Saturday, June 05, 2010

Hip! Hip! Hero!

Portrait of Joko 'Gundul' Sulistiono (up) and Priyaris Munandar.

By Kuss Indarto

Every hero becomes a bore at last. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


So much has been depicted in visual narratives about heroes and heroism on the canvases of the artists of the world. Including the artists in Indonesia. From the masters of the modern art movements to what is called contemporary in Indonesia, the public has become familiar with this theme. One of the “classic” works of a phenomenal nature is the painting “The Arrest of Dipanegara” (112 x 178 cm), the work of Raden Saleh Syarief Bustaman. This painting, made in 1857, was done in response to as well as an anti-thesis of the work of a Dutch artist, Nicolaas Pieneman (1809-1860), that was done twenty seven years previously, in 1830, titled “The Submission of Diepo Negoro to Lt. Gen. H.M. de Kock, 28 March 1830 (75 x 98 cm).

Apart from the assumption that Raden Saleh’s painting was considered to be in “defense of the family” as Prince Diponegoro was descended from the line of the royal Yogyakarta family (being a descendant of Sultan Hamengkubuwana IV), the heroism is strongly felt in the work “The Arrest of Diponegoro.” At the very least the public could see the heroic nature as indicated in two aspects. The first is the linguistic aspect. With its deceptively simple title, “The Capture of Diponegoro,” the first Indonesian modern artist was able to put up a clever fight against the linguistics evident in Pieneman’s work who matter-of-factly named his work “The Submission of Diponegoro.” This fight naturally was based on the historical reality that on 28 March 1830 Prince Diponegoro came in response to an invitation from Lieut. General de Kock in Magelang to sit down and discuss a peace treaty after years of fighting in the Java War in which two sides were involved. Alas, Diponegoro was lured into a trap set by the Dutch and he was immediately captured. It can be seen here that Raden Saleh attempted to correct this part of history and tell it from the perspective of “the colonized.” He seemed to be aware of the saying “language is power” which was always practiced by the Netherlands East Indies government.

Second was the visual aspect. In the post colonial theory, Raden Saleh’s work is like a visual depiction of mockery towards Pieneman’s painting. Mockery was usually used by the other side to fight against the domination of the huge power that it faced. In this context, Raden Saleh mocked Pieneman’s painting and all that was in it by subtly changing the composition as seen in Pieneman’s work. In Pieneman’s work, the residence of Lieut. General de Kock was centered in the right hand side of the canvas, while in Raden Saleh’s work the residence was placed in the left hand side of the canvas. While Pieneman had Diponegoro kneeling in a position of submission in front of the arrogantly standing figure of de Kock, Raden Saleh instead had Diponegoro’s face looking proudly and boldly, his figure in a challenging stance, at de Kock, who is painted with a ridiculously oversized head out of proportion to his body, making him appear as a monster.

While Pieneman painted Diponegoro standing in a lower position at de Kock’s residence, Raden Saleh had him standing on the same level as de Kock. While Pieneman painted this scene of the “submission” as if it had taken place on a bright sunny morning reminiscent of tropical climes, Raden Saleh’s depiction was painted in somber colors as if the event was happening in early twilight. As if Raden wished to convey the message that the Dutch power in the Netherlands East Indies was entering the twilight stage and would soon end. In short, the depiction of heroism was firmly constructed in Raden Saleh’s painting. His intention was clear, to strike a balance when confronted with Pieneman’s work.

A leap ahead into the future, and we find that many artists in Indonesia are still involved with the theme of heroism. We can mention the Persagi Group under the leadership of S. Soedjojono who at one point collaborated with Boeng Karno in starting a cultural movement to support Indonesia’s independence movement in the mid 1940’s. Dozens of paintings and sculptures were made during this collaboration. Soekarno was not only a sponsor during this collaboration, but acted also as an inspiring and motivational force in the producing of many works. “Boeng Ajo Boeng” (“Come on, brother”) is a monumental work done by Affandi as it served to encourage the public in being heroic and giving their all for their country.


Now, after more than one and a half centuries after Raden Saleh painted his “The Submission of Diponegoro,” and more than 6 decades after the era of the independence struggle, as well as after the MTV generation, the Blackberry generation and the iPod generation, what can we say about the issue of heroes? It is clear to see that there has been a significant and drastic change in the social system. The mentality and system of knowledge of the public (including artists) has also changed significantly in the pattern of identification, mapping and new meanings of heroes and what it means to be a hero. In this case, historical theories regarding heroes like The Great Man, who stated that “world history is the biographies of great and well known men” such as what was set forth by a Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, have started to lose their importance and effect in finding relevance. Information technology and the rapid development of the internet have gradually displaced Thomas Carlyle’s theory.

In regard to this, we may well be surprised by one of America’s foremost news magazines, Time, which in December 2006 issued its final edition of the year by presenting a most “strange” Person of the year. Time did not put forth any names as Person of the Year (in previous years it was called Man of the Year) as it had done in years past, instead it announced that “You” were Person of the Year! Yes, starting in 2006,(at least in Time’s observation), there was a perception that each person/individual in this world was able to improve him/herself in his/her environment, or actualize his/herself, as the basic framework to discuss the world. Now, even “ordinary folk” can make a difference in this new public arena.

Wikipedia made it possible for someone with limited abilities to express his “theory” and “definitions” in line with his/her interests. YouTube made it possible for previously private, local and locked up families’ audio-visual documentation to quickly “go global.” There is MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, or Twitter,all having the ability to transform an individual (“You”) into becoming a person with a “new” definition outside the theory of understanding of The Great Man as proposed by Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, now is the time for “You” to build the understanding of a “new type of world,” which does not have to be constructed by politicians or great men, but can be done by ordinary citizens, individuals who are just “ordinary folk.” And from this, heroism itself can be constructed by, with and for ourselves.

If the notion of heroism itself is not perceived to be self-actualization, it is of significance in giving appreciation to a group or individual who has contributed in some way to their neighborhood or environment. For example, let’s talk about Chen Shu-chu, a 59 year old Taiwanese woman who is a vegetable seller living in Taitung County, east Taiwan. She is not just a vegetable seller. She is a wealthy one, though not that well known in her country. What has made her famous is the fact that she is able to save part of her proceeds from selling her vegetables, donating to worthy causes, helping to set up a children’s library, and giving financial assistance to orphaned children living nearby. What is interesting here is that she has been hailed as a hero (or heroine) by an internationally-acclaimed magazine of high reputation: Time, from the US. The heroism that Shu-chu has shown obviously comes from what she has done, not because of any celebrity status she has, and she being a figure who has not often been on TV.

In this context then has this exhibition been designed, to once again discuss the meaning of hero and heroism. These two artists, Joko “Gundul” Sulistono and Priyaris Munandar, each have their own issues and typical visual character. Joko seems to look again into himself, his family, and also into the walls of the city that flash by in his memories. Priyaris meanwhile reaches back into the past and attempts to express it again, naturally with his own version.

Joko bases his way of expression on the pattern of his artwork, of which each one is done as a collage technique. This collage at the very least has been a part of his aesthetic form since 1995-96, when he and his friends exhibited at Driya Manunggal, an art room in the area of Nitipuran, Yogyakarta, which has since closed down. His works strengthened his ties and his “dependence” on the collage medium when he had a solo exhibition in Aikon (1996), a small art space managed by Ade Tanesia and Samuel Indratma. And one of his iconic works was seen in Manusia Baru which was entered and exhibited in the Competition of Indonesia’s Art Awards 2000. In his present works the role of the collage medium is still important. The difference is that compared to the earlier collage works, the present works represent an exploration of materials and the way they are used in a more technological way. According to Joko, the visual transfer process that is needed to process the collage is supported by experience, material such as oil that is fluid in nature and drawing on paper, and of course taste, which has been tested by time and experience.

Joko finds, in terms of substance, that discussing the meaning of heroism is like once again looking inwards, in self-introspection, because in everyone there is the potential to become a hero in certain conditions, in whatever capacity, and in whatever role. The work Dad is Hero indicates his own personal opinion in saying that the position of a father in any kind of situation or condition can also be said to be that of a hero who is much needed by his children who are always ready to offer psychological warmth at home. This is just an example of a certain case.

If the impression we get from the artworks is like looking at a wall covered entirely by graffiti (whether symbolic, iconic, or whatever), and a number of “stuck paper” (from the collage), Joko seems to want to make us aware that the walls around us at this time have become a kind of important medium to accommodate every voice, every exhortation, or whatever that has been hidden behind the clamor of mainstream media easily accessible to the public. The wall is the media. And, interestingly, Joko is not interested in (and trapped in) the mainstream that at the present time has become a trend in art in Indonesia, being stencil art and its kind. I feel that Joko is not one for juxtapose-ism or “little Banksy” which dabbles in the avant-garde in the chaos and mess that Indonesian art is in at this time.

In the meantime, Priyaris’ artwork has a strong tendency to show a spirit of collectivity. Figures of men stand in a row in a rhythmic visual pattern, or a spear-holding group of fighters deliberately moving in a repetitive rhythm, all are hidden symbols that are being re-depicted. Priyaris, through his works, seems to want to convey the importance of the “unsung” hero’s role as it relates to a large format that often is not being made aware of. This large grouping of people, if described, is like screws tightly bound to each other but whose contribution is not seen.

Seen in a different understanding, these core symbols that are brought forth also give balance to the role of collectivity as I have mentioned above. There is a symbol of a dragon or a tiger depicted in several canvases. In the tradition and culture of Java such as is adhered to by Priyaris, both have a specific role and function in the collective memory. In the world of the wayang (wayang purwa, for example), both are shown in the symbol of the gunungan or depiction of the mountain where inside there is a narrative of forest and mountain which are the sources of life of many living creatures. Both become guardians that protect and care. It is actually simple, but that is where the essence of life lies, in the togetherness.

Priyaris’ works at this time, I feel, have experienced a solid visual development. The dynamics are developing in an evolutionary manner. It is not yet that strong, but the progress has indicated in which direction the creative process will go. At least in the case of Priyaris works, as well as those of Joko’s, the works have a deeper certainty when there is an attempt to withdraw from the clamor and chaos of the visual mainstream pattern which is adhered to by several other artists. Priyaris and Joko have not tried to go the way of the booming art and artists. This is indeed, a form of heroism.

Finally, to once again muse on what Ralph Waldo Emerson said at the beginning of this essay, heroism can sometimes be a bore, especially if it is not taken in a more meaningful and dynamic context. Because it is only through a dynamic pattern and perception that life can move forward in all its beauty and heroicness. Who knows!

Kuss Indarto, curator.