Friday, June 12, 2009

Bodyscape: Scenes Becoming and Transcending the Body

By Kuss Indarto
This presentation of Ugy Sugiarto’s works in a solo exhibition offers two points worth talking about. First, the artist emerges in the current setting of Indonesian art as a sort of anomaly. He is an autodidactic, self-made artist that comes from a small town of Wonosobo in Central Java while the great majority of Indonesian artists – particularly of the upper-middle level – have academic-training backgrounds and work in regions that are (still regarded) significant centers of art that are Yogyakarta, Bandung and Bali. Ugy Sugiarto “only” finished his general Senior High School, not the Senior High School for Art, let alone any Faculty of Art, and he’s been pursuing creative art “just” in an unrecognized or, say, ahistorical locality to Indonesian art. (Notes on some personal backgrounds of the artist are given in another section of this catalog).

Secondly, Sugiarto imparts a lot of messages through his body. We can see that through his works presented here he is demonstrating the “cutting edge” of his creativity in producing masterly hyper-realistic painting. In the broad scene this is in itself a somewhat familiar trend in art though not often found among Indonesian artists, even among those with academic backgrounds. This particular inclination requires some technical skill that features accuracy and thoroughness recent artists rarely deal. Moreover his paintings strongly imply “the politics of the body” in the sense that the body in his paintings isn’t presented in the framework of just Ugy Sugiarto’s personal life but, instead, as the representation of social issues.

The Body in a Flashback

The subject of human body, particularly self-portraiture, Sugiarto adopts from both personal and social reality to transfer onto canvas is not something new at all. Many artists have transposed the body as a subject matter) and made out of it the means to represent the times, lifestyles, artistic and creative “ideologies”, political patronages, and even the artists’ inner-worlds. It often happens that those bodies are present as very dominant subjects or themes rather than being just subordinates to other subjects. Allow me here to look behind, to a series of historical data on the phenomena of the emergence of the body in artworks of all varieties and mediums from the times of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, through Fauvism, Cubism, Modernism and up to Postmodernism and/or today’s contemporary.

We remember well the painting Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1482) that explores the female body. Then there are Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and The Dead of the Virgin (1602) that strengthen the chiaroscuro technique to the extent that it gives dramatic effects to paintings. Next we meet with works by Jose de Ribera (The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, 1639) and Peter Paul Rubens (The Descent from the Cross), Hendrick Terbrugghen (St. Sebastian Attended by St. Irene, 1625) and Rembrandt van Rijn (The Descent from the Cross, 1633) that present the body at the moment of death, with splatters of blood, pale faces, and the collective spirit of lamenting figures accompanying the main subjects of the paintings. Next there is the body in Dead of Marat (1793), a dramatic painting by Jacques-Louis David, Edouard Manet’s Olimpia (1864) that exposes the hypocrisy of French society, female bodies in Picasso’s cubistic images in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906), and through a woodcut print entitled Widow (1922-3) by Kathe Kollwitz that is somber and overwhelming.

And even artworks beyond mainstream mediums (sculpture and painting) like video art, installation and performance art – and in an ever widening geographical scope throughout the world – the body is still used as a basic means to speak about the body itself as well as various issues with the body as their starting point or vehicle. In the scene of performance art in Indonesia there are artists like Arahmaiani and Iwan “Tipu” Wijono who often explore issues around their bodies. In painting these last several years have seen the emerging issue of the body and self-portraiture so well known in the works of Agus Suwage, Budi Kustarto, Sigit Santosa, Haris Poernomo, F.X. Harsono, and through artists from a younger generation like R.E. Hartanto.

The tendency that has been among artists for long as illustrated above is connected with traditions in art – from various cultures and all eras – that don’t fail to include the issue of the body. Necessarily, in this matter influential features from various cultures make their contributions to merge with the artists’ own viewpoints and interpretations. This makes the bodies that appear in the tradition of art cultural representations colored by some shared values or representations based on individual perceptions as attempts to present realities and phenomena. There is tension between these two representational types, and cultural representations put themselves in dominant positions. The effect is that the body or its representations are often disconnected with the artists (in the individual and personal sense) in trying to comprehend the body as a reality. The body in the tradition of creative art, even if stripped naked, are often covered by some “cultural dress”.

Art traditions also know the aesthetic theory that believes in the autonomous truth of the body represented in artworks, which is detached from the truth in daily reality. In the developments of modern art after the Second World War, the prominence of the theory positioned the body as just a formation that implies issues around the language of the visual. This same theory developed the convention within any society to see nude bodies – even in realistic painting too – not as representations. Public see such nudes as “canvas realities” and not the records or reflections of the real.

Locus of Power, the Body

Musing on Ugy Sugiarto’s works, we find how the bodies and self-portraits there imply shuttling close connections between the personal and the social. The body that dwells in canvas is positioned not as the set of visual signs referring to its own reality but (may also at the same time) as a reflection of other realities. And there is the possibility for the body to be constructed arbitrarily for the purpose of dealing with problems and interests beyond the reality of the body per se.

An illustration can be taken from Michel Foucault’s profound study in his Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison (1977). Foucault assumes that the exercise of power over the body has seemingly claimed justification. He observes that in talking about the body we always have the obedient body as our reference, the body in which power dwells. The body, time, behavioral actions, sexuality, and all the sectors and fields of social life are already mechanized by power. The psyche, consciousness, subjectivity, personality – are effects and instruments to political anatomy. Foucault regards almost all physical activities ideological, ranging from soldiers standing erect and marching, schoolchildren’s gestures, and through sexual intercourse positions.

The notion of the politics of the body (Foucault calls it bio-politics) is implemented by the state to maintain its bio-power. There are two methods for it, namely disciplining and regulative control. In disciplining body is regarded as a machine the capability of which needs to be optimized, and to be made obedient.

In such context, according Foucault, German artists in the Nazi’s era were the derivates of the state’s project in disciplining (the body). This immediately involves two points: the bodies of those artists themselves and the bodies represented by produced artworks. Regulative control includes population, births and deaths, as well as things related to health conditions. Bio-power aims at health, wellbeing and productivity. It is supported by normalization (the introduced categorization into normal and abnormal and the implementation of power in scientific knowledge) through modern scientific discourse, medicine in particular, psychology and criminology. On the next plane human bodies are controlled, or they control themselves, to be in accordance with the standard dream and drive constructed by a certain system of knowledge. For instance, how to have a body that is healthy, sexy, macho, or beautiful, according to a standard that is at times monolithic and exploitative. It is clear then that the body provides the locus of all competing interests.

Of course, the theoretical observations referred to above may not be able to find their conclusive and perfect derivates in a given field. Or they are still to find the rigorous connecting line between social reality and theoretical reality. Yet at least such study offers a supplementary viewpoint to catch a glimpse of the curatorial frame of this exhibition as well as the realities that the works shown try to expose.

An important point that underscores most Ugy Sugiarto’s works here is that actually the body in representation is not there merely as itself but as an emerging sign. In this sense the significance of the image of body that appears as itself also involves the memory of it that includes the various metaphorical meanings going along with it. In depicting the body artists cannot fully control it; they can only identify its boundaries by adopting a certain context, defining the visualizing latitude as well as the aesthetic of the imaging (often called ‘style’).

The Scene of Body

The curatorial theme of ‘Bodyscape’ for this exhibition is meant to show that ‘the body of the self’ as a subject matter provides a small mirror where the artist’s personal world and the social world surrounding him, external to his body, are reflected. Body becomes a limited means to give illustrations of huge problems it can reflect. Hence the painting of ‘the body of the self’ that pictures Ugy Sugiarto as a person is intended as the reading of the unfolding social dynamic as perceived by him.

As it may be obvious, the word bodyscape itself was inspired by the term ‘ethnoscape’ coined by Arjun Appadurai as found in “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology,” in Richard G. Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1991, pp. 191-210); and Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

The concept gives emphasis on reconsideration indispensable for whoever wanting to understand transnationalism. The patterns of immigrants leaving their homes to search for new lives in other valleys or regions – a construct conceived by traditional anthropologists – have now given way to the new pattern of transnationalism that refers to some cosmopolitan culture that develops its cultural ties with more than one motherland. The phenomenon latter mentioned is obviously not just a transitory situation that will disappear by itself or that may change by rekindling the spirit of some ‘national melting pot’. Appadurai tries – through a series of notes, questions, and vignettes – to reposition several disciplinary conventions while showing that ethnoscapes in the contemporary world are highly interactive in nature. Appadurai can replace the conventional concept of wholeness such as village, community, and locality, which previously provided basic principles of cultural anthropology and studies.

Furthermore besides the notion of ethnoscape Appadurai conceives what are called ‘mediascape’, ‘technoscape’, ‘financescape’ and ‘ideoscape’. All these form the character of international capital and perspectival constructs that merge histories, languages, and politics as the previous situations of different actors including nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities and sub-national groupings and movements (religious, political as well as economic), and even face-to-face, intimate groups such as villages, neighborhoods, and households.

Anyway, bodyscape doesn’t have the point of departure as rigorous and theoretical as does Appadurai’s ethnoscape concept. Rather, it is just meant to be a borrowing of a term that I transpose in order to approximate the notion of “the scene or sight of the body”. In this exhibition the bodies Ugy Sugiarto offers are not just autonomous and value-free bodies. Instead, they are already affected by a lot of issues and problems around and outside the issues of the body per se. In turn they form landscapes of their own potential to read further and comprehensively beyond the reading of just the issues of the body itself. For Ugy Sugiarto the body provides profiles of the scenes of himself in the past or during certain periods surrounded by different social contexts.

So, for instance, the audience may muse on the artist’s self-portrait where he poses like a superhero, i.e. Superman of the comic books. The work feels like guiding us to sense that the evolving popular world in society has powerfully affected the patterns of commodification and consumption among the people. So these works shown in Bodyscape provide at the same time the sights of personal and social bodies because perhaps both (the personal and the social) develop reciprocal, shuttling, and interdependent relationships.

This simple writing is, of course, not meant to be any sort of ‘manual’ for appreciating the works on exhibition. The imaginations of each of us, aiming at producing meanings, will revitalize Ugy Sugiarto’s figures “tumbling” and “scattered” in this elongated space so that they will regain their being bodies as bodies, and/or transcend their mere physicality. These bodies are simply lining shop-windows, but also meta-displays, which may someday enrich our insights in reconsidering the existence of our bodies (and souls).


Jim Supangkat in the catalog for art exhibition by Katirin and Nurkholis, “Rupa Tubuh”, at Nadi Gallery, 17 June-1 July 2001.

Kris Budiman, in his review of “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology,” in Richard G. Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1991, pp. 191-210); and Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Not published as yet.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, BODY, Art, Modernity, and the Ideal Figure (Routledge, 1995) via Rizki A. Zaelani in “Ough…Nguik!”, in Agus Suwage’s solo exhibition catalog, Indonesia National Gallery, Jakarta, 8-18 August 2003.