lifes have is the potential of what might happen after the scene captured in the painting. A breeze, a cat, or a poltergeist might knock these objects over at any moment, and it is this possible future that makes this work a delight to look at, where the playfulness is located. Again, the question lies in what happens outside the painting itself, where we might entertain ourselves by imagining who the eponymous “Highness” is and how cute they might be.
This association between colour and time is made explicit in Dewi Fortuna Maharani’s artist statement. “She believes colours indicate time, thus it carries the ephemeral quality as we perceive objects before our view,” it reads. In Subsequently, per se (2023), Maharani places three square paintings in sequence to create a single, rectangular painting. She paints familiar images—a journey on a quiet highway, a to-go cup of tea on a sunny morning, and a dimly lit restaurant with neon signs. Maharani’s painting suggests a simultaneity between the images. You are at three places at once. You might not have been here before, but you know these places. The colours she uses suggest that these scenes occur at different points of the day. A clear blue sky for noon, the angled shadows by the tea for the morning and the swaths of artificial red and green light to suggest night. Colour, after all, is partial reflection of light waves, and its perception greatly depends on the context in which we experience it. Despite having no clear subject in each segment, Maharani’s paintings display a collective mood, a direct reference to how we consume digital images in the form of moodboards today.
So far, we’ve explored how these artists incite potential within their works. Their references to the possible futures and pasts are located outside of the pieces themselves, as are the artists’ stakes. In Restu Ratnaningtyas’ illustrations, what has so far been unseen is located within the frame of the work itself. In The Line Crosser (2018), Ratnaningtyas paints a pile of objects with watercolour. Limbs jut out, and a disembodied head of Po the teletubby rests on this monument. Yet a broad-leafed plant grows in the bottom corner, suggesting some form of stability, fertility, and longevity to this unstable structure. Perhaps she is stating that this messiness is permanent and that fragility is, ironically, a stable structure. This haphazard collection of items suggests a gradual accumulation. The symbolism of wood beams is common across her works, suggesting the slapdash application of a supporting structure that acts more as the flesh of this creature than its structural skeleton, a misplacement of the function of objects, or a misfiring of a synapse. Perhaps these objects represent some sort of burden, a calcifying process over a long duration. In her other illustration, Have a nice day #4 (2021), Ratnaningtyas returns to the imagery of misplaced limbs and fragile structures. Bedsheets are hung on drying lines near what looks like a small pool or well, with small plastic stools in red and blue haphazardly stacked upon one another. Returning to Togar’s work, it inspires us to ask: What would a drummer chipping away on this piece of work discover? Will this structure be dismantled and fall apart, or are there gemstones to be discovered that formed after undergoing stress and pressure?
The works curated for this group exhibition serve as a good starting point to help us understand the importance of the unseen in visual art. Visual media, be it painting, photography, video, or sculptures, are never perfect and complete documentation but rather a single physical instance that happens to be captured in a series of unseen events. From M. Irfan’s months-long journey across Sumatra, KENI’s painting of moments before a cute disaster, to Togar’s exploration of the centuries-long history of a location, we shouldn’t consider an artwork to be the terminal point of an experience or as a source of truth.
Pameran kelompok/Group exhibition of
Cinanti Astria Johansjah (KENI)
Dewi Fortuna Maharani
Julian Abraham “Togar”
kokok p. sancoko
dengan penulis/with writers Alif Ibrahim & Hazell Charman
17 November – 5 December 2023
Jl. Cilandak Tengah No. 11 Cilandak, Jakarta Selatan