Jakarta. The hooded figure silently beckons, commanding one’s attention. Seemingly made out of marbles, the first impression of the installation work is of a rather whimsical cross between the Grim Reaper and the hooded robes worn by boxers.
Titled “Unbearable Darkness,” a closer look reveals that it is not what it seems. “The orbs are made of fiberglass, while the red things in their center are effigies of fetuses. The fetuses were inserted one by one into the orbs, which total about 35,000 to make the robe,” said its creator, Indonesian artist Titarubi. “It takes about four to five months to string together more than 10,000 of them. So ‘Unbearable Darkness,’ from inception to making the beads individually to putting them together, took up to four years.”
The installation art is one of a number of works displayed in the “Art For Cancer” exhibit being held at the Ceramics Museum in Jakarta’s Kota Tua (Old Town) until the end of the month. The event shows the works of Tita and fellow artists Albert Setiawan Yonathan, Eko Nugroho, Entang Wiharso and Sri Astari, months after they made an impact at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Made under the theme of “Sakti” or mystic power, the works set out to uplift and inspire cancer sufferers as well as the general public.
Looking history in the eye
“The fiberglass fetuses in the orbs are meant to symbolize rebirth. Its also a metaphor for the responsibility of young Indonesians today, as well as the country’s future generations, to face up to the nation’s dark past, much of which is still unclear. However, the sheer weight of the orbs can be a metaphor for how our inability to face up to the past weighs us down,” says the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) Faculty of Fine Arts alumnus.
“Many people are still unwilling to face their past because they’re afraid of what they’ll find, for example, those who lived through the purge of suspected communists in 1965. There is also a culture of collective self denial that merely focuses on the glorious aspects of Indonesian history, such as the Majapahit Empire and other ancient kingdoms. My works are critiques of such stances.”
Looking at “No Surrender,” it didn’t take long to see the 44-year-old’s train of thought. The dark figure under the robe aptly symbolizes the unpleasant surprises that lurk for those who dig into the past. The work is also a study in contrasts. The rotting wooden canoe is perhaps a sharp warning against dwelling too much in the past, as doing so would leave one drowning instead of stepping on into the future.
Titarubi explained that she developed her stance before she made her name in the art world.
“I saw the dark side of Indonesian history firsthand when I helped out political prisoners, among them those students kidnapped by the Suharto regime, during the 1998 riots that preceded his downfall. Among the activities I did was to give them food and other humanitarian aid to their jail cells,” she says. “Unfortunately, a number of them was never seen again.”
While the 1965 purges and the unrest in 1998 looms large in Titarubi’s psyche, they are by no means her only glimpses at the heart of darkness in Indonesian history.
The Yogyakarta based artist’s musings resulted in “Hallucinogen,” one of the most dramatic works that she produced. The work touches on one of the darkest chapters in Indonesia’s history, namely the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of the Banda Islands by the Dutch East Company (VOC) in 1621, and their replacement by laborers from Batavia [Jakarta]. The event, which saw the island’s population fall from 15,000 to about a thousand people, was part of their efforts to monopolize nutmeg and other spices,” Titarubi explains.
First unveiled at the “Suspended Histories” exhibition in Amsterdam’s Van Loon Museum from October to January, “Hallucinogen” comprises of a large robe made entirely out of metal and gold-plated nutmeg. The gold plating on the spices adds to their allure for VOC governor general Jan Pieterszoon Coen, mastermind behind the subjugation of Banda Islands.
“In the 16th and 17th centuries, nutmeg was the most desired luxury good in Europe — more valuable than gold. The English and the Dutch engaged in prolonged battles to gain control of nutmeg” said Titarubi’s website. “A precious commodity with a torturous history, the nutmeg lies suspended in the robe, laying bare the suspended histories at the Museum Van Loon.”
The work’s shape and the painstaking craftsmanship behind it, makes “Hallucinogen” similar to “Unbearable Darkness.” The dazzling gold plating indicates Coen’s greed as well as the temptation that fabulous wealth has on anyone. However, the lack of a figure to fill out the robe seem to show that the quest for great wealth can also be a hallucination. The motif of dead wood to symbolize the dregs of the past also occurs here, just as it did in “Unbearable Darkness.”
Indonesian art lovers can see the piece and judge for themselves. The installation art work is currently on display under the theme “Discourse of the Past,” a solo exhibit of Titarubi’s works that is taking place at the Philo Artspace gallery in Kemang, South Jakarta.
Taking on social issues
While Titarubi might be currently known for taking on unresolved issues in Indonesia’s history, she first made waves in 2003 with “Very Small Shadows,” a solo exhibit in the Cemara 6 Gallery in Menteng, Central Jakarta. Featuring statues modeled after her daughters Charkul and Gendis, the pieces were adorned by Arabic prayers from the Koran.
“Titarubi was born into a Muslim family in Bandung. She grew up within the strictures characteristic of many Muslim communities in Indonesia, where religious practices are part and parcel of daily life,” art curator Rifky Effendy noted.
However, he noted that the gestures of refusal in the statues might also be a gesture of protest.
“The turned hands could also be seen as a rejection against the pressure on Indonesian children to learn Arabic prayers by heart without truly understanding their meaning. The installation not only criticizes the social construction of religion in Indonesia but also indirectly questions the educational system of Suharto’s New Order Regime.”
The piece struck a chord, as it came after she made an artwork taking on the issue of test-tube babies.
Titarubi also examined the role and stereotypes of men and women in society with a quirky eye in “Surrounding David.” Inspired by Michelangelo’s larger than life statue of the same name, she sought to turn this precept on it’s head by making the statue in silks and brocades of the kebaya or traditional Javanese women’s wear. The work is displayed at Singapore’s National Gallery along with “The Shadows of Surrender,” another installation piece dealing with Indonesia’s efforts to come to grips with its checkered past.
While Titarubi’s artistic feats might cement her reputation in contemporary arts both in Indonesia and overseas, she has no plans to rest on her laurels.
“I’m currently working on an underwater installation art piece off Bali’s Benoa district. The work is scheduled to be completed later this year,” she says. “I also plan to go back to basics and hone the crafts I learned at ITB, namely ceramic and glasswork.”
Titarubi’s work may take any direction in the future, but is bound to be interesting.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 21, 2014