Friday, June 29, 2007

Conflicts being Fought, Contradictions Put at Stake

By Kuss Indarto

(Dalam versi bahasa Indonesia, teks ini akan dipresentasikan dalam Seminar Nasional "Membangun Dinamika Seni Rupa Indonesia", di Galeri Nasional, Jakarta, 12-13 Juli 2007. Dalam surat edaran yang kuterima ada 13 pemakalah yang terpilih dari 50-an yang mengajukan. Para penanggap seminar ini adalah Bambang Budjono, Suwarno Wisetrotomo, Amna Sardono W. Kusumo, dan Nindityo Adipurnomo)

It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Entang Wiharso’s visual art is not stable. His frame of mind and "habits" are consistently oriented to instilling a creativity which shakes the stability of his past work and leads to new, more dynamic work that is more progressive and novel. He "shakes" the stability of his work while maintaining a consistency of ideas rather than forms.

To some extent, Entang within his work appears to have developed what post-structuralists Deleuze and Guattari (1986) call "schizophrenic signs" of a nomad, i.e. constantly changing symbols or "sign-flow" that are endlessly running, moving, changing (places) and shifting (territories). He ceaselessly shifts his positions from one to another system of signs. He seems to be celebrating the process of shifting itself rather than sticking to a single sign, signification, image, identity, and conviction or even, perhaps, ideology. A determination to be may then be less important than being in an interminable process of becoming.

The paintings, sculpture, installation and performance art which he previously created – they now have the status of artifacts – provide the starting points for his newest works. This is not, however, to imply that this is a linear creative process with all the structural dividers and systems of mechanistic practices; instead, this is a cross-section of Entang’s creative pursuit during the last seven to eight years. For the past seventeen years he has been developing his career as an artist and his creative process, from his first year as a student at the Faculty of Visual Art at the Indonesian Art Institute of Yogyakarta.

His approach to avoiding an impasse when making art is an attempt at preventing "marching in place", namely the appearance of being dynamic actually remaining in a stationary situation. To fight off deadlock, Entang creates themes and frameworks of ideas that draw together his creative inclinations for certain periods, with thought-out creative intention and urgent tendencies.


The main themes he’s been working on provide a framework of thinking that tries to "tame the inner-world" of feelings, instincts, sensations and intuition. One may also see it as a venture to manage and rationalize "ideas", and this is rare among a number of "romantic" Indonesian artists who regard ideas as something given, necessarily and immediately coming down from the sky.

The first theme, The New God Series, surfaced in the period from 1998-2000. Entang’s numerous works in this period offer images of idols worshipped by a global society and affected by consumerism. The age of imagology – as postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard refer to it – is a time when image becomes an ideology, propagating numerous offers via various media. Indeed! As Entang remarks in his exhibition publication NusaAmuk (2001), "we are unable to escape from the images that have become our new gods."

Hence his painting Bart Simpson in the Surgery Room (1999), among others, emerged. Bart, the comic/cartoon/animation character, is depicted as being born by Caesarean section to a "family" with a pluralistic identity, though not to the couple, Marge and Homer Simpson, as in Matt Groening’s original version of The Simpson’s. This work quite clearly reveals Entang’s deep concern about the public’s enslavement by consumerism. It explores how society is increasingly controlled by new idols through "the power of the media" as it penetrates ever more deeply into our psyche.

His second theme is Melting Souls, comprising his works from the period 1999-2001. In his work on this theme Entang attempts to examine and explore "the corrosion of the human spirit". He questions "why people adopt ideas and beliefs that are foreign to their own experiences by examining the impact of social and political phenomena on individuals." It is apparent that he is uneasy about the melting of personality wrought by the constraints of communalism. Human personalities are often rendered "powerless" amid the ambience of collectivism which is impacted forcefully by systemized "norms". That is why his work in the Melting Souls series seems to represent the process of mental shifts and the upheavals in conscience, where individual personalities are battered by unavoidable cultural, political, social, economic, religious and other tensions.

His installation Membebek/The Followers (2000-2001) is, I believe, one of the important icons for this encompassing theme. It shows a number of bald-headed, uniformed men dressed in shirts, jackets and ties but no trousers. Their faces are empty and their smiles unnatural. They are interconnected by wires. I think here Entang is offering a satire of dehumanization concerning contemporary people. He supposes humans have turned into some kind of robotic beings continuously reproducing themselves as part of a monolithic system. Another work, a painting entitled Mencari Kepala-kepala yang Hilang/Searching Lost the Heads (2000), depicts the irony of a strong culture of rationality on the one hand and the increased power of irrationality on the other, as manifest in the fertile culture of reproduction-repetition. A similar impression prevails in Cultural Burden (1999).

Entang’s third theme is Community Storage that emerges in his work made during the period 2000-2001. This theme finds its source in the daily lives of people that he encountered in Yogyakarta and in Rhode Island during his time there: so many people "consume" used goods and objects that they make up a sort of community of used-goods consumers. Of course, Entang doesn’t necessarily offer this observation explicitly. Instead, he fashions it into a thematic framework that goes beyond the mere physical reality. To him, used goods are the repositories of various memories. Their presence can be a medium for featuring the past once again. This is the key phrase. He wants to show how collective memory, in the Indonesian socio-political context, continues to be a therapy for the past, a therapy required in order to construct the future.

There is the work, Self Portrait with 1000 Yellow Sperm (2001), which clearly reflects his alertness to the "yellow culture" in the country. Today, yellow no longer appears as the color of the flag or doctrine (of a once dominating political party) but has systematically turned into a genetic threat. In the Indonesian political context – particularly in the years preceding the fall of Soeharto’s tyrannical New Order regime – yellow had the single signification of the Golkar party. In addition to Self Portrait with 1000 Yellow Sperm, there is Forgotten Yellow Sperm (2000), which euphemistically resists the "yellow culture". The title that seemingly suggests forgetfulness is actually intended to recall vividly what has to be resisted. In this visualization, yellow marks someone’s forehead. Yes, the forehead behind which abides the brain, the "nest" of nerves where memories are uncovered. The "doctrine" of Czech novelist Milan Kundera that "the struggle against power is one against forgetting" is a most suitable maxim to associate with Entang’s intention.

The fourth theme is Hurting Landscape. The concepts associated with this theme began surfacing in work beginning in 2002 onward, probably up to this time. In this period Entang philosophically questions the reciprocal relationships between interiority and exteriority: can the exterior be the representation of the interior, or, on the contrary, is the assumption of the interior as being completely a duplication of the exterior true? This can be formulated alternatively, i.e., is there any close and integral relationship between an individual and the community? This question bothers his mind as he has seen a lot of irony and incongruity in the interiority-exteriority relationship. For example, while in the United States, a country that has become the icon of liberty, Entang experienced a case of censorship by a private foundation where his artistic creativity was repressed. In addition, President George W. Bush’s loud declarations against terrorism are followed by policing actions terrorizing many people in many countries of the world. This is an irony. Such is one among the painful wounds that Entang often depicts in his work.

The painting Portrait in the Gold Rain (2003) must not be forgotten among his other works of this period. This particular work was responsible for a case of censorship that resulted in the cancellation of his exhibition in the U.S. at the Rhode Island Foundation Gallery in Providence in January 2003. The gallery management initially claimed the work was illegal, a pretext Entang found inexplicable. This work features a human figure squatting and yelling over an ambiguous round white shape covered in red. Perhaps the management found it vulgar and open to sexual interpretations. For Entang, the creative artist, the point was, and is, the hegemony of "the authority of meanings" practiced by the gallery management on the basis of social instead of aesthetic/artistic standards. This situation was highly ironical as it occurred in America, the "fatherland" of democracy and among the major proponents of the world’s art.


In his current solo exhibition, Entang introduces another major theme or, perhaps more accurately, the present work uses new ideas and perspectives in an attempt to explore his existing themes. Entang has not, as yet, given any "testimony" that can be used to define the thematic framework for this latest body of work. I think this is only a question of formality; it is not the heart of the matter. Judging from the variety of images in his works so far, one may, however, expect from him a whole range of innovation.

The current images are the embodiment of his concern about socio-cultural problems, ranging from personal through communal and even universal realms. The personal begins with his experiences in a bi-cultural marriage to an American of Italian/German/Irish descent with whom he has two children. This "international" marriage has given Entang the opportunity to live in and travel to the U.S. regularly; which has certainly resulted in socio-cultural "clashes". Adapting himself to a new environment with its very different customs – which wasn’t that difficult for him – has given him a window through which to view and learn the meaning of differences. As a result of his travels which are often taken with his wife and children - including his residency and exhibitions in Europe - he has had experiences that have settled deep in his mind and continue to affect his understanding of culture, identity, hybridism and globalization.

In my opinion, it is at this point that Entang has the capacity to create certain constructs of identity through symbols and images that categorically go beyond his original, or previous, identity. When his cultural homeland, which has been with him subconsciously, meets with a different culture in a new context, the resulting interaction and mediation generates a specific and distinct "identity". This is the foundation for the unstable situation explored in his work. Entang’s work is always changing, motivated by some internal intention and induced by external conditions. It is precisely this instability that produces the works dynamic character.
If this discussion is brought into the context of culture in its wider sense, it is relevant to consider post-colonialist Homi Bhabha’s (1994) remark that the instability of cultural expressions force us to consider culture and identity not as a fixed and rigid entity but, rather, as consistently trying to change toward newness. Discussions on this issue get more complex when we consider how globalization shapes cultures and identities and causes the incessant proliferation of various derivatives. As a result of globalization it seems that most humans have a vast space in which to construct identity and to exchange images and symbols. With the increasing ease of moving from one place to another coupled with the progressive development in communication technologies, the mixing and encounters of cultures are also more likely to happen. Therefore, the notion of the instability of culture and identity in globalizing currents leads to the perception that culture and identity always indicate encounter and mixture in which established borderlines are blurred and made unstable by hybridization.

At this point it is appropriate to discuss the trend of "creolization" – as it occurs in some Latin American countries – in which elements of other cultures are absorbed but their implementation disregards their original conditions. The concept of "creolization" offers an alternative way of thinking about the importation of foreign culture as compared with the sociologist Tomlinson’s (1991) concept of cultural imperialism. Tomlinson says that Western culture has succeeded in dominating the East by creating an "artificial awareness" through mass culture, consumer goods and so on. Yet in reality there are indications that the consumers (of culture) are not in a state of "reaction-vacuum"; rather, they actively create new meanings for objects and symbols that they consume.

Regarding this, Homi Bhabha (1994) recommends the use of mimicry as a strategy for confronting the practices of cultural domination. Bhabha describes mimicry as imitating and borrowing various elements of a (predominating) culture while at the same time refusing dependency on the domineering culture. In practice, mimicry is conducted by imitating while adopting an attitude of ambivalence in doing the imitation. It follows that mimicry always implies "incorrect" and "misplaced" signification; imitating is also, at the same time, subverting. As it is, mimicry provides a cultural strategy that enables the transformation of an external culture to enrich a local one.

Therefore, in connection with the discourse of globalization – as the social observer Pieterse (1995) has mapped it – culture and identity have now become translocal in nature. It no longer suffices to narrowly define culture in terms of "place" – where it can easily turn into an image of a cage – but, rather, it shall be closer to ideal if we conceptualize it in terms of travel. When this is the case, culture and humans as agents of culture are always on the move from one point to another. Seen from this perspective, current culture and identity are an on-going process, moving on and living out their dynamism. Pieterse further remarks that one can distinguish two views of culture: the first regards culture as something limited, bonded to location and inward-oriented; and the second one regards it as a translocal learning process that is outward-oriented. This is in line with the sociologist Clifford (1992) who believes that the acceleration of globalization also speeds up intercultural contacts so that culture is positioned as "the sites of crisscrossing travelers". On this level, current global culture also has the potential to sow the seeds of uncertainty, indecisiveness and chaos and replace those of establishment, stability and systematization. Ien Ang, the Indonesian-born Dutch sociologist, (1996) notes that globalization and the current global culture are incomprehensible as an orderly series of linear determinations but, instead, can be understood as a series of overlapping, complex, complicated and even chaotic conditions that merge to make one single knot. Ang remarks that over-determinism which is unpredictable and complicated does "not lead to the creation of an orderly global village, but to various points of conflicts, antagonism and contradictions." Ang’s thesis challenges the more common idea of globalization as the homogenizing process of culture.


I think Ien Ang’s thesis (and of course a whole series of theoretical accounts on culture) can be used further in dealing with and interpreting Entang Wiharso’s visual works currently exhibited. This is because, in turn, his creative process that has led to the production of these works represents his attempt to interpret the socio-cultural phenomena that encircle him and his environments as stated previously in this writing. Conflicts, contradictions, antagonism, etc, which he often encounters in his personal experiences and in the social reality surrounding him, seem to provide him with an ocean of inspiration in the creative process. For instance, Entang, as a cosmopolitan person, will every now and then travel to America or Europe, meet people and go through socio-cultural clashes – both latent and manifest – involving habits, customs, bureaucratic webs, administrative matters and racist politics of the body.

To Entang, all the phenomena that he explores in his work – which are related to issues of culture, identity, hybridism and the like – can be seen as eruptions of integral problems in social spaces. The problems are not isolated, but actually belong to one and the same body, yet they are tied to each other by contradiction, hugging each other closely in some ironical manner. It is this idea - trying to trace and explore the explosions or eruptions of reciprocal conflicts in one single space and time - that leads to the curatorial concept of Inter-Eruption. The curatorial approach is characterized by an attempt to chart a personal complexion that can mirror a social countenance. Or reversely, it is characterized by an attempt to trace social or cultural complexions manifesting themselves as personal faces in the mirror. And as I see it, in this exhibition Entang uncovers many artifacts of his private experiences. These are revealed as the traces of erupting contradictions on his personal "visage"– the private face of someone trying to develop a new identity based upon ironical clashes within. There is a conflict situation by intention. There is a contradictory condition intentionally staked in a mediating space.

The ideas implemented in most of Entang’s work seem to persuade and at the same time terrorize the viewer. He seems to be saying, "Take these works as mirroring various signs." They could be signs of the time; they could be cultural or social signs, or, the signs of intense contradictions; they could be the signs that mixed progeny are blooming, and so on. All of them are exposed in full: in paintings clasping the cold walls and in various installations that are eye-catching, space-catching.

Sweet Terrorism (2004) is an installation featuring two human figures as if in the middle of performing wirid (the repetitive recitation of a formulaic prayer). Both are seated solemnly, face to face. A praying contest. They are connected to each other by a long string of prayer beads hanging loose between them. These figures seem to find their spiritual space high upon pillars. Indeed, Entang has crafted two tall pillars upon which they sit, resembling minarets, sending the two human figures soaring high above the ground. It is precisely here that Entang plays with contradictions.

Do they really acquire their spiritual space? Or, is it subversion that renders the two figures as persons solemnly maintaining the exclusivity of religious values? Indeed, do religious rituals merely imply the practices of celebration that simply eliminate the substantial values of religion itself? Is religion no longer present in inclusive spaces among us? Do religious practices easily merge with the implementation of political doctrines of religion? Through this work Entang seems to remind us how religion may easily be torn and slit to narrow its scope and alter its identification or meaning. For example, Islam is "East" and this identity is held up against Christianity that is identical with "West". And so on and so forth.

Such pieces that deal profoundly with the issues of identity and contradiction abound in the corpus of Entang’s work. For example, in some of his installations that involve sculptural human figures, the figures are intentionally made to appear dangling, floating. With this technique, the artist seems to be trying to help viewers sense how the problem of floating, of being "in-between" identity, is increasingly encountered in various communities today as well as (to complicate the matter) in various issues, disciplines and multi-level realms. But from the opposite point of evaluation, it is precisely in such a "floating condition" that genuine identity (cultural, communal and personal) is often found. It is through "unclear" hybridism that identity gets clarification.

His installation Fruit from Exotic Country (2004-2005) is an arresting example. It features twenty resin sculptures of human figures with the height of some 165 centimeters each. Upon closer observation, three "facial types" are found here: seven of the figures have faces looking straight ahead, seven others with uplifted faces and another seven looking downward. The position of their hands is identical, forming a right angle with the right and left palms holding a half of a small coconut each. Another similarity is that all the human figures are suspended above a floor of rice husk.

With this work Entang seemingly wants to provoke viewers to take a stand with regard to something dominant. The human figures suggest a tropical country, where palms grow, confronting an external cultural hegemony. Therefore, the different facial types may suggest a certain "creative" mode in facing an external power. The faces are calm, with no signs of shock and anger. The figures with faces turned down may represent polite resistance rather than submission. Those faces looking straightforward or uplifted all seem to express the drive to resist something domineering. The coconut, the split tropical fruit in both hands of each of the figures, seems to impart a message going back to the old "wisdom" of the coconut: being able to live in different places and being useful to people thanks to the trunk, leaf bone, leaves, fruit, fruit shell and other parts of the plant. Is this Entang’s deliberate application of the "wisdom of the coconut", namely, to be able to live in various places, thus referring to his personal stance in facing the issue of mixture and hybridism? Or, is it an observation about "the tropical people’s" collective attitude in dealing with the issue of mixture in a peaceful way free from conflicts?

Visually, Fruit from Exotic Country may also be regarded as confirming the artist’s inclination toward the use of repetition. In some of Entang’s work, repetition seems to reinforce the crux of his ideas concerning certain issues. In cases where the material of a work manages to dominate the space where it is set, the artist’s ideas prevail by means of his terror through repetition. This can be seen, for example, in his work entitled Forbidden Exotic Country (2005) that features some ten suspended sculptures of human figures filling up an entire space. The bodies of these resin figures are separated by some distance from their heads made from wax. It is relatively easy for viewers to interpret this work as, for instance, the image represents the distance between logic and emotion among people uprooted from their identities. Such people are dangling, floating, and then logic, too, becomes dangling, separated from emotion.

The same goes for the extreme repetition in the installation Dotting (2004-2005). This work presents eighty sculptures of heads sitting on the sand, arranged in a very meticulous and mechanistic way. Each of the heads is in a tin plate. By sprinkling these gold heads with silver dots the artist seems to depict the reality of today’s human beings as nothing more than dots. Human values in social practices are reduced in much the same way as humans virtually become mere numbers within industry. Human beings are perhaps just lumps of matter marked by barcodes. Human souls are numbers. Seen from the perspective of capitalists or political authorities, those human heads are meals served in plates: ready for the devouring, swallowing and to "fertilize" capitals, to amass power.

Created in a similar tone and mode is the work entitled Forest of Eyes (2002). This work is also particularly arresting because it is set in so limited a space that it terrorizes the viewers’ sight and emotion. Entang scatters some five hundred artificial, round eyes measuring some three-quarters of an adult’s fist. The placing of these eyes upon a field of grass is deliberately irregular to break their formal monotony. Here the repetition features the images of eyes filling up the space rather than in the positioning of the objects. There is a small pond encircled by a fence; there is also a mound with a palm tree on top.

This work might presumably be a derivation of the French postmodernist Michel Foucault’s theory of power, referring to the practice of panoptic power operating in a wider space without the direct physical presence of the power holder but with those subjected to the power sensing it. This work seems to find its context in the discussion of cultural power influencing identity. These hundreds of eyes are like a gigantic (multinational) corporation’s apparatus controlling networks of capital and cultural power through media, such as television. The eyes, yes, the mass media, become an instrument to distribute power. Or, quite the contrary, those eyes represent anxiety concerning such practices of a panoptic power.

Besides works capitalizing on repetition, there is a distinct work entitled Behind Space (2004-2005). This work features a little house with the walls all painted pink inside and out. Over the entire floor are scattered fresh, intensely fragrant roses. Inside a television is always on. Two sculptures of human figures – also pink – are suspended horizontally, stretching out on their backs; one on top of the other while their heads are heavily bandaged with wreaths of roses. In the bulge of their bellies a depression in carved out and filled with the wax of a lighted candle. Ah, as if there is enjoyment in wounds, or an episode of masochism in a euphoric jungle. A situation of extreme shuttling to and fro; two worlds that are perhaps diametrically opposed. The pink color and the roses suggesting love or passion seem to be mixed with those bodies that are so masochistic in appearance. Observe the nipples and knees that become the very suspending points. The bellies getting scratched for the sake of the candle light. Is hybridism and sacrifice a pair of integrated issues?

Generally speaking, a great majority of Entang’s works move in a single thematic rhythm, of course with various elaborations from one work to another, be they installations or paintings. For example, there are the serial paintings of bald-headed figures turning their backs on the audience. They are anonymous figures; one carrying Bart Simpson the hero, some others carrying a gun or big fish. And again there is a painting entitled Mermaid (2005) that is a gigantic canvas presenting lively visual features. There is also Family Tree (2004) that features the artist’s self-portrait with his wife and children amid other pictures of their extended family. There are many others. A good part of them deals with the artist, Entang Wiharso himself, amid the issues of identity and hybridism and all their related implications. His work also represents the personalization of a collective issue now being stridently discussed.

Identity is indeed an ever-evolving process, with no end, perhaps, and beyond the need of any closing remark.

Ang, Ien, Living Room Wars (London and New York: Routledge, 1996)

Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)

Clifford, James, Travelling Cultures in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and Treichler (eds) Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix, Nomadology: The War Machine (New York: Semiotext (e)), 1986

Kudera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (London(?) : Penguin Books, 1978

Pieterse, J, Globalization as Hybridization in M. Featherstone, S. Lasah and R. Robertson (eds) Global Modernities (London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1995)

Supangkat, Jim and Wisetrotomo, Suwarno in Entang Wiharso, NusaAmuk (Yogyakarta: Antena Projects, 2001)

Tomlinson, James, Cultural Imperialism, London: Pinter Press, 1991)



Ini seminar nasional?, koq blum kabar-kabari ya ?

kuss-indarto said...

Yup, betul. Biasa, pihak galeri nasional emang kerjanya lambat kok. Aku baru dikirimi surat pekan ini. Padahal seharusnya pengumuman atau pemberitahuannya akhir Mei lalu. Maklum, maklum... Anda masuk?