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(Final) Challenges

18 Mei 2018


23 Juni 2018
Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery, Jl. Taman Srigunting, Tanjung Mas, Semarang City, Central Java, Indonesia

a group exhibition by

Bestrizal Besta -  Isa Ansory - Nurhidayat -  Putut Wahyu Widodo - Seno Andrianto

curated by

Anton Larenz

(Final) Challenges

The true picture of the past whizzes by. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast.

Walter Benjamin: On the Concept of History. 

Making art always means a continuing challenge for artists, being driven to explore and create something that has not existed or being seen before. It always means to delve into the imaginary spheres of the human mind. Artists are going through their own periods of artistic evolution, inspired by internal and external factors. 

Viewing and understanding art is also a challenge for the recipients, since it is not that easy to recognize and to read the ideas of artists which are executed in multiple and diverse ways that are often not easily accessible and immediately understood. 

The 21st century has brought new challenges to all of us. The time seems to run faster, because all these processes are accelerated through the impact of the digitalization of communication technology. The whole world is connected now within seconds through the internet. This ongoing process starts from metropolitan cities and ranges to the most remote villages. The world has become more interdependent, - economically, politically, socially, culturally and ecologically. Many traditional ways of life will disappear, and the future consequences of Artificial Intelligence are looming on the horizon. These developments certainly will influence the production and functions of art.

According to some scientists, but now more widely accepted in scientific circles, the planet Earth has entered a newperiod, which is called “Anthropocene”, a geological epoch replacing the former Holocene. 

The Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky is now known as the father of the science of biosphere, a forerunner in the science of earth like the French geologist Teilhard de Chardin, who coined the term “noosphere” (biosphere, meaning the anthropogenic transformation of the earth system) and James Lovelock with his (until today controversial) Gaia hypothesis, who views the whole earth like a single organism. Anthropocene in this context is a further development of these former theories.

Anthropocene relates to the human imprint on the global environment that started since the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. It means the complete influence on the ecosystem of the earth, and a bio-spherical crisis. The rapid extension of international travel, electronic communication and economic connectivity has accelerated these impacts and caused serious ecological problems. This period of Great Acceleration started after World War II in 1945 and continues until today. Effective global solutions are needed now.

The hubris of mankind has led to the end of nature, in the sense that there is not one spot on the earth anymore that is not affected by human activities. These processes seem to be irreversible. Climate change and the pollution of the oceans are only two examples for this global process of contamination. Traces of chemical pollutants have been found on the peaks of the Himalayas as well as in the Antartic regions, plastic trash is floating around everywhere in the Pacific Sea even to the most remote islands, with tremendous effects on marine fauna and flora. Natural landscapes have been transformed into garbage dumps and junkyards, they are scarred landscapes now. The loss of biodiversity goes along with this, the extinction of species is the result of the disappearance of natural forests. 

It is the unquestioned use of science and technology that brings lethal threats to this planet, caused by mankind itself. The technological utopia, a positive vision of scientific discoveries for improving and protecting human lives, has a dark side. The once positive view has turned into the dystopian opinion that scientific advances now are often more perceived as threats than as a progress. Scientific approaches might be even inefficient and contraindicative for solving the environmental problems. Methods like geo-engineering for the limitation of climate change could result in even worse problems because of its unknown side effects. 

Planet Earth is fragile, and the interrelatedness of animals and humans has socio-political implications with influence on all forms of cultural production. In this context art could eventually point to a more sustainable future. Artists are known for their command of metaphors and visualizations. Guided by creativity they explore all kinds of new knowledge and technics. With their artistic achievements they could convince us to change our attitudes towards nature. Art could produce an important contribution in the struggle to make this earth better. It would be certainly too utopian to expect that art will save the world. But with working in this direction there is some ‘dark’ or ‘dim’ optimism embedded. 

Fate or Destiny?

Seen from this perspective the ruins (or the ruin) of technological utopia remind us of the general question of the human condition. What makes the history or evolution of the earth and mankind, is it possible to change the course of events? Earth could be a paradise or a desolate space of violence and devastation. Confronted with the end of nature as horror vision we are forced to scavenge the odds and ends of a failed dream. What shapes actually the human condition? Is it fate or destiny?

An ancient view of the universe understood the creation as two polar principles: one is matter, the world of darkness and chaos, “damp” nature, and the other is light, the ordering principle, God or the divine spirit. Man and the world arose from the combining of these polar principles. (Ebeling 2007)

Fate and destiny are two sides of a coin. Fate means something certain or inevitable to occur, like death the final stage of life. In destiny there is an element of choice. Human properties like courage, compassion, willpower, and patience for example can change your destiny. If we accept destiny as the guiding principle, we also accept responsibility for our lives, and the planet as well. We actively shape our destiny through our actions instead of leaving our lives to fate.

Fate relies on a natural order in the Universe which cannot be changed, an aspect of existence that is immutable. It could even be mentioned as predetermined. Destiny is determined not solely by fate, but by how we choose to respond to fate. We are responsible for those choices and its consequences. There is always the challenge how we lead our lives. 

The Power of Imagination

Imagination is the sphere where artists most depend on and guided by, imagination that is understood here as an active force, not as pure fantasy. The French scholar Henry Corbin, a specialist of Islamic philosophy, once wrote that a disconnection between being and thought occurred in the European philosophy since the 12th century. But, according to Corbin, the field of imagination “has been left to the poets”. By the way of imagination sensory data are transmuted into symbols which are part of the imaginal world – mundus imaginalis. They could be dreams, visions and the realities of prophetic revelations, in the words of Corbin. 

Corbin refers here to IbnArabi and his notion of alam al’ mithal, the imaginal world where imagination functions as an organ of perception, giving access to a realm of real being, an objective world. The world of the Image should also not be confused with “imaginary”. The Swedish curator and writer Maria Lind described it as follows: “The ‘imaginal’ is analogue to the perceptible, normal world around us but not immediately noticeable to the senses, like a mirror reflecting something without itself partaking in the physical properties of that which is reflected.” (Maria Lind 2016)

This concerns the combination of activity and creativity that is at once a discovery and a creation. In the center of IbnArabi’s teachings is the thought of the heart – himma -, an intensification of being. By this it should be possible to be capable of directly creating objects and to produce changes in the world outside of thought. It is the realm where invisible realities become visible and corporeal entities are spiritualized. This corresponds to three organs of knowledge: sense, imagination and intellect, together with the triad of body, soul and spirit, regulating the growth of humans, extending from this world to other worlds. (Corbin 1995)

This challenging view of imagination has recently found more attention among Western artists, too. 

“(Final) Challenges” represents a kaleidoscope of how diversely artists can interpret the influences on planet earth’s and human destiny and fate that are mentioned above. Through their distinctive lenses and artistic means they set their priorities in this process of interpretation.  Natural, social and spiritual life is addressed in a way that is at once aesthetical and meaningful.

Five artists from different areas in Indonesia tell about their views of the earthly condition, reflecting their personal life experiences and wishes for the future.

The Optimist

BestrizalBesta has been known for his works in Black and White, drawings and paintings made with charcoal in a realist style. The charcoal is a material that comes close to the atmosphere of old black-and white photographs, actually already alluding to the theme of antagonism that is dominant in almost all of his depictions. It seems like the ancient Indonesian epic theme of the Mahabharata, the never ending fight between good and evil. Besta is originally from West Sumatra and not so directly influenced by Javanese culture with its long tradition of Hindu-Buddhism. But in his new artworks he shows a certain affinity with themes and motives of the Hindu-Buddhist past, combined with elements of his original culture.

His background used to be to work as an illustrator and designer for advertisements or billboards, before he decided to become a professional artist. From that time he learned many skills. His predilection for comic figures and warrior-like figures is still present. In his works archaism and modernity meet, the same old homo sapiens with a conflicted personality does not disappear. 

For this time he has explored some new techniques and materials. Work on wood with a laser tool, an engraved painting on a hard surface. The former gloomy atmosphere of the black-and-white charcoal drawingshas changed. The burned wood reminds of burned forests, or scorched earth. Sumatra is almost every year affected by huge forest fires. But this association is maybe an unintentional result of the artistic production process. The artwork “I see the Rainbow in the Sky” represents several figures of animals, a horse, a bee, a raven sitting on the top of the central figure, a head is lurking to the side, carrying a heart on the top. Mysterious creatures on the left and right side of the central figure that seems be crowned with a rainbow, emanating some firm but peaceful aura. It’s a crazy universe. Even Batman appears, in another corner on the bottom a knight is riding on a horse ready to fight. This is a world in turmoil, afflicted by warfare and battles, the many arrows are shot against the middle. Death, symbolized through the gas mask on the teddy bear, a skeleton of another horse, but the figure in the middle is unscathed. Besta explains that no rainbow comes without rain, and no success without pain. In all this trouble we have to learn, there is so much knowledge around, symbolized through the geometric forms, also indicating rationality and ordering principles. An allegorical and mysterious picture, and at the same time it gives confidence in the continuing existence of the earth and the universe. A cyclical structure is involved, that’s why the small applied board means repetition, and no end of anything. Trust and optimism, although there is crisis and conflict.

Besta’s other work shares a similar message: no limits (Tanpabatas). A person is bound with a thick rope, preventing any move. A skeleton of a deer as metaphor for the final limit, namely death, shown at the side of the bounded. Even in such a situation it is possible to think. Even in a prison somebody could do something good, for example sharing knowledge, remarked Besta. In this work he comes back to his general pattern of light and dark, black and white.

The Believer

PututWahyuWidodo shares a similar professional background with Besta, because he is also coming from graphical design to art. Parts of his works belong to the category of assemblage art, similar to collage, but which is generally two-dimensional. In assemblage three-dimensional parts are installed on some substrate that is eventually two-dimensional. The American artist Robert Rauschenberg had been a pioneer of this art form.

PututWidodo has created a work that is inspired by a short story of the late poet, writer and painter Danarto, “SetangkaiMelati Di SayapJibril” (A Twig of Jasmine on Gabriel’s wings). Danarto is known for his short stories where Javanese philosophy and Sufism merge.

In modern times there is a clear separation or big wall between profane and non-profane (spiritual) life. Danarto’s stories are beyond logic and rationality, the big wall has disappeared. So angels can come down to earth and lead people to the world of angels. There is no strangeness and wondering anymore, everything becomes real. It is a world of pluralities, where the fight between angels and the devil continues. Although the boundaries with the normal world are vague, it is nevertheless social critique which becomes manifest through spiritual themes and allusions in these stories. Carl W. Ernst, a scholar of Sufism, has explained that the early Sufis came from lower classes and that their piety included critique of the excesses of wealth and power which were generated by the rapid conquests of the early Arab empires.

PututWidodo told that then he reads stories by Danarto, that he translates them immediately into visual language while still reading. He sees no difference between social and spiritual work, they are complimentary. “Where is the Angel” is a special homage to Danarto, reminding of the many angels he has written about and they are still missing in the lives of many because they don’t know how to see them.

Another source of inspiration has been the famous story of the Conference of the Birds, written by the Persian poet and Sufi Attar from Nishapur who lived in the 12th century. Attar was an important influence for the even more famous mystic poet Rumi. So “Final Journey to Simurgh” is about the journey of thirty birds on the quest for the bird Simurgh. Simurgh is described as a very old bird that has already seen the destruction of the world several times. The birds have to pass through seven valleys, the valley of quest, love, knowledge, detachment (leaving desires and attachment behind), unity, wonderment (where they entranced by beauty) and finally annihilation and poverty, for becoming timeless and disappearing into the universe. Finally they understand when they don’t meet with the bird Simurgh that the birds are themselves the Simurgh. In Persian Simurgh means ‘thirty birds’. Everything is already in them. This work has been dedicated to Attar as remembrance of his life and thoughts. 

War scenes or pictures of a wrecked city appear as background in “In the name..”, looking like the pictures from the war in Syria that could be seen anytime on TV. The Plague Doctor with this special mask and other outfit has been first mentioned in 1620 when a bubonic plague had already killed in several waves half of the population of Europe. The mask of the Plague Doctor contained fragrant herbs because it was believed that the disease was spread through bad air. No direct contact was allowed and the plague doctors had to spend a lot of time in quarantine. The best work that was done by these doctors was documentation, filling the archives with reports about dead patients. Helpless helpers, like so many people today who can just be witnesses of disasters and wars without being able to stop it.

PututWidodo’s last work is dedicated to Yongwey   Rinpoche, a Tibestan Buddhist monk whom he admires because of his meditation practices and humanity.

Waiting for a Letter

In Seno Andrianto’s a young girl has taken a prominent place as the central figure in all paintings. It is about the uncertainty, the not knowing how to reach a beloved person that is far away. The style is realist, with mainly monochrome color. 

Letter writing seems to be an almost forgotten activity and quite unusual in times of smartphone and WhatsApp. But the letter mail still exists and works. But these letters will not be sent to somebody on earth. They are a plea to a higher being. The Girl in front of a wall that is covered with children’s scribbling holds an armful of letters which have not being sent yet. It could be read as a history of painting, the contrast between the child’s scribbling and the full developed realist style of Seno Andrianto shows his mastership in realism, because he has copied exactly the drawings on the wall which have been painted by his daughter.

There is love, there is longing expressed in all these touching paintings, love between father and child. In Seno’s earlier paintings the theme of history, or with other words, remembering and not forgetting, played an important role. His water color paintings about the ‘sleep mode’ referred to an activity that is commonly interpreted as retreat from social life, but on the other hand it proofed as action with social effects and connectivity with society. Maybe the planet should also take a break.  

The sense of history and personal memory is an expression of dedication to life, that all life forms and living beings under the sun have a right and are worth to be remembered. How long the life span lasts can’t be known, that is a matter of fate and destiny. How individual persons handle this, depends on personal decisions and beliefs. The circle of natural, social and spiritual is always present and working on all levels of life on earth.

Sending a balloon with attached letters to heaven speaks for the deep belief (or hope) that there might be a receiver. The girl with the book that contains the key to heaven is another example for this hope.

Seno Andrianto has been known as a good quality portrait painter with a sharp eye to catch the aura of a person. The aura of the painted girl is touching and shows his capacity to catch and express emotion intensely and deeply through his brushstrokes.

The Conservationist

Isa Anshory lives in Malang, East Java, and could be considered as an artist who is interested in the culture of his region and wants to take care of it through his art. Older paintings by him were a celebration of nature and culture, like the tradition of batik painting for representing local culture which is very diverse with specific motifs and meanings. Environmental issues have been addressed in his latest series of threatened tropical forests. Forests are now converted into commodities like furniture or plywood for all kinds of uses. The spiritual dimensions of nature, especially trees, seem to be forgotten.

Isa Anshory considers knowing nature as a way to know God, because God is inherent in nature. He says that “Nature always finds a way to remind people to be able to melt into a part of the universe ..and submit to his power.”

He observes the life of the villagers and knows their daily struggles. Modernity is entering the villages and rice fields are replaced through cattle breeding. Farmers start to lose their fields while developers have taken over. New walls are being built where livestock is lined up neatly. But this kind of agriculture not belongs to the farmers anymore. 

Isa Anshory feels suddenly to live in a world that is full of images like cheap posters. He describes what he witnesses as visual terror, with only artificial images around him in the street.

His ideals about nature are hard to defend if the traditional life collapses. In painting this on the canvas he hopes to others who will support him in his wish for a healthy nature and just society.

Isa Anshorysaid : "I really miss the breezy smell of the yellow rice. Buffalo clap on mud d morning, discordant tone of the rice field hijackers. .. I miss the shepherds' singing their traditional songs. "

The Zapper

Nurhidayat describes his work as a kind of random choice from images that he sees as flowing by from TV, newspapers, journals, magazines and Internet. He is critical about this economy of desire which is made only for attracting attention and seduce people into consumption. This massive flood of images causes a loss of aura. By painting these images he tries to resurrect this aura, to bring them back into a new frame or context of interpretation. There is also the problem of memorizing of images involved, due to the flood of that visual invasion by which the human eye is hit every day. 

Nurhidayat compares his method of selecting images to the practice of zapping through TV channels. He mentions that he is inspired by a French TV program (“Le zappage”) where images from media stations are juxtaposed which can be seen only for a few seconds. The basic question is, he insists, if the consumer can resist the permanent attacks or succumbs.

He mentioned in an interview: “First, my work is much inspired by the French ‘figuration narrative’ art movement that emerged along with the pop art movement in America as a counter to the pop art movement in America, but in practice both criticize consumerism and contemporary politics.” ( 2016)

Nurhidayat is an artist from Bandung who is living in France since 2005. French cultural influences become visible in his works, also the influence of contemporary French philosophy from thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari as well as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He also mentioned Roland Barthes's “Mythologies”, which tells about the photos of food in Elle magazine,

His paintings have been categorized as Surrealist Pop. His paintings are inspired by food photographs. As visual collages they become the subject of his narrative art. Nurhidayat also remarked that the painted food is a dream food, not real food. This representation of food generally talks about desire and how this desire is transformed into images. “My works are a representation of a person's behavior, how he or she faces the consuming of information right now, "said Nurhidayat. By juxtaposing seductive images he wants to recall and activate the process of remembrance or to tickle the memory until it is awake.

His refined and poetic at the time when he was still living in Bandung he read Sundanese poetry (pantun, which in West-Java is actually sung) to the audience of his exhibition. His depictions show very colorful universe of objects, but they transport his sharp critique of greed, which is another word for word of desire, this never satisfied greed that contributes to the decline of the planet Earth.

Anton Larenz, art writer


Argus FS: Dengan Pop Art, NurhidayatMengelaborasiLukisandan Drawing Images dévorantes.

February 22, 2018  

Barthes, Roland: Mythologies. New York, 1972

Corbin, Henry: Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. Swedenborg Studies 4. West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1995

Davis, Heather; Turpin, Etienne: Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London, 2015

Ebeling, F.: The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus. Ithaca; London, 2007

Ernst, Carl F. W.: Guide to Sufism. Boston, 1997

Lind, Maria: Mundus Imaginalis. In: ArtReview Asia Volume 4 Issue 1, 2016

Mclean-Ferris, Laura: The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthroposcene. 9th Taipei Biennial. In: art agenda, 2014 GerakanPolitikdanKritikTerhadapKonsumerisme

March 19, 2016

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