Usually I write about the art I have seen pretty close to the time that I see it – it’s my way of making notes and really thinking about what I have seen.
Well it has been a while, but I have been reflecting on a visit I made to the Singapore Art Museum back in 2010. There were a couple of new acquisitions that caught my eye (like “Status” by Jane Lee and the “Farmers & Helicopters” by Dinh Q. Lê.) I vaguely remember an exhibit, Realism in Asian Art, that showcased works by 20th Century artists from 8 Asian countries and was arranged into five themes: Realism as form of representation, The rural as an attitude and metaphor, ‘Hail the Worker!’, The Impact of War, and Social Commentary.
The exhibit that I just can’t stop thinking about – FX Harsono:Transitions was a survey of works by FX Harsono.
Harsono is widely known for playing a pivotal role in the development of contemporary art in Indonesia during the New Art Movement of the 1970s. The works in the exhibit ranged from politically charged critiques of oppression, examinations of the disenfranchised to explorations of his own family history, and the haunting loss of his cultural heritage when the Japanese all but removed traces of Chinese identity amongst the immigrant populations in Java. As I recall, there were a cluster of about half a dozen rooms in two galleries that lead viewers through the works representing pivotal stages in Harsono’s career.
When I walked into the gallery, the first piece I saw was a framed toy gun – not my favorite work in the exhibit, but certainly a smart curatorial choice because it demonstrated the use of ready-made objects to compose art. In Indonesia, when artists began challenging the notion that art had to be created at the hands of the artist (be it painting or sculpture) – suggesting that it could be created with the use of everyday objects – it was unique for a country that had no real exposure to the contemporary art movements around the globe.
After the entrance, I passed the wall and immediately was overwhelmed with a powerful installation of burned wooden torsos hovering just above the floor. The lighting cast manipulated shadows that recalled the anguish of more than 100 people who died as they burned in a shopping mall during the riots of 1998.
On the wall there were a series of screen-printed hands that together spell out “demokrasi” (democracy), while the last screenprint is of a bound hand reflecting a sense of helplessness of the people.
Around the corner I saw a mattress bound in chains. I was taken with the hard/soft construction and understood it to be a question – if oppression becomes the norm, can we begin to accept it or even take comfort in it because it’s familiar? Do we begin to become ignorant of our own confinement?
One of the most powerful installations for me was “The Voices are Controlled by the Powers” (1994); it consisted of 100 traditional masks. It takes a moment to realize that all of the faces have been severed, their mouths cast into the center of the room – representing the voices that are not allowed to be heard in a country with tight controls on free speech.
“Bon Appetit” was a table setting, replete with fine china and stemware. The course appeared to be a number of beautifully arrange butterflies. The beautiful, fragile creatures were pinned to the aristocratic finery. I didn’t exactly follow the metaphor, but it was clear – the butterflies were not going to get away.
Perhaps the most significant piece for me was an installation of a chair, a desk and countless sheets of paper all bearing his name written in an abandoned Chinese script. This work was one of the clearest depictions of Harsono’s ongoing struggle to understand his heritage as a Chinese Indonesian. When he was a child his parents were forced to take Indonesian names, leaving their Chinese culture behind.