Friday, September 30, 2011

From Industrial Toward Personal

By Kuss Indarto

The pyroclastic storm at the temperature of 600 degrees Celcius, last October 2010, threatened to destroy so many forest and villages south and west of Merapi Volcano, Yogyakarta. The big wave of pyroclastic, part of the eruption of Merapi, climaxed till the night of November 4, 2010, when a big boom was heard, ripping the anatomy of the world’s most active volcano. This has been the worst eruption since the year 1872. The material blown out of the volcano’s stomach has been estimated to reach 140 million cubic meters.

Wedhus gembel, the local phrase for pyroclastic, continued to expand its reach, destroying villages at the speed of 300 km/hour taking treasures and lives. From about 150 deaths, there was Mas Panewu Surakso Hargo, or more well known as Mbah Maridjan, the key keeper of Merapi and abdi dalem (courtier of) Kraton Ngayogyakarto Hadiningrat, died at the age of 83 after staying in his house, refusing to evacuate because of a belief : that he must be the last one to stand guard as Merapi erupted.

Mbah Maridjan believed that Merapi wasn’t actually “erupting”, but was actually in the middle of “renewing” itself. He believed that it was a course that must be done by nature, including Merapi, to give balance to its life. Mbah Maridjan believed that the lava of Merapi was its “waste” that was being disposed of by Merapi palace of spirits because of the event there. The palace is governed by Eyang Rama and Permadi who are assisted by Kyai Sapu Jagad, Nyai Gadung Melati, Kyai Krincing Wesi, Eyang Megantara, and some others.

The people who live around Merapi understand this as natural “logic” which is mythological. Mbah Maridjan’s point of view, which is also believed by the locals, has possessed the people as an “ideology”. They believe in this natural rite and myth. This has created its own system of knowledge and value to adapt to the Merapi natural surroundings.

Meanwhile on the other hand, these view and myths have inversely proportional thoughts from the knowledge system of science. Merapi eruption is still a danger that must be anticipated and avoided as much as possible by the valleys people. The way to confronts both sides is with a attitude of kawicaksanan (wisdom) that science has prepared for this with estimation and anticipation, and local belief have enriched it by guarding it, approaching and respecting Merapi after eruption.


The natural event of Merapi eruption has left a vivid memory in Agus Yk Priyono’s life. Agus whose life deeply rooted in Javanese culture was within the range of 30 km from the center of the eruption. Despite the fact that he was not a direct victim of the disaster, the Merapi eruption clearly has left a trail of personal recollections in the midst of public memory of Yogyakarta society in general.

As artist Agus does not want to reside on the negative perception of the event, instead, he sees it as a massive source of inspiration and ideas for his new creative art works. The fact that Merapi eruption has been a natural disaster for many who lives in surrounding region of Merapi, slowly shifts itself in Agus’ life to become an “aesthetic fact” that eventually is expressed on the canvas spreads. A shift of social fact to become an aesthetic rarely occured in the mind of human being or even an artist who has the conscience of homo socius at the same time of homo aestheticus. Agus YK is one among the few who is able to capture and nurture the potential of aesthetic value hidden behind the case of Merapi eruption with all his strengths and weaknesses.

In his solo exhibition, visual theme about wedhus gembel or pyroclastic has become subject matter for Agus’ works. The pyroclastic visualization was placed on the top of the painting taking a quarter to a half of the space of each canvas. The image of pyroclastic was described to burst from above as if it moved from the crater of Merapi down to seek the lower ground.

Below the pyroclastic image, the dry land cracked and widely opened. There was also a landscape of little men and women who walked in a procession away from the center of the pyroclastic. Panoramic houses were ready to be demolished by the wedhus gembel. Also there was a landscape of trees with withering branches. These images could be seen in the works of The Sign, The Mystery of Wedhus Gembel, The Power of Everlasting Hope, The World’s Never Ending Love and other works. As we could guess, these art works put Agus’ way of thought in the midst of disasters but there was still aesthetic values that were so profound to be held for the arising of optimism spirit to view the coming of a disaster. A disaster was an unpredictable event for human being; however the optimism spirit that was the one could quickly heal the wound of the feeling.

Among similar artworks Agus has done, there were several artworks that put local cultural values via wayang purwa. There were Ing Ngarso Sung Tulodho and No Accidental Heroes. Semar figure becomes central in these two works besides three other figures that are well known as Punakawan: Gareng, Petruk and Bagong.

Semar became so central in these contexts for he was a deity figure who became a regular person. His body that is fat was far from physical description of a God, like the God of Teacher in the Javanese puppetry, Narada and others. But it was the value of balance emerges as wisdom. And wisdom values were offered in a humorous manner instead of a serious manner. And in the surrounding Merapi eruption, Javanese philosophy about balance softly echoed here: “Laugh when you are sad, cry when you are happy”.

Besides the works with visual theme of Merapi eruption, Agus has also done another group of works with different theme. There were themes that were desired as a form of sympathy to the Japanese tsunami victims in the beginning of 2011. Visually, these works elaborated the image of Cherry (Sakura) flowers in every spread of canvas as the central element. In the middle of blossoming Sakura, the Japanese identity, there were origami in the forms of birds that uniquely accentuated the works. It was here where the social and moral messages were told.

There were also painting themes that put the beauty of trees complete with branches and twigs that exotically linger together with flowers distributed in the body of the trees. For these works, Agus YK is the master to execute in every single detail.

In general, this solo exhibition showed the cross section of artistic and aesthetic abilities of Agus YK Priyono. When we paid careful attention, Agus was like a Captain of a ship who had to vigilantly act. At least in the last two years, his vigilance as a captain of his “aesthetic ship” is at stake. He turned the direction of his aesthetic lines dramatically.

So far, Agus YK Priyono has been working with landscape paintings. These paintings visualized trees with relatively detailed anatomy branches, twigs and flowers. More senior painters like Sutopo and Nisan Kristianto have previously pioneered the patterns of visualization like these. Many assume that these works were an extension of the “Mooi Indie” trend, painting that was directly imitated the beauty of surrounding nature. The ideology was relatively simple, as it has been told by Plato: “ars imitatur natura”. Art is imitating the nature.

The term “Mooi Indie” or “The Beautiful Hindia” was a sharp satyr coming from S. Soedjojono towards Dutch artists who came to the Dutch Hindie and took the beauty of nature as subject matter in their all artworks (Indie or Hindia was a term coined for Indonesia before its independence) in the early 1930s. For Soedjojono, the theme was not attractive because it created gap between art works and social facts such as poverty and social gaps and all similar issues. For him it reduced “art values” for it contained social bias that implied ignorance to the real social facts.

Thus far Agus’ visual pattern has dominantly put forward the aspect of beauty. Therefore, it became very interesting and risky choice when this time he moved to deepen certain themes by combining it with social themes that frequently did not exploit merely beauty. It was interesting because this step was considered an obligation rites for an artist to be dare to dynamically move his creative patterns for the sake of new inventions. It was a risky choice because these steps would bring him out from his comfort zone that could create a problematic impact for the aesthetic world. What Agus has done was to change the rites of a craft man to a visual artist. It was obviously clear that the former only reproduced works with industrial spirit, meanwhile, the later explored creative ideas to search newness and difference in each works he has created. The spirit was rather personal.

Whatever it was, on this Agus’ solo exhibition there were some important points that mattered to be proposed. First, this exhibition could enrich the visual ideas in the many various art exhibitions in Indonesia. Out of many different art exhibitions, frequently each exhibition appeared only certain stereotypical patterns one to the other. Like recent time, many exhibitions showed more comical, urban and other painting themes such them.

Second, about the same with the first, this exhibition could also possibly create a new power in the art market, though in a small degree. This possibility and expectation appeared because art business in Indonesia all this time has been found its saturation due to narrow market scope embraced by their participants.

Third, this exhibition could become a milestone for the artist to enter the mind-map that was larger than he ever expected. Of course, this expectation still relied on public response to the ideas and forms that were proffered by the artist through his artwork. This was not an easy task, but was also hard to anticipate. Anything could happen.

At least, this solo exhibition has been attempted to be held. The works were full of meaning. And this time, the public would be the witness and the judge of Agus YK Priyono and his work. Only time will tell. ***