*This writing is an curatorial essay for Agung Kurniawan’s solo exhibition in Kendra Gallery, 23 April 2011-22 May 2011.
Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre.
(Walter Benjamin, Excavation and Memory, 1932.)
Remembering is not something that simply can be understood as an activity of recording what has happened in the past, rather it reconstructs: creating a theater in the mind by collecting scattered memories and reconstructing them to become a “unity”. Memory is a bridge connecting the past and present; it becomes the foundation of the existence of one’s identity today.
It started with an unintentional meeting with the finding of a worn-out family album hidden in his mother’s house. Agung then visited his childhood presented so true in the photographs but yet so vague in his memory. The trellis series that he worked on in the last two years (2009-2010) are attempts to find his past “wholeness”. When the light drops on the trellis welded together and the whole construction attached onto the wall, we cannot see the border of lines and shadows because both collided and blurred, what we see are layers of shadows on the wall. The visualization of lines and shadows was made into an idea to describe how fact and fiction in the history and memory is no longer clear in its dichotomy in the contemporary culture.
Started with a personal theme about the family’s memory, in this series of work we can also see Agung’s exploration about “other reality”. This discovery comes from how he sees shadows of the installations that have blurred the iron solidity. The reality of solid and massive things transform into shadow and becoming other reality that is blurred. This other reality can be paralleled to multi- layered reality in photography, because photo is also the result of selection of realities done by the photographer.
In the series titled “Seri Orang Kalah” (2010) or “Loser Series”, Agung sees how visual plain that we see in the media is the umpteenth reality that has been reconstructed by certain authority: the photographer, photo editor, chief editor with each significance. The photograph of Saddam Hussein captured by the American Arms Forces in 2006, with beard not taken care of and his pathetic face , can become a reality of certain parties to create the image of a loser: an ex dictator. The layer of complicated reality pictured in the the trellis’ shadows made by the light makes us question if it were really “real”?
“Drawing is my wife, the trellis is my mistress.” What Agung said perhaps can explain the reason for choosing the medium, especially works with a family theme. The response came when I asked the difference between working with drawing and trellis. What can be produced by drawing and not by trellis and vice versa? Agung acknowledges that working with the trellis forces him to think logically by planning the whole conception completely in relation with the choice of material and theme. While with drawing, his true love, Agung feels free to interpret the found photographs using metaphors that he applied in his earlier drawings, here sometimes visual elements appear without planning.
“The Golden Boy of the Family” (2011) is a tribute to his eldest brother, the boy most loved by their parents who suddenly left his family, The trellis medium seems as insufficient as an outpouring of high spirit to describe Agung’s relation with this theme because its trace only stops on the idea of other blurred reality. While with drawing, each line and color is a real form of Agung’s idea in his works that tend to be narrative. Here we would see three drawings dominated by blue color and show three perspectives of Agung’s in remembering the existence of his brother. Agung is not good in drawing faces, he even confesses that he is not capable of drawing ears. “For me, drawing is a kind of attempt to “search” my brother’s face, because “the reality” in the photographs is not sufficient to serve my memory.” This is the reason why he folds his drawing paper so the trace of the folds looks like a cart giving direction to where the memory anchors.
Agung’s choice to draw on paper, I think, should be underlined. The simple character of paper, its fragility as well, that is frequently put as second compared to canvas makes him fall in love with this medium, although the educational background in the Graphic Art Design in the Indonesia Institute of Art also can become one of the reasons for his intimacy with paper. His choice of paper that is considered as edge media is a resistance against mainstream media. He believes that every choice of medium, color and even the size of work should have a reason; although the reasons can be limitless on the logical reason, but can be melancholic.
One day, in the corner of his studio, under the dim light I found out of Agung’s explorations in the matter of art medium which I think very interesting. Agung was working with watercolor. He was expressing whatever passing his mind, just like a child without any pretense to create artwork using a certain theme or with appropriate intension. I think his watercolor works are interesting to be put in an exhibition, because we can see other sides in the mode of his art creation. I remember “Sex, Lies and Drawing” (2003) and “Budiman Project” (2006), two pieces of work yielding from a mode of creation of this kind, which then we call it automatic drawing. Automatic drawing is a mode to draw without pretension, intending to release certain limitation. In the earlier mode of creative process, Agung started with making sketches, then, he made drawing in larger size. But “Sex, Lies and Drawing” or “Budiman Project” was not initiated with making sketches. These works can be viewed as sketches themselves. He only draws what appears in his mind, which then he noted that most of his drawing was about homoerotic. His intension is to dig limitation that we build about the idea of body, sex, and pornography. It can be related to the New Order Regime repression of body, gender, and sex.
In the series of automatic drawing recently created by Agung (then collected in the series titled “Benda-Benda yang Menulis Kisahnya Sendiri” or “Things that write their own stories”) Agung does not force himself to work in a certain theme. This time he “forces” himself to work with watercolor, a medium that he has not managed fully. He admits that he is not an expert when working with wet medium such as watercolor, because he usually works with dry medium using charcoal or oil pastel. But here I see his struggle against his establishment in working with a certain medium. In his regular works of, we see his obsession towards theme and narration, while here I see how Agung with all due respect studies about a new medium and shows his obsession towards what is elementary such as lines.
As a member of a much younger generation than Agung, I remember him with his political works that criticize the government. “Very Very Happy Victim” (1996) / “Uji Coba Mesin Penguji Kebenaran” (“A Tryout of a Truth Testing Machine”) (1997/8) are examples of Agung’s works character that reflect political and social situations in Indonesia in the 1990s using anonymous characters symbolizing certain meanings. In “Very Very Happy Victim”, for example, Agung made drawings of ten human forms hanged upside down and a masked character smiled widely as a clown’s mouth, representing the society’s condition in Indonesia’s New Order who have no political awareness (called the floating mass), so that they still feel happy although they live under an authoritarian and repressive government. In an interview with Tom Plummer in 1996 regarding the meaning and theme of his works, Agung responded: “My main theme is violence.”
When I witnessed Agung to turn to personal theme both in the series of trellis installations, his drawings and watercolor works, I feel that the theme of violence has now been tamed in his works. Then I asked: “Has the old man lost his enemies?” The turn from big themes such as political and social into more universal ones or even personal does not only involve Agung but also many of Indonesian artists in the post reformation era who came to a dead end with political themes. The shift of theme is caused by the change of political art in the post reformation era, which has undergone great commodification. He delivers a very strong statement regarding the co-modification of art and politics, “When the Chinese women being raped and their houses burnt, I suddenly become a rich painter.” For Agung, painting using political theme has now no significance, it becomes only a commodity – it has lost its fighting value since there is no institution that can mediate with the society as function of a museum in the West so that art can obtain educational value. One example of the works picturing this situation is an installation titled “Cinderamata dari Dunia Ketiga” (2002) or “Souvenir From the Third World”. Besides, the presence of political art during the New Order becomes important because it can substitute for a censored journalism (as written by Seno Gumira Ajidarma, “Ketika Jurnalisme Dibungkam, Sastra Harus Bicara” or “When journalism is silenced, literature must speak”. However, in the era of post reformation, the freedom of the press has been given birth and Internet makes political affairs irrelevant to discuss using straight art metaphors. What is taking place is not a representation but reproduction of violence.
Agung then is looking for another form of art that he thinks can be more useful and mediate art with society. In the years 2002-2008 he was active in art organizations such as becoming one of the founder of IVAA (Indonesian Visual Art Archive), an artistic director in the Yogyakarta Art Festival, and together with his wife he built Kedai Kebun, a restaurant with small gallery and performing space that gives support to the young artists. He believes that by building alternative art institutions, art can stand on its own feet, accepted by the society and it becomes useful.
I see that between what Agung has done in his studio and his involvement as art activist are two different things. Working in a studio for Agung is a process to reflect what he has done and to obtain his private space as an artist. He then can be much freer to discover themes that are much more personal and possibly not “really useful” for the society. For me, the strategy is very important in the endless discussions about the position of artists in the society, and it is a sustainable method to political art and art for the society.
Although I have said before that Agung’s works now seems “tamer”, his position as an art activist makes him see violence in a different form in Indonesian art scene. Like a popular song in the 80s : “Aku Masih Seperti yang Dulu” or “I am still as I used to be” , I also see that the following two of his works still picture Agung’s character; narrative just like a picture story using the image that tends to be dark and full of horror, and as usual, whining.
“Requiem for the Dragons, for Banyu Bening Savaraja“(2010) or narrates the situation of young Indonesian artists from his point of view. He sees that the business dealing in art requires sacrifice. On one hand, Banyu (a close friend of Agung, aged 6 who likes drawing) represents young artists, who should be idealistic by slaughtering dragon, Agung’s metaphor to those rich people who dictate the artists to create anything they want to purchase. On the other hand, when you observe that painting in more detail, Banyu cut his wrist to give his blood to the dragon in order that it would be alive. This is the fact taking place in the art world: the relation between artist and art collector is mutually interdependent. An art collector, how antagonistic he/she is, has role in this situation is as one of the motor of art, since there is no institution (or even the government) that can support art.
“The Death of Artist, After Mantegna” (2010) has a theme that is not much different from “Requiem for the Dragons.” This work is an appropriation of “The Lamentation of Dead Christ” of Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). “The Lamentation of Dead Christ” itself is an important and monumental work at his time, because Mantegna was the first Renaissance painter who painted Christ in the perspective parallel with human eyes so Christ’s figure looks realistic and human-from the sacred turns to the profane. In “The Death Of Artist”, Agung replaced Christ’s figure with a fat artist, lying alone in his bed. Mantegna’s idea about Christ who becomes profane, paralleled by Agung’s opinion that an artist is just human, not a prophet. An artist may die of heart attack if he enjoys the luxuries of the expensive price of his works. It does not mean that an artist may not be rich. He considers that an artist will die if he does not adapt his time, be supple in his choice of medium and realizes his social function in the society. I understand that what is meant by adaptation here is parallel with what Agung has done in his works. Agung’s ideas are self criticism to the condition of art in Indonesia.
This is Agung’s first solo exhibition after not exhibiting in for four years. Though there are some changes in Agung’s beliefs on what art is, his critical thinking is still a platform for his passion of art. In a conversation about his often whining attitude, Agung said that he might be too romantic and ideal in looking at art, perhaps, he said, only dinosaurs that cannot accept changes.
Well, deep down in my heart, I pray that the dinosaur would not die soon.