Interpreting Asian Identity

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Mahendra Yasa, “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #1” and “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #2” (Photos courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The looming figure inexorably commanded one’s attention, not least because of the shiny metallic head capping it off. Titled “Archeomoto,” this aluminum and fiber glass resin sculpture by Indonesian sculptor Nus Salomo portraying a cuttlefish or giant squid making its way out of the deep would fill fishermen and sightseers with dread.

The effect is enhanced by the grotesque ends of a pair of tentacles, which seem poised to catch and crush anyone unfortunate enough to get too close. But their humanoid, larger than life and alien appearance might also come from the depths of the College Art Center of Design alumnus’ subconscious, in which case they have much in common with the nightmare creatures of horror and fantasy master HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series.

On the other hand, Eldwin Pradipta’s “Portray Jelekong” turned the notion of landscape painting on its head. Featuring a classic Indonesian landscape of paddy fields with a volcano in the distance, “Portray Jelekong” gave viewers more than they bargained for.

Not too many paintings show smoke and lava on the volcano, while cascades of water swept over the landscape and surged down the walls off the canvas. The effect was only made possible by the video artist’s use of video projection on a white frame.

Nus’ unwieldy, static yet striking structure as well as Eldwin’s video painting are among the number of avant garde artworks exhibited in the first ever Southeast Asian Triennale.

Held at Jakarta’s National Gallery, the event showcased the works of 69 artists from Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

They are by no means the only countries represented in the Triennale, as contemporary art from China, Pakistan. Japan and Australia is also exhibited. The exhibition’s curators, among them Jim Supangkat, Suwarno Wisetrotomo and Asikin Hasan, said the event chronicles the influence of globalization on contemporary art.

The theme of conflict as an integral part of the human experience is an element examined at the exhibition, a striking example being Pakistani contemporary artist Jamil Baloch’s stark “Mega Project II.”

The shadow of a fighter plane on the tile is a powerful reminder of the constant armed conflicts which shaped his country’s history, as well as the preeminent role of the military there. But the most telling element in the mixed media piece are its cracked tiles reflecting Pakistan’s tenuous unity which is perennially threatened by sectarian and civil conflicts.

Indonesian artist Arief Hidayat also explored this theme in his sketch series “Last Men (Forced Disappearance Tragedy).”

The work, which can be seen as a modern day retelling of “The Miseries of War,” a series of etchings by 17th century French draughtsman Jacques Callot depicting the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, shows the suffering of victims of the 1965 purge of suspected communists.

It is similar to its predecessor through its use of black and white lines to convey a sense of desperation and terror. The imagery of forced disappearance, interrogations and mass executions is by no means confined to the conflict, it also be interpreted as the suffering wreaked by insurgencies in parts of Indonesia like Aceh and Papua, as well as the Iraq war and Syrian civil war.

The pull of age old art forms is by no means confined to conflicts, as Chinese artist Bu Hua used the medium of stained glass painting to see his hometown Beijing in a new light through his works “Water Is Deep Here in Beijing IX” and “Water Is Deep Here in Beijing II.” Painted in a style reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s album covers, Bu’s use of the LED box to portray bright images of playgrounds, brights skies and Art Nouveau houses in the Chinese capital hint at the subconscious and psychedelic.

But the skeleton in “Water Is Deep Here in Beijing II” seemed to indicate tensions that’s never far from around the corner, despite the sunny outlook brought about by China’s surging economy that’s seen all around.

The hordes of motorcycles that take up Jakarta’s roads and give their share of traffic griefs for one another and other motorists is an apt metaphor for social mobility in the capital.

Their sheer number and diverse backgrounds literally and figuratively reflect the dynamic social changes in Jakarta and the rest of Indonesia, a fact explored by Indonesian artist MG Pringgotono in his work “Little World Dialogue.”

The State University of Jakarta Visual Arts alumnus used ten seemingly random helmets with a name and a locale in the Greater Jakarta areas like Cikini, Tanjung Priok and Condet to give an identity to the frequently anonymous motorcyclists.

However, painter Mahendra Yasa’s “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #1” and “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #2” attempted to convey the Indonesian psyche as only a painting can.

Juxtaposing artists like Diego Velazquez or Paul Cezanne in his canvas, along with events like the Dutch arrival in Indonesia, “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #2” seem to convey the package in bright colors to make it more inclusive and accessible, in line with the ideals of globalization.

In contrast, “7 Magnificent Masterpieces #1” is painted in a more subdued, muted traditional Javanese style, as if to convey the deep seated roots that the country’s traditions and culture has on its people.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on November 24, 2013

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