Wednesday, April 18, 2007

DecoraGent: Men in Irony

By Kuss Indarto

Dyan Anggraini has never called herself a feminist (activist). She might not know prominent and “scary” names such as Mary Woolstonecraft, Betty Friedan, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Young, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, and many other names of world feminist thinkers, either of liberal, Maxist Socialist, extentialist, post-modern, eco-feminism and others.

She might have paid no attention to local feminist and feminism thinkers who are occasionally mentioned in the media like Ratna Megawangi, Gadis Arivia, Maria Pakpahan and several other names. She might not understand the working interrelationship between the theories developed by those feminists and their practical derivatives put forward by activists in a number of complicated discussions or street demonstrations.

However, this is the interesting point of Dyan’s thought which is represented in her visual language. Dozens of her art works now on display, to some extends, give added values and meanings in accordance with the thought of those feminists in contending women’s rights using her particular point of view as a woman painter. Eventually, there are not many of her entire works obviously referring to the values stimulated by those feminists but their tracks are visible in some of her works. Without revealing scientific or academic deliberation about her fight against patriarchal culture dominating women, as the spirit is shown in both soft and strong visualization, Dyan is trying to express her own thought about feminism making use of an aesthetic approach.

Starting point

All of her art works seem to come from her empirical experience. Dyan is a wife with three children now growing up, a wife of a loyal husband who keeps motivating her career’s progresses, a friend of many local artists and professionals of various other disciplines, and a civil servant chairing a government office in charge of cultural development, Taman Budaya Yogyakarta.

From these different positions, Dyan manages contact with her outer world and constructs an understanding upon the problems arise. Two important aspects that can be learnt from her art works, in the forms of either visual or spirit facets on the substance of her works, are about problems of pseudo-reality and men’s domination. This problem has evolutionary given spirit inside herself to be expressed into images on canvas.

The problem of pseudo-reality has been put forward by Dyan in the form of cynical expression namely in the use of various types of masks which almost always exist in every canvas she uses. Masks are manipulated for both connotative and associative thoughts, but not denotative, in order to demonstrate problems in day-to-day life, or even socio-political problems beyond the physical forms of the masks. Therefore, what can be seen from Dyan’ works is the visualization of a series of human bodies with masks on their face, to cover up their own face or to show different reality of life.

The masks seem to have been inherent with the new face. Right here, the first reality, the original one has been covered by a pseudo-reality which later can be manipulated as another new reality. Today, this point of view might be like looking at the simulacrum introduced by Baudrillard, about something original that can be copied, and later the copy may become an autonomous, independent reality. I guess Dyan’s way of thinking is moving toward this direction, of which changes of social system give legitimacy to the changes of values, including the fact that pseudo-reality is considered as the truthful reality. The fake masks being worn by many people in their social life today have now received social recognition as the “real faces” from the community. In other words, masks have become a new real face which is autonomous and independent.

On the other hand, problems facing women in Dyan’s works now on display seem to be employed in her attitude toward “politics of art” by this woman painter who was born in Kediri, East Java, in 2 February 1957. For Dyan, gender equality in a patriarchal society such as the one in Java, might expose paradox of various forms of inequalities. As a matter of fact, this is a global problem facing not only Javanese ethnic group, but this should be dealt with.
As we all know, based on historical perspective, the superiority and domination of men over women can be traced back through a well-known story on the creation of human in the Bible: Adam was created at the first place, then Eve was created using one of Adam’s rib. Therefore, Adam is the creator of Eve, and she was created in order to help Adam. From the social and moral perspectives, Adam is more superior than Eve because Eve has caused them expelled from heaven.

Even, Phytagoras, as it was told by Aristotle, had made classification of tables on binary opposition elements. From his tables, it was shown that men and women are not only “different” but also “opposing” each other. The difference between men and women are often associated in physical differences and are related to other factors. For example, men are always associated with anything of light, good, right, and one. All the metaphors on men are about God. Whereas women, for instance, are identified as anything bad, left, straight, and darkness. Like Phytagoras, Aristotles also thought that men were superior from women. Naturally, according to him, men are superior and women are inferior.

Culturally too, and later patriarchy was constructed, institutionalized, and promoted through various institutions such as families, schools, society, religions, working places and even the state. A feminist, Sylvia Walby has developed a theory on patriarchy in which she differentiated between private and public patriarchy. The essence of this theory is that patriarchy expands from private domain such as family and religion into public domain like the state. This expanding patriarchy has maintained the domination of men over women.

From the theory that has been developed by Walby, we can learn that private patriarchy is rooted from a given household. This area has become the basis of power construction of men and women. And, public patriarchy is rooted from public domain such as working places and the state. This expanding patriarchy has shifted the holder of “power structure” and the conditions of the respective domains (of either public or private). In the private domain, for example, the power is at an individual person (a man), but in the public domain, the power goes to collective individuals (the management of a state or a firm is at the hands of many persons).

Synthesis of thought

A woman like Dyan, I think, realizes how patriarchal culture operates in the area related to her life, whether in private or public domain asserted by Walby. It can be directly or indirectly. It can be clearly or subtly but systematically implied. This is the area where Dyan has her empirical experience as a person who has the “power” in the state bureaucracy dealing with patriarchy. Dozens of men are under “her command” because of the hierarchy regulating levels of education, work experience, professionalism, and so forth. What is going on over there? Dyan can hardly deploy her “power relation” between herself as a chief of a government institution and her staff who are mostly men. There might be gender-based problems surrounding this situation. “Power Relation” seems to be owned by men (who is in charge), so as to make a woman like Dyan should work harder to enter the “power relation” circle that causes denial and disobedience over the “practice of power”. This is a hypothesis that makes it possible to apply the patriarchal system in which values proposed by women tend to be ignored.

This reality has caused restlessness that later she uses it as a basis for creating her artistic works, particularly the ones being displayed in her current solo exhibition. She mixes her restless feeling with rational acts that in return results in the synthesis of thoughts which is, once again, using an aesthetic approach. In generating her visual works Dyan does not “scream” straight away, but instead using Javanese euphemistic modus which is consistently featuring the irony.

Consequently, scattering visual idioms are everywhere and being used to emphasize the “target of the irony” that she desires. These idioms are relatively known among the public so as to make it easier to absorb. Look at the work titled Jogja Icon. It is the visualization of a physically strong man wearing a mask at the right lower part of the canvas. His pose is like a bodybuilder in action. His upper part of his body looks so strong, but his thighs and legs suggest that he looks like a soft-moving woman dancer. At the lower part of the canvas, in front of the macho, a scarlet-colored lotus is blossoming and is being closely watched by the macho in mask. There are also two shadows of men in a series of text, in addition to the flying bees over the text at the other end.

The extreme juxtaposition of two main objects, namely the strong man and the lotus, in my opinion, gives way to the meaning of contrasting in order to achieve the irony. The idioms or symbols being used by Dyan are in fact old myths that have so much influenced public understanding, such as a man “should” look strong, macho, masculine, or brave. Whereas flowers are automatically “related” to women. To some extends, to single out meaning like this is risky in the sense that it strengthens the myth supporting the gender-biased. As if, flowers and dolls always had the spirit of women and the brave always belonged to men.

However, in other dimensions I observe that Dyan is offering irony hidden inside those myths. As I have mentioned, the presentation of a macho man who looks like a supple-moving woman dancer the lower part of his body has eventually become a problem to be presented by Dyan, who graduated from “ASRI” Higher Institution of Visual Arts Yogyakarta in 1982. The contrast and the irony in this work is likely to show a strong indication that there is “inconsistent” men’s values in manhood concept wrapped up in patriarchal ideology. Looking inside a men’s body, in fact, there is feminine element that has become his integral part of his physical structure.

DecoraGent Satire

I think this common understanding, at different level, is in accordance with feminism ideas of Julia Kristeva who opposes “feminine” physical identification of women, and “masculine” of men’s biology. She argues, when a boy enters a symbolic structure, he can identify himself towards his mother and father. Depending on his choice, this child may become more or less “feminine” or “masculine”. As it was mentioned by Kelly Oliver in Julia Kristeva”s Feminist Revolutions (1993), Kristeva also says, “a boy is identified with revolutionary maternal semiotic, therefore it is against traditional conception on sexual differences, and when girls are identified with maternal conception, it is not against the traditional conception on sexual differences”. This is demonstrated in day-to-day tradition in the society, where people will feel disturbed whenever there are boys speak like girls or girls speak like boys.

Reversing the resistant of patriarchal culture such as the one pointed out by Julia Kristeva, in my view, is also being done by Dyan Anggraini. She does it in Javanese euphemistic way by manipulating aesthetic tool combined with humor. As if we were struck by the reality of our everyday life that we tend to ignore.

The theme of DecoraGent, as it is meant by Dyan is to describe the importance of gender equality between men and women. The theme is in fact a twist of an identity on visualization created by the late Widayat, a painter whose works were considered by many observers as “decora-magis”. DecoraGent is therefore humorous, teasing, or criticizing the strong hegemony of patriarchy felt by Dyan in her life. For her, in certain situations men can only function as decoration for his surroundings, whenever he carelessly insists on dominating women through his concept of patriarchy. This is a powerful satire of a woman painter-Dyan who wishes to deny her womanhood whenever she is treated only as a decoration for the setting around her.

Decoration amplifies beauty, but it is not necessarily the beauty itself.

(Translated by Murniasih Sahana)

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