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The Primacy of Seeing

12 April 2018


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

a group exhibition by

Ayu Arista Murti -  Gilang Fradika - S Dwi Stya (Acong) - Wedhar Riyadi 

curated by

Anton Larenz

The Primacy of Seeing

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  

(John Berger, 1972: 7)

"We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice" 

(John Berger, 1972: 8).

The eye is the central organ for visual arts, what reminds us of the central position of the sense of sight that shapes human perception and minds. The relationship between viewer and artist is essentially constructed through the eye. Objects in reality are translated by the artist into visual metaphors, asthe cornerstone or prominent part of art forms. Visual metaphorsform a nexus of imagery that artists have used across the centuries to communicate without words.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks of a "worldwide primacy of seeing" in philosophy and its conceptualization, of the "ocularity of Greek philosophy" as a legacy to the humanistically-sustained culture tradition.

The philosopher Hans Jonas describes the process of seeing as follows: “According to the paradigm of the ocularity, the object is the passive-given, the subject is the free autonomous view, which discovers the world as it is in itself, without the seeing subject thereby being determined by the seen object. Rather, in the paradigm of seeing, what is seen and seen (object and subject) are in fact indifferent to each other.”(Jonas 1997)

But: ”Who sees, sees most of the differences in reality.” (Jonas 1997)

Ocularity is generally defined as “a measure of the number of eyes needed to see something, i.e. monocular or binocular”.Basically it could be understood as the human capacity to perceiveor recognize through the eyes what is usually called reality.

Only the eye is capable to capture at the same time the images and schemata of systems and structures or the structure of hierarchies. Ideas and philosophical concepts resemble much more often nets or webs.Pictures or images are frozen time, immutable and enduring, if they have been once immersed into our brains, by that way establishing their own truth. 

In the digital era images have become ubiquitous, the human mind is flooded with pictorial information. The art historian W. J. T. Mitchell coined the term “pictorial turn” for describing the shift from a discourse that relies on words (verbal or linguistic culture) to a visual culture that is shaped through images. There is an all-pervasive image-making, but “we still do not know exactly what pictures are, what their relation to language is, how they operate on observers and on the world, how their history is to be understood, and what is to be done with or about them.”, as Mitchell (1995) remarks.

Pictures are open for manipulation, the distinction between reality and deceptive delusion has become more and more blurred. With the upcoming of virtual technologies like ‘Augmented Reality’ the difference between natural and virtual reality seems to be meaningless. Augmented reality (AR) is “a direct or indirect live view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are "augmented" by computer-generated perceptual information, ideally across multiple sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory, and olfactory”.

Components of the digital world are build into a person's perception of the real world, everything what is perceived will be recognized as parts of a natural environment. Humans will have a direct interface with computers through this AR technology by generating a three-dimensional image which appears to surround the user.

The other side of seeing is being seen, or being watched, controlled and surveilled. The all-seeing eye has been the symbol for God watching over us and caring about the universe. This mighty symbol is still visible on dollar notes, now actually representing the all-pervading power of money. 

Michel Foucault has recognized the panopticon as the model for disciplining society, another French philosopher, Guy Debord, described society as ‘spectacle’, - the public is a stage, where everybody is exposed and performs. Both philosophers have analyzed the spectacular trends in the evolution of modern society.

Modern states have already started to install all-seeing cameras in public places for controlling society. Public control increases especially in China, where all kinds of data about individual citizens are collected and kept. It is the “final imposition of a grid of control on the planet”, as Donna Haraway once wrote in her Cyborg Manifesto (1991),so predicting the future. 

What once sounded like Science fiction, has already become reality, an infinitely malleable world of virtualityand other emerging technologies.  

Surrealism’s pioneer function

The Surrealists had made the eye a subject of their art, for example Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali with their film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) in 1929, which will always be remembered because of the famous scene in which an eye is slit with a razor. This represented perfectly the Surrealist search for new visual experience, an attack on visual and moral conventions. It was about the adoption of the visionary model, or visionary illumination. 

Martin Jay, who saw the Surrealistmovement as a sign for “the crisis of ocularcentrism”, described the Surrealists’ relationship with the eye as follows:“…Edenic purity of the "innocent eye," an ideal which had been defended by the Romantics, if not earlier. By violently disturbing the corrupted, habitual vision of everyday life, the visionary wonder of childhood, so they believed, might be recaptured. "The eye," Breton began Surrealism and Painting by announcing, "exists in its primitive state." (Jay1991)

Consequently the eyes (or often the single eye) were, in most cases, enucleated, blinded, mutilated or transfigured.  The surrealist imagesshould demonstrate the mysterious workings of dreams, or the inner eye, which allowed desires to be expressed, ideally without any conscious intervention, what they called automatism:”…automatism in a way that relates more to the darker side of Surrealism. Automatism was … not a conduit to the unconscious, but a crack or hole in rationality“. (Hadler 2011) 

Surrealism was the ultimate confrontation between inner vision – visionary and dreamy, even violent -, and outer vision – reality.

The surrealist inclination to black humor as a tool for combating the traumas of the exterior world links it to comics and cartoons, together with a predilection for looking for more popular art forms. The connection between Surrealismand comics is obvious.The popularity of the comics and cartoons made it an accepted profession for young artists “…who cut their teeth on Surrealism, the comics could be a place of the dark imagination where hybrid and carnivalesque inversions occur and the personal and the ideological collide. “ (Hadler2011)

Surrealist ideas and concepts can now be found in fiction, comic books, TV comedy, advertising and film, as well as three-dimensional design, continuing in the tradition of the obsessional, fantastic and strange in viual arts.

But, as Rick Poynor (2008) commented, “… Surrealism’s assimilation into everyday life is so complete that characterising something as ‘surreal’ has become a routine, rather obvious way of suggesting its peculiarity. When used this casually, the word no longer bears any fruitful relationship to the artistic and social aims of the movement’s founders.”

Surrealism still persists in other ways as a meaningful reference for a particular visual category, because of the Surrealist quality as metaphor for spontaneous and freeinterior expression.The “over-use of ‘surreal’ as a synonym for ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ might seem to be an insuperable problem, No creative person wants to be identified with a term that has been trivialised and rendered meaningless.” (Poynor 2007). 

But the authentic spirit of Surrealism lives on – in projects dedicated to the strange and numinous.

Surrealism and Street Art

Surrealism’s protest was always political in essence. Far beyond a practical improvement of our social and economic arrangements it was about the way we lead our lives. 

“The surrealists were not just interested in art,” she says. “It wasn’t just a style. They wanted to change the world.” (Susan R. Suleiman, in: Kaletzky 2006).Surrealism’s objectives were to change life and transform the world, as it was written by Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement in the Surrealist Manifesto.

Today street art could be seen as an art form where the spirit of surrealism is still alive. There are many links between surrealism, comics and street art, - stylistically and politically. Street art provides also an opportunity for independent adventurism in mainly urban environments.Pop Surrealism is generally associated with street art. But both terms are equally problematic -- being both too broad and too specific at the same time. Formerly subversive styles have already entered and influencedthe mainstream, they are now publicly accepted.

Street art could appear in the most obscure public spaces, and could be seen as legacy of the Situationist Internationalist (founded by Guy Debord) and their concept of psychogeography,although this has not always been pursued systematically. It is a kind of Surrealist exploration of the city. Under current conditions, - like ecological disasters, globalization, the ubiquitous ‘Society of the Spectacle’, and all kinds of fundamentalisms – street art is an approach to articulate opinions and messages freely, an open channel to reach the public eyes. It also takes advantage of the new possibilities of social media to spread the word at a blink of an eye.Fantasy and humor are often enough the essential ingredients.

Street Art in Yogyakarta

In Yogyakarta, the city of culture, education and tourism, the discourse of street art arose after the year 1998, with the art group named Apotik Komik that wanted to use public space as a space to present visual artworks.The program "Mural City" in Yogyakarta was initiated in 2002 by the group of Apotik Komik. It also started as a critique of the “visual trash” that could be seen all over the city, like the ubiquitous billboards,advertisements, banners, and posters, visually dominating the urban streets. The then Mayor Herry Zudianto approved and supported the project.

A member of Apotik Komik stated his motivation to initiate the project: “Many experts believe that one way to make people feel comfortable in his neighborhood is to place an art work in a public place. It is also believed that art can strengthen civil identity and raise a pride within the heart of urban dwellers.” (Michael Chin, in: Anusapati)

Street art proved as a particular good concept to give the public space an aesthetical and to involve the local communities through surveying and participation:

“As a result, until today, the art of mural has been becoming a trend for many communities in the city of Yogyakarta. Today, we can see murals painted on the walls in many corners of the city, at the alleys and outer walls surrounding schools. These mural projects are initiated and carried out by the communities themselves. (in: Anusapati)

Two of the participating artists in this exhibition, Wedhar Riyadi and Gilang Fradika, have been involved withand influenced by this Yogyakarta street art movement. As Asmudjo Jono Irianto notes:

“One of the post Reformation young artists’ greatest influences is the industry of popular culture. Low brow tendencies in the form of comics, illustrations, graffiti and advertising are quite ‘fashionable’ with young artists now.” (in: Wilson 2016)

The All-Present Eye

Wedhar Riyadhi creates with his art an atmosphere that is a mixture of reality and fantasy:”What I'm trying to do now is to blend them together more seamlessly. I want it to feel more real but alien at the same time.” (Thee 2017) 

He perceives his art as a reflection of the conflicted world we live in. He asks if painting is still relevant in the digital era and questions the relevancy of paintings made in the digital era.With the possibilities of the webworld and all of its involved technologirs a new playfield for artists has evolved.  

He was born 1980 in Yogykarta, and grew up “in the influential period of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the fall of the Suharto regime and the transition to democracy. The impact of these political and social changes found expression through his work, as was the case with many young Indonesian artists.” (Wilson 2016)Wedhar describes his childhood as “‘surrounded by Java’s culture . . . consuming a lot of television shows including cartoons, sci‑fi, horror and action shows, as well as imported comics, anime and manga’. (in: Indo Pop Indonesian Art from Apt7 2015). 

He uses pop culture reference to create surreal worlds, also drawing inspiration from street art, graffiti and comics.In his former works Wedhar showed often the darker side of pop art, the dark heart of visual culture. 

Wedhar has chosen the eye as his personal icon, attached to him since his early days as a full-time artist. In an interview he remarked: “It’s a symbol of seeing and being seen. Technology has allowed us to see other people – what they are doing, where they are – through screens. We are watching other people, and we are being watched at the same time. My work, ‘Floating Eyes’, is an encouragement to see eye-to-eye beyond the screens.” (in: Hidayat 2017)

‘Floating Eyes’, an installation, was produced as commission work for ArtJog 2017, with pairs of huge eyes, watching everybody from all sides. 

Wedhar explains: "There is a social shift. With technology now, people can be very open or free.” Information technology today opens the access to and for everything and is almost free, but the negative side is total visibility and traceability, resulting in surveillance and total control. 

He warns of social media as source of wrong information:” It's like this other face of social media, a medium we are supposed to use to socialize and interact has become a platform for division that is filled with tension and brass. There's a lot of information which can't be told from truth or lies.”(Thee 2017)

His present works show a strange kind of portraits, - uncanny faces, which are constructed like collages made from pictures out of magazines, or otherwise digital images,“arranged in a way sothat they become anonymous figures, with looks that can be considered off and out of left-field”. (Thee 2017) 

They all have only one eye, alluding to their limited possibility to perceive their realities. Their eye sight has been blocked by consumerism and the influx of other external influences. These paintings also refer to the mentioned issue of the “Death of Painting”, the title of one of his last exhibitions. Technologies can change everything in a very quick way. When photography came up, the classical portrait painter, who used to be quite popular at that time, lost their economic base, since people replaced quickly the painted portraits with photographs. Thus portrait painters became victims of modernization.

Wedhar is known as an artist, who changes often his style and techniques, even from one exhibition to the next. He responds to the shifts in time and technology, but does not forget the risks and dangers which are lurking behind them. His sharp sense of history remains strong, like his creativity.

Inside Views

Gilang Fradika, a young artist working in Yogyakarta, presents another side of painting that results from personal experience. On the first look the paintings resemble the interior view of human bodies, in forms similar to inner organs, like the heart or intestines. Gilang told that he includes a lot of sights of human anatomy in his works. This reflects his introvert nature, as he remarked. It is also an emergence of inner conflicts and memories, and could be compared to an internal journey through his past.

His paintings are painted in several layers what takes time and patience, meticously exeuted with brilliant colors and many details. It is a narrative work, which requires time from the viewer for apprehending all the details and structured layers. Hidden stories between the painted objects shape a complete picture of his messages. 

The deepest layer of his paintings – almost unrecognizable – is a reference to his former activities as street artist. He explained that although he is now doing very different work, - more oriented towards inner life -, he does not want forget or throw away his past when he was more involved with social activities in the street art community. 

The next level in his paintings are the objects, the inner organs – among them many small eyes, watching in all directions. Little animals or the comic figure Mickey Mouse appear, a bit monster-like, as well as many strangely shaped plants or other organic forms. Purple color evokes darker moments, but this is contrasted witth smaller parts of bright green or yellow, so that darkness does not become too dominant. All in all it is a dreamy atmosphere, the eye of the viewer floats through biomorphic inner landscapes.

Gilang Fradika described his artistic process like a kind of trance, supported by hearing music with trance-like rhythms. He mentioned also the dhikr of the Sufi, the repetition of sequences of prayer or songs. As a symbol for that atmosphere he depicted a gong somewhere a bit hidden between the other objects.In this floating condition stability could be achieved through the calming sound of the gong.

From street art to dreamscapes, from comic art to surrealist elements and biomorphism - all this shows his influences. Gilang’s paintings are definitely no visual fast food that could be consumed easily.

The Plea for Unity with Nature

A quite different side of painting becomes visible in the works of Ayu Arista Murti. Her house at the outskirts of Yogyakarta is located in an area that used to be very quiet, just like a traditional village where local people still bathed in the river nearby. But over the years the atmosphere changed, many more new houses were built and the street in front of her studio by now has become quite busy. According to Ayu the quality of the water was very good. She is very concerned about nature and the environment.

During the interview with her she mentioned Dr.Masaru Emoto, a Japanese author and researcher who had written a book (The Message from Water. Tokyo, 2001) in which he claims that human intention could alter the crystal structure of water, human consciousness has an effect on the molecular structure of water. Emoto had taken photographs of ice crystals, said to be shaped by words, music, or prayer, as proof for his theory. The more pristine the water, the more beautiful the photographed ice crystals. He believes that water could react to positive thoughts and words, and that polluted water could be cleaned through prayer and positive visualization. But until now Emoto’s theory is contoversial and scientifically not proven. As inspiration for anartistic process this theory could be very useful, 

However, Ayu Arista Murti considers water as an essential source of life. She refered to cultural and religious practices which relate to water, like blessing, cleansing or purification. So she integrates natural elements into her artistic process, her painting becomes a collaboration with nature. By exposing the freshly painted canvas to the sun for drying, she observed how particles or small dots appear from the canvas that had not beenpainted before. A different texture and structure of paint becomes visible through the drying process. A similar result evolves through the use of charcoal, which is taken for drawing. Tiny pieces of charcoal are moved through the wind, another natural element that is involved through exposing the works to natural forces. Her message is that nature is a creative power.

For her paintings Ayu Arista Murti prefers soft or pastel colors. Although some of her narrative scenes take place in a domestic setting (“We give you sofa”, for example) nature is always present, represented through leaves or plants. The woman sitting on the sofa has her eye wide opened, like looking at the inside and outside at the same time. Generally her style of painting has become more expressive, visualizing strange forms, in some parts almost abstract, - compared to former works which were more figurative, or even realist, while depicting fantasy or dream-like sequences which could have arisen from ghost- or children's stories. But a narrative structure remains, she is an artist who wants to tell something. But a narrative structure remains, she is an artist who wants to tell something. A human figure with two heads (“Unity”) talks about different or conflicting opinions in one person, but it is still the same person, although trying to bring internally struggling feelings or ideas into accordance. Her installation work “Blooming from Hard-space” shows that life can evolve from everywhere, even if the external conditions are not suitable.

Ayu Arista Murti wishes a world that should be better for all of us, although there are threats, dangers and conflicts around us. Her view is focussed on her surroundings, - in this perspective not far away from Wedhar Riyadi and Gilang Fradika -, where life is directly experienced and shaped. Through the forces of life or nature an optimistic perspective is possible, that’s what we are taught by nature.

The Threats of Technology

S. Dwi Stya (Acong) has a lot of questions about the condition and the future of the world and its increasing dangers, in this respect similar to the other painters in this show. A figure that already were seen in his former paintings, a man seen from behind, dressed with long trousers, but with his upper body naked, appears as a witness or aviewer of the events around him. 

Acong wants this man to be seen as subject, not as an object. Humans are called for action, they are all actors in the world theatre and responsible for their deeds. And in case of mistakes or wrong developments they should be ready for preventing the damage that would follow from misguided actions. It is a dramatic world that Acong sees. In his eyes the whole world looks like a huge spectacle. Dangers are real, like the nuclear explosions, which already happened twice in the history of mankind, always remembered in connection with the names of the destroyed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is time again to remind usof that madness of new upcoming threats through the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Acong’s lonely man stands in front of all the incidents and watches. In “Sight of Mind” that man looks at the chaos, visualized through expressive, abstract shapes. Tension and drama are intensely palpable. Several doves flying around, actually a symbol of peace, but obviously disturbed through the turmoil in front of the man. Acong comments that in front of the man all kinds of illusions are revealed.  It’s just a spectacle, the globe behind the man has become a playball.

In “Keseimbangan” (“Balance”) a woman and a man struggling for something, tearing each other into opposite directions. The conflict is burning, but at the moment there is no winner. The match between the two of them is undecided, still in balance between the opponents. The atmosphere is tense, enhanced through the fiery object in the middle of the two persons. 

Acong’s paintings are expressive, building atmosphere through dramatic scenes of conflict, threat and destruction. Only the man who is seeing all of this keeps calm, like a tower of strength. So there is hope that everything eventually turns out to the better, even if Acong is warning of the risks of nuclear explosion and misused technology.

Visual Experience

Four painters, three men and one woman, take us to a journey of visual adventures, each in their own way based on their invidual experience and worldview. The act of seeing evolves into the art of seeing, transformed into paintings. The depth of psychological reality behind them is spellbinding and gripping. Like all compelling works of art these paintings could look back at us, exhibiting a subjectivity of their own that is capable of putting us in question.

Anton Larenz, curator and art writer


Afiaty,Riksa: A short History of Graffiti in Indonesia. December 21, 2012 

Anusapati: Murals in Yogyakarta’s Public Spaces: Towards an Equity of Aesthetic Experience. Visual Arts, Indonesia Institute of the Arts Yogvakarta, download from

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