FX Harsono and the art of political protest – Para Site Hong Kong artist talk

Indonesian installation artist FX Harsono discusses political protest and why he will never stop searching for himself.

On 13 April 2013, as part of the Para Site International Conference 2013 in Hong Kong, Indonesian artist FX Harsono looked back on his lifelong artistic engagement with political protest, and his search for personal identity through art.

FX Harsono, 'Point of Paint', 2007, oil on canvas, 150 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

FX Harsono, ‘Point of Paint’, 2007, oil on canvas, 150 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

As part of Para Site‘s three day forum, which saw a host of international speakers discuss the conditions of contemporary art making, FX Harsono discussed his work with Enin Supriyanto, independent curator of the upcoming exhibition “Sip! Indonesian Art Today” at Arndt Gallery, Berlin, which will run from 27 April to 1 June 2013.

Providing an overview of Indonesia’s tumultuous transition from dictatorship to democracy since 1965, Supriyanto outlined the social and political upheaval which coloured Harsono’s artistic practice, from the artist’s early experimental installations to the exploration of his identity as an Indonesian of Chinese descent.

Harsono is of the generation that grew up in the era of political conflict- the end of [Presidents] Sukarno and the beginning of Suharto. There were a lot of demonstrations and conflicts after 1965, and there was also a lot of artistic experimentation. The relationship between art and politics cannot be drawn in a simplistic way, and it has many layers, particularly in the art of Harsono.

Supriyanto traced Harsono’s engagement with politics back to the artist’s university days, in the midst of Suharto’s depoliticisation of all areas of civilian life, including the arts. Rejecting the traditional, cautious aesthetic promoted by the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Harsono and a group of fellow students broke with the establishment and formed Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru, the New Art Movement. The group’s 1975 manifesto outlined the desire to “liberate art from elitist attitudes” and directly address “the problems of society [which] are more important than individual feeling”.

Harsono reflected on the early days of his career in his presentation, saying,

At that time we just wanted to show that the the works which people or art critics had indicated were important were being judged by Western [art] theories. So we thought, ‘what kind of work can we do?’ So we made installations, but we called it the New Art Movement. We didn’t know the word installation then.

FX Harsono, 'Dark Room', 2009, installation with acrylic sheet, steel, plywood, water, lamp and c-print. Image courtesy the artist.

FX Harsono, ‘Dark Room’, 2009, installation with acrylic sheet, steel, plywood, water, lamp and c-print. Image courtesy the artist.

Despite its dissolution in 1979, the New Art Movement’s impact on Indonesian contemporary art was far-reaching.

These were the first iterations of a vibrant contemporary art scene that embraced performance and installation as well as more traditional mediums, and encouraged strident political criticism at a time when expressing dissent became increasingly dangerous.

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Harsono’s art continued to engage with political and social critique during the 1980s and 1990s, despite the regime’s clampdown on freedom of expression. The installation Voice without Voice/Sign (1993-4) showed the word DEMOKRASI spelled out in international sign language, with some of the letters bound by ropes. Harsono recalled two intelligence officers who attended the exhibition, “They tried to understand the meaning of my work and wanted to question me about it. Fortunately I wasn’t [at the exhibition] at that time, so I was lucky!”

FX Harsono, 'Rewriting the Erased', 2009, installation with wooden and rattan chair, wooden table with marble, Chinese ink on paper, and performance video. Imager courtesy the artist and Susannah Wimberley.

FX Harsono, ‘Rewriting the Erased’, 2009, installation with wooden and rattan chair, wooden table with marble, Chinese ink on paper, and performance video. Image courtesy the artist and Susannah Wimberley.

As violence erupted across Indonesia leading up the fall of Suharto in 1998, Harsono’s artworks increasingly addressed specific events, Supriyanto noted, as the artist experienced “some sort of trauma because of the riots”. Burned Victims, a 1998 video installation in which the artist set fire to five torso-shaped sculptures, was made in reaction to the mob killing of hundreds of people in a Jakarta supermarket.

Speaking to the Jakarta Post about his work during this period, Harsono explained

During Suharto’s era, we can say that democracy was non-existent. No one could talk freely, no one could criticise Suharto. People were oppressed and we depended on courageous people to voice criticism. As an artist I also needed to voice my concern.

FX Harsono, 'Bon Appetit', 2008, installation with table, cloth, chairs, tableware, needles and butterflies. Image courtesy of the artist.

FX Harsono, ‘Bon Appetit’, 2008, installation with table, cloth, chairs, tableware, needles and butterflies. Image courtesy the artist.

The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 heralded an era of greater freedom, but also a time of uncertainty for Harsono.

Initially I was exposed to the loss of sense of self as well as disconcerting experiences of alienation from society. This alienation was caused by political and social changes which brought about certain behaviours among my peers previously unfamiliar to me. They brought about a power hungry and violent society willing to engage in acts of corruption.

The violent suppression of the ethnic Chinese minority during this time precipitated a change in Harsono’s work, said Supriyanto, as the artist began to focus on his personal history rather than national politics. Works such as the self-portraits My Body as a Field (2002) and Open Your Mouth (2002) show Harsono placing himself at the centre of his art. His video installation Writing in the Rain (2011), in which Harsono’s repeated attempts to write his Chinese name are erased by rain, saw the artist combine his search for the self with an exploration of the discrimination suffered by Chinese Indonesians, who were forced to abandon their language, customs and even their names in favour of Indonesian traditions.

Watch FX Harsono’s 2011 installation Writing in the Rain below.

Describing his latest ongoing project, Harsono spoke about the mass killings of Chinese Indonesians during the attempted Dutch invasion of 1947-49. Documenting mass graves and interviewing survivors of the massacres, in which Chinese were punished for being suspected Dutch spies, Harsono created a documentary and a series of paintings juxtaposed with family portraits from his father’s photograph album, weaving art and politics with his personal quest to explore his erased Chinese identity.

This quest informs much of Harsono’s practice today, said Supriyanto, as the artist questions his Chinese Indonesian identity and how it has been shaped by violence. Harsono, speaking to the Jakarta Globe acknowledged that despite the improvements in Indonesian society today, the search for his identity as a Chinese Indonesian is ongoing, “It is a never-ending journey. There will be no definite answer, because I will never stop asking.”

FX Harsono, 'Preserving life 2', 2011, c-print on photo paper, 100 x 175 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

FX Harsono, ‘Preserving life 2’, 2011, c-print on photo paper, 100 x 175 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The Para Site International Conference was held from 11 to 13 April 2013 and featured talks by curators, art writers, artists and critics, such as David TehRuth NoackErika Tan and Charles Merewether.

CN/KN/HH

Related Topics: Indonesian, art lectures and talks, installation art, political art

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