Conversation with Entang Wiharso (Part 1)

Visiting artist Entang Wiharso will be lecturing Thursday, September 16 at 5:30PM in DeMeester Recital Hall (and via Zoom.) We are releasing this first part of the conversation between the artist and Gallery Director Matthew Clay-Robison as a preview and to add context to his exhibition, A Thousand Kilometers, which stretches from our galleries on campus to Marketview Arts in downtown York. While physical attendance at the artist lecture is restricted to the campus community, there will be a public reception for the artist on Friday at Marketview Arts beginning at 5:00PM so that members of the larger community may engage in person with the artist. Please enjoy part 1 of our conversation with Entang Wiharso below.

MCR: What is the significance of the exhibition’s title, A Thousand Kilometers?

EW: There are many stories about the construction of the Daendels Road in Indonesia during the Dutch occupation.  I learned about this road, like most Indonesian school children, in history class.  The road was built under the leadership of the infamous Herman Willem Daendels, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), during the colonial period. The road was said to be 1000 kilometers long connecting West Java to East Java between Anyer and Panarukan. I was taught that the road was built with forced labor and cost thousands of Indonesian lives. These were stories I heard from my grandparents and parents, as well as in school. The road still exists and every morning I would drive on it when dropping my children off to school.

The distance of 1000 kilometers is probably not accurate.  And the story itself has been changed many times to suit people’s needs. There are Dutch versions where the workers were all paid. This inaccuracy reminds me that measurements in Indonesia are often a problem.  There is no guarantee that a length or a weight will be the same from place to place. The fact of 10 centimeters can be inconsistent, and can cause all kinds of unexpected consequences, just like the uncertain facts of historical events. The calibration of length, weight, and volume requires standards that we all agree on as protection against inaccuracies that can cause disasters like those that can happen during road construction.  

I chose this title because it reflects on the dangers and consequences of altered facts.  In America, it seems to appear in different manifestations with the same intention, namely as a form of protection through myth-making when there is a desire to change reality.  Often the difference between the truth and lies is just an illusion to create comfort.  America and Indonesia are totally different, but human behavior is the same everywhere.

A Thousand KM, 2014-2015, Aluminum, car paint, color pigment, resin, thread, teak wood, 220 cm tall x 300 cm x 230 cm

MCR: The contested history of the Daendels Road reminds me of the heroic myths American children learn about the building of our transcontinental railroad. We celebrate the “Titans of Industry” in school, but rarely reckon with the racialized exploitation of immigrant workers. I’m interested in your statement that often the difference between truth and lies is an illusion to create comfort. I think of how nationalism has for many people merged with or even replaced religion as a source of identity and purpose and how necessary those heroic historical myths become for personal spiritual comfort. But there is also a great deal of power at stake when it comes to contested histories. Were you shown the film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI in school?

EW: It is fascinating to learn about American history, as many things remind me of the socio-political situation in Indonesia. I see similarities between the details of each country’s politicians and the actions of the political world. How people maintain power and gain power. How religion is often introduced into the political realm to get a leader on the political stage and how there is a lot of tension inherited from the problems of the colonial era, slavery and the Civil War. Oppression and historic violations still echo today in the struggle for social justice, human rights, and the anti-racism movement. The rhetoric around these issues in both countries share commonalities. For example, rising nationalism in the US and Indonesia stems from identity issues which often lead to a blind fatalism and fanatism. Nationalism undermines multi-culturalism, is anti-foreigner and leads to violations against minorities. Nationalism is transformed into intolerance based on differences of race, religion and ideology. The threats of communism or socialism are often also amplified to gain ground on the political stage. Labeling something, or someone, Socialist or Communist is still a weapon in a religious or capitalist society, and a good way to gain empathy. But religious values ​​are the still the most effective weapon to gain public empathy and foster solidarity. Those similarities connect the socio-political framework in Indonesia and in the US to each other. When unfiltered information is highly accessible and social media is flooded, it turns out that people become more closed off because of a rising sense of threat that leads to a strong desire to protect communities, identities and heritage. People are scared about foreign influence. The existence of entrenched religious and socio-economic systems is enforced through a wall of propaganda surrounding its values.

The nationalist movement often uses history as the ultimate tool to maintain its power. I remember I was required in high school to watch the propaganda docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30/PKI), which was created by the New Order regime about the failed communist coup in Indonesia that resulted in Suharto’s rise to power. This film was traumatic because it displayed violence that was unthinkable in every detail. This film depicts how communists are so sadistic and cruel. It became a very successful propaganda tool for the government of the New Order regime because it created trauma and deep hatred among both adults and children for communist. For people with no experience of communism, the film’s depiction of sadistic, inhumane violence created a deep fear and anxiety about anything associated with communism, a feeling that became systemic and was engraved in the hearts of the people in society. After the New Order collapsed, this film was unpopular and school children were no longer obliged to watch it. Now this film is getting a lot of criticism because of the many misrepresentations of history.

What is the point when leaders say left wing or socialist? We often hear the words “left wing” or “alt right” or “socialist” used as cudgels against political opponents in the election campaigns for the House of Representatives, the Senate and the President in both Indonesia and in the US. If we examine the underlying issue, the point is to set boundaries between the rich and the poor, between investors and workers, between rulers and the people, between religions, and the majority and minority.

This is what the leader proclaims to win.

In the painting Half Dead Giant (2017) I emphasize issues surrounding social justice through the lens of national narratives about good and evil. A sleeping giant is a metaphor for a legacy, a system or a subconscious awareness in society. A sleeping giant which can be awakened at any time to destroy his political opponents. Half Dead Giant is a reflection on the current political situation by referencing the Ramayana story about Kumbokarno’s death, and how good people become evil when the leader pushes against the good. This is the story of how Ravana, an evil king, summoned his brother, the giant Kumbokarno, to help defeat his opponent, Rama. Rama is a good and wise king and an ideal figure because he has high morals, strong ethics and is handsome and intelligent. In this work I draw on American symbols and signs such as the Confederate flag, New England-style buildings and family portraits to reference contested histories and the role of stories in justifying ways of living and believing. 

Half Dead Giant, 2017, Acrylic, graphite, oil on canvas with collaged eyes of resin, color pigment, thread, 210 x 507 cm

MCR: You mentioned how labels like “communist” can be used as cudgels against political opponents and also what a powerful weapon religion can be, and this leads me to another piece, Perfect Mirror (2013), which is adjacent to Half Dead Giant in the exhibit. This work speaks to the dangers of twisting the truth, pitting people against one another, and fanaticism. It also reminds me of my earliest introduction to your work twenty years ago, your exhibition NusaAmuk. I’m asking you to connect a bunch of threads here, but can you discuss the concept of running amok, how it relates to periods of American and Indonesian history, and also recent events like the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building? And the tendency of leaders to either double down or deny their role in these events as opposed to reflecting upon and taking responsibility for them?

EW: My homes in Java and New England are places where tradition, modernity, innovation, and ancient practices coexist and are often reflected in my work. In Perfect Mirror, I see and connect two events from different times and places to reflect current conditions. I look at how historical ideas and collective experiences are manifested in contemporary society. Several years ago, there was a series of cases of judicial abuses of power in Indonesia, and it reminded me of the story of Samuel Sewall, a high-ranking member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was the only judge from the Salem Witch Trials who openly admitted his guilt in condemning people to death, publicly apologized, and later became a strong voice in the fight against slavery. In this piece, I explore how the private and the public often intersect over time, and how past history shapes today’s reality. I am interested in why and how public figures admit wrongdoing and seek redemption. I use my own personal experience as well as public records and memories extensively to reactivate archives and create new narratives and meanings. This work serves as a “mirror” to reflect back on our own experiences. 

In the body of work I created for my 2001 NusaAmuk exhibition, I was looking at the legacy of the New Order regime in Indonesian social and political life during the “Era Reformasi” when democratic reforms were being implemented. I was interested in how the mindset of corruption and violence cannot just disappear from a society, even when there is a collective desire for change. During this Reformation period, there was a heady sense of freedom, but the same people who had been in power continued to pull the strings and the mindset of corruption continued to inform how people thought and lived.  There were ongoing instances of rioting and ordinary people losing control and being swept up into communal violence. I wanted to reflect the effect of the collective on the individual in Indonesia through the phenomena of running amok. I created themed bodies of work for the show. One body of work I called Melting Souls, to describe how individual energy melts into a group or community to create collective power. Another grouping I named Community Storage, where I looked at how individual memories emerge into collective memories that can be recalled at any time in the manifestation of collective power.

There are two parts in the discussion of the concept of amok: first how the people run amok because there is no other choice to escape the oppression, the sense of insecurity, and the feeling of having no freedom. Running amok occurs when the most basic human rights are violated and ignored. Of course, the action of running amok in Indonesia may stem from the manifestation of communal solidarity or duty, namely prioritizing the community first and then the individual. It highlights the central belief that all individual activities should be a reflection of the wishes of the community first. This is what often makes it easier to create mobilization in moving the community towards running amok. Amok is often triggered in the name of racial or religious solidarity or to overthrow a depraved and authoritarian leadership. Both forms of amok are triggered by people who hold power in the context of majority and minority, indigenous and foreign.

In my opinion, events such as the January 6 uprising at the US Capitol Building are led by those in leadership positions. The end point of this event is the central figure. How do people see the central figure/leader as a sign of alignment with their choices? 

Perfect Mirror, 2013, Oil color on mirror, aluminum, thread, resin, color pigment, 220 x 330 cm

MCR: The Ramayana story you referenced earlier reminds me of the complexity of religious faith in Indonesia and I was wondering if you could speak to that. The United States has the largest Christian population in the world and Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but these faiths are not monolithic in either country and especially on Java there is a particularly complex blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. How has this influenced your work?

EW: I do not create artwork as a representation of a specific religion, but I am interested in discussing religion in terms of costume, the culture surrounding it, and the causes and effects, phenomena and behavior of people as a manifestation of religious practice.

MCR: As an emerging artist in the 90s, what artists, both historic and contemporary, were some of the biggest influences on your work? Did you feel pressure to adhere to New Order ideas about art? And was there a sense of increased freedom among artists after the fall of Suharto? Or, as in the case of continued corruption during Reformasi, were some subjects like 65 still dangerous to address directly?

EW: When I was in art school, I liked the works of Hendra Gunawan, an historic figure and important painter in Indonesian art. I like artists based more on their practice and thinking, rather than the visual aspects of their work.  Like, what is a specific work of art accomplishing? That is meaningful to me. For example, British installation artist Cornelia Parker – I like her concept about contemplation and sublimation; or Hieronymus Bosch – how he creates symbols and codes to talk about ethics and morality; and Walter di Maria – how he uses open landscape as his studio and how the nature creates art for him. These are some of the historical figures I find important.  With regards to contemporary artists, I really like the work of Ashley Bickerton, Dread Scott and Lucie Fontaine because of their friendship and their practice. 

During the New Order Era, of course, I felt a lot of pressure and had to find a safe way to express and deliver my ideas to the public. It was not easy but somehow, I managed and survived. In responding to pressure, I had to be more creative in conveying my ideas about the socio-political context at that time. I created a lot of code, and personal visual symbols to communicate with the public and escape official censorship. My works of that period feature a great deal of layering, a combined method of abstraction mixed with figurative elements to trick the state censors. I remember at that time artists were very active and created informal dialogues between studios, like an underground super-heated magma that was waiting to explode. It was a great energy. Some examples of work I created during that period include, Ripped (1994), Sang Jenderal (The General) (1996), and Climate for Three Months (1997). After Suharto stepped down, everybody was celebrating but surprisingly, artists were kind of stuck, and lost their way. They produced a lot of banal and boring work. It was very illustrative, more a form of reporting on events rather than an analytical approach. In fact, several artists stopped making art because their practice had for so long been about their resistance to the New Order regime and Suharto, and they didn’t know what to talk about anymore. They lost their enemy. I was in America, and back and forth, so I was able to see my country from both the outside and inside. I tried to distance myself from the events in order to see things more clearly. Actually, after Suharto came down, during what we call the Reformasi Era, it was a very fertile, prolific time for me. I was focused on contemplating, and less on screaming. I remembered creating a body of work with the central image of the placenta – questioning our hopes, dreams, and identity. Some of these works included Unforgotten, Your Placenta (2000), Self Portrait with 1000 Yellow Sperm (2001), Membebek (Followers) 2000-2001, and Visit to Sacred Place: Cultural Interrogation (2000). I think most people were surprised after Suharto came down because they believed everything will change and get better quickly. But we forgot; the System was still the same and the engine of society was still the same. Our mindset needed time to change, because we were still in the same place.

Regardless of the events of 1965, we need to learn and to open our minds in order to understand the polarized society we live in today. We must reconcile to heal the wound so we can move on in the new era. But I believe people and leaders are still using ‘65 as a last card in the game. We’ve been sick for a long time. Our sickness is chronic. We need time to heal and to come to terms with our past in order to create a new life path with a new direction.

Unspeakable Victim, 2020, Acrylic, glitter on canvas, 68 x 96 inches

MCR: There are several points made in your answer that I hope to circle back to if possible, but I’d like to begin with what you said about being interested in artists more for their thinking and practice than the actual visual aspects because one thing I have noticed about the response your exhibition at York College is receiving is that people are captivated by your use of materials and challenged and fascinated by your visual language. Are you willing to share some secrets about your techniques, such as your wall relief pieces and how you’re incorporating glitter into your paint with such density? Why are some works relatively quiet and spare while others are loaded with overlapping and intertwining symbols and narratives?

EW: We know there are so many talented artists who create sensational visuals or techniques, I get that. But for me, I have always admired artists who can offer me something different. I remember when I visited Fadjar Sidik, an abstract painter important in Indonesian art history and also a professor (and my teacher) at the Indonesian Institute of Art.  He was a great artist and thinker.  I was preparing for my first a solo show at the Indonesian National Gallery in Jakarta in 1995 and I asked him for some tips about becoming a great artist. He told me, “When you find your style, you should hold tight to it, stay committed and ‘marry’ it like you would a wonderful girl.  Never get divorced.” I listened with respect, but inside I disagreed with this perspective. It left me questioning the role of visual presentation in art. 

I told myself, “I want to keep getting divorced! I don’t want to have a boring job and a boring life. I want to have total freedom. I don’t care about this idea of ‘loyalty’ to a style, creating the same kind of artwork over and over.” It seemed too formulaic, too mechanical and deadening. My perspective was not common. At that time, I was working on a series of paintings about “ugliness,” trying to oppose the dominant narrative about beauty and create something really challenging visually, but that drew people to it.  This work was all about incorporating colors, textures and techniques that were visually jarring, but that had a real richness and depth.  I was so tired of the beautiful, calm technique that was dominating the art at that time. People had a very strong response and they said my work was scary and dark. But people kept coming back again and again to visit my studio, and we ended up having long conversations. I ultimately called that pivotal exhibition at the Indonesian National Gallery Idea is Form to signal that ideas are the core of my practice, the fundamental component that guides all my artistic decisions.

This approach was preceded by a real period of crisis when I was still a student.  My parents had a food stall in Jakarta and I would take time off from college to work and make money for tuition and art supplies.  I had been working there for six months, cooking and serving customers during the day, and working in a tiny studio at night. I was on a bus headed back to Jogjakarta to start school again. I had been experimenting a lot, trying to figure out how to create strong work, and trying to understand my practice. I was depressed and frustrated with my work; I was never satisfied and felt lost.  On the bus in the middle of the night everybody was sleeping and I was still thinking about my painting. Suddenly I got this overwhelming feeling and saw a kind of moving picture in my head. I could feel how to paint and understood the way a line can be alive. It was a strong, urgent message in my brain. This was the answer I had been looking for over many years. It was a magical moment. I couldn’t wait to get back to my studio, I felt such a pressing need to create. When I got there, I looked around and realized I didn’t have any white or black paint. It was Sunday and the art supply and hardware stores were closed. I asked a friend and fellow art student to borrow some black and white paint and all he had was roof paint.  I was so happy. I created two painting about relationships that night in 1992 called Twin and Hug. I felt confident for the first time that I knew what I was doing. This was my breakthrough when I had arrived fully as an artist.

This is a long way of describing how my visual language is a product of a desire to speak about an idea. The visual is in service of the concept, it is there to communicate with the audience and to elicit knowledge and feeling. My visual language developed over time, from my early career and that moment in 1992.  It’s like when you learn to speak, in the beginning it is just sounds and then words form, and words become simple sentences, and then complex sentences and then the sentences tell a story. That is how I developed my visual vocabulary, through a long process over time.

So to answer your question about my relief work and my current use of glitter, each of these materials represent a new way to communicate ideas.  I started working with aluminum because it is a prevalent material in the domestic realm.  Pots and pans, window and door frames, roof flashing, handles, laundry racks, etc. are made of aluminum.  I was looking for a way to counter the dominant use of bronze in art history, looking to break that narrative and connect contemporary ideas and experiences. Initially I was making cut-outs from thin sheets of aluminum, a process that came out of cutting up “failed” paintings.  I was using the cut-out to make embossed monoprints.  As I created that work, I realized I could rearrange the cut-outs into configurations on the wall, using the objects as sculptures to create scenes.  The cut-outs had limitations in articulating depth and overlap.  This pushed me toward creating three-dimensional wall reliefs, which had an intentional connection to the temple reliefs at nearby Prambanan Temple.  Most artists were scared to use anything that was considered “traditional” or “ornamental” but I really wanted to activate this area of culture with a new meaning.  This was a time when Indonesian artists were seeking Western connections and trying to create a language that was easy to understand by Western curators and audiences.  A lot of artists denied their cultural identity and their heritage. People were scared that they would be labelled as “not a contemporary” artist, if they used visual elements from traditional art forms. This was definitely about how to create a market for their work in a global context. I used these forms in my work to disturb and challenged their perception. This labeling nonsense never ends, but it should end. Ultimately the reliefs made a big impact and became pivotal to my practice. 

Why do I use glitter? I hated glitter in the beginning, but this material kept inviting me. I was doing a residency at Melbourne University in Australia at Redpath Studio, when I first became interested in using glitter during the announcement that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States, defeating Hillary Clinton. On the TV, it was glamourous and sparkling. People were celebrating or hysterical with sadness and shock throughout the whole world. I had never witnessed something like this before, the whole world having a strong reaction. I wanted to create an image about this situation and was in a craft store the next day when I saw a small bag of glitter. I bought it to test whether it would work well with my ideas. Initially, I didn’t like it because it was hard to work with and I didn’t have full control. But I kept trying and I let the glitter speak to me. It was a slow process, but it fit so well with the idea of an unfixed image. It is an amazing material to create camouflaged surfaces and to talk about unfixed landscape, perception, and presentation. I know this material has a strong association with craft, which creates a tension that I think is useful, but it’s also good to speak about skewed perceptions of identity.  This reminds me of a newspaper review of my exhibition by an American art critic who described the “tribal” quality of my artwork. 

Finally, with regards to your question about why some of my works are relatively quiet while others are overloaded and overlapping – frankly it happens for many reasons. I grew up in Java, the most densely populated island in the world. Over-crowded and full of noise, Java is like many Asian countries. We love being close to each other and sometimes we also interfere with each other. Early on, I didn’t realize this quality in my work until somebody asked me why my paintings were so dense and chaotic. I was capturing the essence of Java, creating imagery about society’s structures. I think many Westerners are not familiar with this social paradigm, so visitors to my city of Jogjakarta comment about how the streets don’t have rules, that every kind of vehicle is jockeying for space alongside people walking, selling stuff, pop-up markets, demonstrations and so on. It seems chaotic to Western eyes, but for me, there is structure and rules in the street. This is similar to the shadow puppet stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In these grand narratives, there are over-lapping stories, and there are little stories between the big stories, details about individuals who may not make it into the historical narrative, but who still have agency and impact none-the-less. There is connectivity between these events, the small moments overlapping and intersecting to create a bigger narrative.  The puppets in Wayang are very detailed figures, and sometimes I want to focus on the individual figures. In my works like Permanent Scar (2020) and Restless Portrait (2020) that are spare, I bring one object into focus, to create a specific portrait. 

Permanent Scar, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 48 inches

MCR: I’d like to revisit another point you made about the work made in Indonesia following the fall of Suharto and explore the different ways artists bear witness in their work. It seems there are moments, such as the fall of Suharto in Indonesia or the rise of Trump in the U.S., where many artists feel an urgency to speak directly to what is unfolding before them. This work is often a form of resistance or advocacy with direct communication and clear lines drawn favored over subtlety and nuance. If I understand you correctly, you are less interested in identifying the flaws of specific leaders and systems, but rather discussing flaws common to most leaders and systems; rather than locating your work in a specific time and place, you are speaking to a continuum of human history and bearing witness to what it means to be human and the basic elemental behaviors, desires, mistakes and triumphs that are part of the very nature of being. Is that correct? 

EW: I understand how artists feel called upon to voice their opinions about what is happening around them. When Suharto lost power and stepped down after the ongoing protests, suddenly all the artists were talking about politics, even people who were previously uninterested in these issues, or just making beautiful, decorative artwork to please people. I observed a euphoric tendency for freedom and change, but an inability to go beyond the moment of tumult to really solve social problems. It was my experience during the New Order that all of society was part of the system.  It was impossible to function in society without adopting practices that you found deeply upsetting or reprehensible.  We were all indoctrinated.  It is impossible to live outside the structures and systems, even when you despise the oppression.  So, I was quite uncomfortable blaming others, with dividing people into groups of “good” and “bad”.  Anything that exists in society, we created together. I feel frustrated with the conditions when people find fault with people, people become suspicious of each other. Therefore, the approach I take in my work is to look at the human condition, as you say, but not from a theoretical perspective.  In my work from that period, I explored how we all contributed together to shape and perpetuate this kind of condition. So, for example I noticed a lot of ordinary people during the Reformasi period were extremely stressed.  The newspapers were celebrating the victory and the advent of democracy in Indonesia, but regular people were really struggling to make sense of the changes and how to manage daily life.  I decided to start a new approach, rethinking how to create work, how to gather information and have a different studio practice. I didn’t position myself as an artist in that moment, but felt like any other citizen.  I was looking for another way to align with the moment we were all living through. 

I distributed simple questionnaires to the wider community, from farmers, high school students, and university students to government worker, artists, teachers, religious leaders, clerics, friends and family, etc. What do you think of the Reformation? What are you dreams and hopes in this time? I gathered about 500 responses and the answers were so pessimistic and hopeless. From these answers, I created work with a more personal approach, helping me develop a contemplative, subliminal direction in my work. During this period, I made work where repetition played an important role.  In one large-scale sculpture, I repeatedly attached the shells of quail eggs to the entire surface of the work. In another multi-panel painting, I attached doll eyes to the surface to form a landscape with isolated figures. At that time, I used a lot of forms of repetition to find sublimation in the process. This approach reminds me of Cornelia Parker’s work. The act of repetition created a contemplative and sublime experiences for me. This became a kind of prayer, where the act of creating had a distinct function. 

When Trump campaigned and then won and led the United States, I thought about the way this was manifested in the history of the country. Why did he rise to power? I think people have contributed and created this condition and it continues to grow. And of course, this is why it is such a great movement, because it is not about Trump, it is about his followers and their desires. He is calling them, saying out loud what has already been there all along. The social and political systems and history in America allow Trump to keep ascending. I see it as the natural result of historical problems of race and religion, reflected in the economic policies and gender inequalities that divided us so deeply. These historic tensions become tools to create a sense of insecurity and a feeling of being threatened that destabilize people’s lives.  These patterns of power, instability and control are repeated throughout human history.

I am not aware of placing myself and categorizing myself in a certain place and time. I think very often about how I have to distance myself from the situation to understand it better. Honestly, I get very stressed by these events, very emotional when I see things that bother me. My work exists in that place of tension between being in the moment, and trying to be outside the moment.  

Flag of Surrender, 2021, Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 78 ¾ x 236 ¼ inches

Please return for Part 2 of the Conversation with Entang Wiharso in the coming days. In the meantime, join us for Entang’s lecture tomorrow, Thursday, September 16 at 5:30PM and for the public reception at Marketview Arts on Friday, September 17 beginning at 5:00PM.

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