23 Oktober 2009 jam 19:00
03 November 2009 jam 20:00
Dear Sirs, There’s No Canvas in This Exhibition
“Painting is distressing.” – Hahan1)
“ …I consider music art because and when I say ‘that song is art’, I don’t mean in comparison to a painting because I feel the visual arts are not nearly as sacred as the transcribed or audio communications, but it is art and I feel this society somewhere has lost its sense of what art is. Art is expression, in expression you need 100% full freedom and our freedom to express our Art is seriously being fucked with. –Kurt Cobain 2)
The face of a mischievous Javanese young man appeared on the cover of the Surat Cemeti, a bulletin of the Cemeti Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, in its November 2005 – January 2006 edition. The oval face is tilted slightly to the right, sneering cynically; the crazy, curly hair swells, looking like a bird’s nest; and the man looks as if he’s enraged. The flat chest is wrapped in T-shirt and serves as a billboard of sorts, reinforced by a pair of brown arms akimbo, proclaiming, “An artist who cannot speak English is not an artist.” I didn’t think I had ever seen any young artist with such an arrogant attitude and words before.
Farah Wardani, the Executive Director of IVVA (Indonesian Visual Art Archive) in Yogyakarta, had previously let me read her draft article that mentioned about Hahan, the owner of that slanted face. According to her, Hahan is one of the young artists with refreshing takes on art in Yogyakarta. At the time, I did not understood what kind of novel tendencies she was talking about; I only was aware of Hahan’s face and different attitude, which looks so conceited on the bulletin’s cover. Well, the story goes like this: Iwan Pandir, who likes to photograph his colleagues, apparently made Hahan look like the fool, who perhaps had something to do—God knows what exactly—with the main theme of the bulletin: “The Review on the Indonesian Visual Art 2005”.3)
That’s quite strange, I remember thinking, an artist named ‘Hahan’? We’re so used to seemingly meaningful and charismatic names of artists—especially the artists from Java. From Raden Saleh to Eko Nugroho—all those names bring to mind images of piety, wisdom, worth, and blessing. What kind of novelty that this young man can offer, with the name of Hahan and a T-shirt printed words that makes him looks like an artist who suddenly find himself managing an English course? Still, the figure, and the name, stuck to my mind.
After coming across his smug appearance on the cover of Surat Cemeti, and meeting the IVVA Director, I happened upon Hahan’s works of art. One of his works was installed, strikingly so, in a corner of the Sangkring Artspace in Nitiprayan—that exhibition space with a monumental shape, resembling a section of a sport stadium. Many works by the artists participating in the Yogyakarta Biennale 2007, which could not be installed elsewhere, found their place there, enabling me to encounter the huge sculpture of a baby by Edi Pranandono and the low-brow eclectic work by Hahan, and subsequently to feel a strong connection with these works.
Hahan presented a mock up of a room inhabited by a youngster who was developing his self identity and image by means of his hobby and collections. There were a pair of couches, installed next to each other; two new hi-rider push bikes; a radio cassette; a painting; and a kind of flat sculpture or a thin piece of board with the image of an old man that looked like a shaman or a community elder. Hahan’s two-color painting on the wall looked like an old calendar, and the big and small polka dots on the floor looked like the remains of old carpets, perhaps originating from a flea market somewhere.
What was important there was apparently a kind of celebration for a new identity that had freed itself from the original images of the objects, and was more or less formed by mundane flavors mixed with all the predilections and hobbies of the room’s inhabitant. One could well imagine that this inhabitant was none other than the artist himself, a faithful member of a youth club, or an angry proponent of the youth culture, who silently wished for the demise of “fine art”—whose meaning he might not necessarily understand. Indeed, one could (literally) see the writing on the wall: “young and restless” and “fine art is dead.”
When I found myself left behind by a few light-years (the phrase that the curator Aminuddin TH Siregar often uses to signify all things passé) in terms of the latest information about the young artists working in Yogya who are seen as cool and hip, Hahan almost found himself out cold, struck by a bowl of cold noodle—served with a huge block of ice as big as a man’s head—in one winter afternoon in Seoul. He had wrongly ordered his lunch, just as two or three colors in his drawing works were deliberately shifted by a few millimeters. What was more, the studio in which he worked during his residential term, which would eventually bring forth “My Winter Collection” (2008), was still empty, and Hahan had merely been preoccupied with the freezing weather and the goings about town.
Hahan then started to draw on the boxes of bread and milk fished out of the dumpster. One could use certain signs in his drawings to find directions, tracing the artist’s steps from his wandering back to the studio. There are images of children looking like buck-naked puppets, or moon-faced and innocent-looking elderly who sometimes resemble dwarves with running noses that invariably want to hide inside the tree trunk, or in burrows just like the bunnies, or behind the thick winter blankets. Often there are traces of oil or remaining sauce on the cardboards, full of such narrative drawings.4)
One can sense that his drawings have plots; they are more like tales of the wonderland rather than records of daily events. The lines and shading are meticulously done, the color blocks and brush strokes are sophisticated, just like the subtle senses of the Yogyakartan artists, be they low-brow or high-class. Producers at the Cartoon Network or Pixar would fight over him had they seen the flawlessness of these drawings, before finally persuading him to death to squash the images flat, or to stretch them, to make them look coarser, and therefore more lively and chatty.
Painting = Stress
However, in front of the line up of young artists in Yogya—in which Hahan is included—or behind them, there is not only Agung Kurniawan in Yogyakarta, or Agung Hujatnikajennong in Bandung, who keeps a keen eye on their exploits, considering them as merely downloading or transferring whatever it is they may find in the contemporary low-brow magazine of Juxtapoz. Beside Agung Kurniawan and Agung Hujatnikajennong, another significant activist stands readily by, encouraging them and linking them effectively with the local social realm of art. This is Bambang “Spiegelman” Wicaksono, or Bambang Toko, who, according to Hahan, is an effective “provider of extra lectures”. He is the contemporary artist-broker or broker-artist whose daring comic series of the Moslem pig might remind us of the cheekiness of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980 – 1991), with the cats, mice, and pigs in holocaust atmosphere. It is something that carries with it “half” an acknowledgement: the kind of the low-brow art that presents serious themes.5)
Hahan said: “I’ve chatted with a friend who has made paintings. In terms of its material, the canvas seems to be mystical; it ordains you as an artist, from the way you stretch the material to the end. It’s not as easy as when I find a cardboard, draw on it, and done. I’ve consulted Mas Bambang [Toko], but he said that I wasn’t a painter, but a graphic artist… Also, my only experience of working with brushes was when I used them to paint murals, so I treat my paintings like I do murals, although I’m quite careful about it. I mean, when I do mural works, I use wall paints, and when I paint on canvases, I use acrylic paints, and I don’t restrict myself with only one acrylic paint; I use all the paints with the pretty colors. Painting is actually quite distressing…”
So, what does Bambang Toko promise—he, the effective broker and link between the low-brow art (comics, illustrations, pictures on stickers, T-shirts, graffiti’s, kitsch arts, murals, etc.) and the high-brow (paintings, sculptures, installation art, conceptual art, performance art, and all art forms that seem to be serious, with artistic or prophetic aura)—aside from confirming them as masterful artisans and providing them with extra anti-stress lectures to counter the pressure of the unending exhibition requests submitted only for painting works?
Perhaps what we call the contemporary art is again undertaking a rapprochement with the popular or mundane art and culture. David Harvey said that this could not be a new thing, as in the past the modern artists had done it, too; using daily images in their modernist project for changes and social transformation, by means of ways that were considered as revolutionary (Dada, surrealism, constructivism, or expressionism, as it were). The rapprochement that the contemporary artists (who are “anti-auratic” and “anti-avant-garde”) are now conducting does not seem to employ such tactics anymore. On the other hand, their dependence on the media, or the new communication technology, easily makes them seen as the accused, reproached for yielding immediately in the midst of the reigning commercialization, commoditization, and… market. The communication technology has broken down the horizon of time and created a never-ending obsession for all things instant, signified by, naturally, the cultural productions that rely on events, spectacles, happening, and media images…6)
Black Ribbon (formed in 2004), Punkasila (2005), and Hengky Strawberry (2006)—the indie music groups founded by “punk rock artists” such as Hahan and his friends—along with all the pertaining products and side effects, certainly point at such obsession, don’t you think? You’ll find later that Hahan has admitted of being enchanted by a little girl, Evita Nuh, and of making a special work for her in this exhibition, as he has been following her “super-cool” weblog.
“…I actually would love her to come to my exhibition. I’d like to see her in person, instead of only meeting her in the virtual world…”7)
“Lowbrow meets Highbrow”?
In 2006, Ari Diyanto sent me—not with an accompanying ticket—to Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York. The message was succinct: “Buy me a copy of Jeff Soto’s book; he’s just exhibited his works at the gallery. He’s such a cool artist, you know?” Well, yes, but the exhibition has just ended, and it seemed that it was a quick selling one, hopefully they still have some catalogues left. I walked crossing some blocks in Chelsea, took some wrong lanes (like Hahan’s missing print technique), and it was such a cold day for going out hunting for the thick catalogue of Jeff Soto’s works, as per Ari Diyanto’s request, Hahan’s idol.
I just found out three or four days later that Juxtapoz’s spirit has actually become widespread in several contemporary galleries in New York. Jeff Soto is just one example—there are other names of artists from the West Coast who have started to “haunt” the center that is New York. According to the weblog My Artspace, which promotes the issue of “Lowbrow Meets Highbrow”, Jonathan Levine is a gallery whose sacred mission today is to endorse post-graffiti art works; works influenced by illustrations, comics, graffiti art, and the myriad pop imageries.8)
Ari Diyanto is one founder of the Apotik Komik, a group that all lowbrow artists must mention every time someone talks about whether the “frog” is of the low or the high kind, simply hunted by the frog hunters in the rice fields, or whether it has made its entry in an elegant way to a restaurant in Paris. Hahan commented about Ari Diyanto: “…I make drawing works, mural, stenciled works… that’s because I’ve seen Mas Ari’s works, which at the time were quite inspiring, with the Coca-Cola boxes, vans shoes, anything about the youth culture anyway. And then I thought, well, Kak Ari is still hip, the one and only…” And then on he went about other artists who have become famous and influenced him. Naturally, at the time he has successfully “graduated” from the job as an assistant to the artist Arya Panjalu, helping him painting block colors for his murals under the Lempuyangan bridge, Yogyakarta, under the umbrella of the “Sama-sama” (Together) mural project, which many artists like Hahan consider as legendary.
One can say that the lowbrow “frogs” have opened their eyes and ears wide, keenly sensing any event or spectacle anywhere in the world, by means of the media technology or the information available to them. Naturally, some of them would ingest such information fully, while others would be busy stealing and digesting—I hope they would try to become bigger and better than the ones they steal the ideas from. It has been said that big-time artists steal, and petty artists copy. In all kinds of fields, there is bound to be people who steal and giants who stand on the shoulders of the previous giants. But, have there been such giants in the world of the lowbrow frogs?
While Kurt Cobain started to throw around his music equipments on the stage in August 1988, we in Indonesia have seen a similar thing from Sony Irawan—known for his “Sick-sick-sick” among the young artists in Yogyakarta—done on Edwin’s Gallery stage at night, almost twenty years later. Even commercial galleries that claimed to be among the establishment turn out not to be able to resist the lowbrow artists. The reason is simple: everything sells today.
Cobain said that visual art was not such a sacred thing, but Hahan begged to differ. Hahan, in any case, is “just” a boy from the world of graphic art, who can easily work on meters upon meters of walls that are clearly a lot tougher than the canvas, but the pliant 200 x 200 cm2 canvases precisely distress him, despite the “extra lectures”. Apparently, it is the silent white square world that makes him stressful.
Therefore, in this exhibition, Hahan intended to keep on drawing on the square panels that look more like used boxes, instead of on the canvases, simply to avoid the unnecessary mental distress, and what does he care about the social acknowledgement for artists. Many contemporary art galleries have submitted exhibition proposals to him anyway, and some have even successfully drawn up contract letters for him to sign. “Sorry, no canvas today”—this exhibition today—is intended for those who think that “all works should be on canvases.”
Hahan followed the crisscrossing pattern of the boxes, then copied the shapes and blew them up with planks, as if to challenge the largeness of the canvases, or perhaps surreptitiously to overcome his distress. Hahan uses the missing print technique as the appropriate way to refer to the second- and third-class prints in this era of “mechanical reproduction”. These kinds of prints are ubiquitous, one can find them in the Glodok shopping center, Jakarta, or on Mataram street, Yogyakarta, and even in Bambang Toko’s catalogues in galleries. The skewed cyan hue produces unfocused images. The stereoscopic images actually point at stereopsis illusions, referring to the way our eyes work. By using such stereopsis method, the technical advantages and the stereoscopic effects now reign, and are today popular as the 3D technique in the film industry, loved by people from all ages. You will need special 3D glasses to prove that Hahan’s images in these media are not random and merely being playful with the skewed effects—or at least to handle the bright neon glows of the works.
The young artists who have been merely obsessed in making paintings in “good compositions” for the sake of “economic sacredness”—which Hahan subsequently takes as rather mystical—can perhaps be lined up along with Ponari, the young medicine man from the village of Jombang who had created such chaos and commotion throughout the country. The images of these young shamans must contain certain social caricature within, which Hahan celebrate without any revolutionary mode. The pictures applaud the existing stories, grateful for their own fate as non-reflective media, no need to call them second class works. The media that without great passion re-question the essence of drawing; and neither do they go deep to hunt and capture the substance of a problem, or, much less so, be caught in the fever of testing the history.
When working with the boxes taken from the dustbin in his city in Florida, Robert Rauschenberg must have been not as riotous as Hahan is today. The artist, who signified the era of pop art, had thoroughly mulled over the essence color and form for the sake of “a good composition” and treated them as a new medium for the “history of abstraction”.9) Meanwhile, Warhol’s Brillo Box does not look exactly like a real box, as a form of art masquerading as daily objects but cannot be used for any pragmatic needs.
There are porcelain objects that seem kitschy and cheap, as if they have been picked up from the second-hand market. The small sculpture of the Virgin Mary, whose robe has inspired Hahan’s shaman images, was found as a souvenir from Mexico, installed as if she is admiring a set of boom box, side by side with a rivet and a sculpture of a crouching tiger, whose body is rather elongated, and a small piano toy, “still life” of fruits and skulls, which any contemporary artist must obviously handle. The objects are covered with colorful thin lacquer, again using the CMYK color-formula just like an offset print. Besides, the paint pouring technique in the style of Pollock is there, too, on the surface of the objects, as if it wants to be joined with the ingenuity and the perpetuity. This is, apparently, the upshot of the theme “Never Mind the Pollock”, that Danius Kesminas promoted through his other music performance, The Histrionics, before finally influencing the young artists of Yogya, including Hahan, to make a parody out of a number of acronyms, including the term of ‘Pancasila’, which produced the name of ‘Punkasila.’10) Yes, indeed, like Jeff Koons, who deliberately plays on the Renaissance images and strips down the aura, making them look like objects that just come out of the stores. Here, for the umpteenth time, the extra lectures from Bambang “Toko” seem to be playing a part, because the collection of objects—whether made to look original or deliberately created to resemble counterfeits, in stores or in second-hand markets—constitutes the mode of working of a store-owner to give an identity to the objects and to create a space. “They’re smart and slick…”—these words are meant for the seller of second-hand objects, or perhaps to all artists who always have associated themselves with the art dealers.
Apparently, however, the “canvas effect” remains a dream and a target for the intriguing Javanese artist, although the theme of the exhibition carries with it the words of “no canvas”. Hahan said, “I wish I have my own studio with a hot water facility, air conditioning system, and a place for DJ and with a ram skateboard…” Soon, with or without stress, I think Hahan will gain more than he dreams for. +++
Jakarta, October 17, 2009
1. Interview with Hahan in his studio, Yogyakarta, May 2009. Several of Hahan’s statements quoted in this article, are from this interview, which was conducted with Bambang Toko, Emonk, and Rain Rosidi.
2. Kurt Cobain Journals, Riverheads Book, New York, 2003, p. 120
3. The idea originated from Nunuk Ambarwati, who at the time was working for Yayasan Seni Cemeti, and who took the picture from an exhibition guest, who was probably also an artist, during her trip abroad.
4. The interview with Hahan through the email, October 14, 2009
5. www2.iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/spiegelman.html, downloaded on October 11, 2009
6. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity”, Blackwell Publishers, 1996, p. 59
7. Interview with Hahan, October 14, 2009, see also: http: //evita-nuh.deviantart.com/
8. See: Myartspace-blog, “Lowbrow meets Highbrow” issue of Juxtapoz, August 15, 2009
9. See :Yve-Alain Bois “Pause” in Yves-Alain Bois, Clare Elliot, Josef Helfenstein, “Robert Rauschenberg Carboards and Related Pieces”, Menil Foundation, Inc, Houston, 2007, p 17-27
10. “Never mind the Pollock”, Broadsheet, Contemporary Visual Arts+ Culture, Feb- May, 2004, commentary, p. 56