On the occasion of her first Japanese solo show, Art Radar looks at prolific Indonesian artist Christin Ay Tjoe.

Hosted by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, “Spirituality and Allegory” blends the artist’s interest in printmaking, abstract painting and primal mythologies.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘3→2 #01’, 2010, oil on canvas, 170 x 200 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection, Indonesia. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘3→2 #01’, 2010, oil on canvas, 170 x 200 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection, Indonesia. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

When speaking of her work, Indonesian artist Christine Ay Tjoe frequently uses the words ‘spirituality’, ‘allegory’ and ‘fable’ – metaphysical expressions that have deep roots in both religious and secular histories. Arising from the artist’s upbringing in Bandung, West Java, these words delve into her perceptions of the human condition, her understanding that identity and emotion come not through pragmatic psychoanalysis, but through imaginative or gestural trances. She explains:

It’s my view of human interest and how I perceive the human from different angles and different points, and also through my own barriers. There is this question of: what would people do if they were invisible? What power would they have?

Perhaps if people were invisible, it would only be their actions and emotions that are visible. It would only be their values, thoughts and outward expressions that leave inscriptions on the physical world. This is the investigative premise of Ay Tjoe’s ongoing solo exhibition, “Spirituality and Allegory”, hosted by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanagawa. In celebration of the artist’s first exhibition in Japan, Art Radar looks at Ay Tjoe’s transformative career and her views on contemplative and dynamic spirituality.

Portrait of Christine Ay Tjoe. Image courtesy 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

Portrait of Christine Ay Tjoe. Image courtesy 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

Although now one of Indonesia’s most active contemporary practitioners, Ay Tjoe was not recognised as a fine artist until 2000. After graduating from the Bandung Institute of Technology in 1997, having studied intaglio printing, drypoint and textile work, Ay Tjoe’s practice was of an applied persuasion, finding its niche in commercial graphics and design. While the starting point for much of her current work may be spontaneous, located in a single line or smudge of oil stick for example, her inspiration resides in the unconventional life and work of German graphic artist Horst Janssen. She states:

Until this day, I only carry with me [Janssen’s] spirit as an artist: to be courageous, bold and proud standing on my own feet.

Now, even her most extemporaneous and spiritually-contemplative canvases, whilst abstract and gestural, are created by the practiced hand of a designer. Through a more imaginative exploration, her career has graduated from print work into spiritual ethereality, keeping only Janssen’s enthusiastic drive as her inspiration from the field of graphic design.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘We Are Getting Highly Overrated Because You've Never Known Us 01’, 2015, oil on canvas, 170 x 300 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection, © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘We Are Getting Highly Overrated Because You’ve Never Known Us 01’, 2015, oil on canvas, 170 x 300 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Open until 19 August 2018, “Spirituality and Allegory” is Ay Tjoe’s first solo exhibition at a Japanese museum, presenting 53 works that trace two decades of multifaceted creativity, from early period drawings and drypoint works to a series of soft sculptures, large-scale installations and paintings created specifically for this exhibition. The comprehensive survey seeks to create various sensory experiences depending on how the viewer chooses to interpret her chosen colour, form and movement.

In naming the exhibition, curators Uchiro Hiroyuki and Tachibana Yumiko highlight the stratified and dualistic nature of the artist’s contemporary craft: like a fable or allegory, Ay Tjoe’s works can be interpreted to reveal hidden meanings, specifically ones relating to mythological or religious memories. She embraces the emergence of messages, characters or creatures that form unexpectedly in her pieces, using them as representatives for forces of authority and higher beings. She states:

So there are the darker layers, which sometimes overlap, and are sometimes hidden. You can see in the depth of the work there are these layers which are seen and unseen. It’s how I see people merge in society; you see people and they look lovely but there are layers hidden underneath.

Christing Ay Tjoe, ‘Freezing 01’, 2017-2018, oil on canvas, 170 x 200 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Christing Ay Tjoe, ‘Freezing 01’, 2017-2018, oil on canvas, 170 x 200 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Take, for example, the 2013 canvas Too Many Fishes in which spattered oranges and reds wriggle about like a school of koi fish. The painting could, at once, be a serene image of a pond, its inhabitants aimlessly meandering amongst one another, and also a clashing, blood-filled scene of chaos and noise. The hinging balance between the two scenarios, for Ay Tjoe, is symbolic of the theological fight between good and evil. In an interview about a show at White Cube, she explains:

Inherently there are animals within us, and different types of animals. It really depends how they’re cultivated as to how they take power over you. But it’s also about good and evil, even in the past, it’s been about our translation of what good and evil is.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘Too Many Fishes’, 2013, oil on canvas 170 × 200 cm.
OKETA Collection. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts.
© Ay Tjoe Christine.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘Too Many Fishes’, 2013, oil on canvas 170 × 200 cm.
 OKETA Collection. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts.
© Ay Tjoe Christine.

The potential of ‘pure’ painting

In searching for balance, or the curious space between moral opposites, Ay Tjoe has adopted the style of what she refers to as “pure” artwork. In her commitment to painting, she investigates universal drives and conditions that all humans experience – such as greed, desire and power – and views them as motivators heightened by the exoticised and commercialised effects of a global society.

Produced during drawn-out periods of emotional concentration, almost “akin to a transcendental state”, much of the work on view in “Sprituality and Allegory” includes tentative suggestions of figurative or animal forms within intense passages of abstraction, often with large areas of the canvas left blank. Like in Too Many Fishes, their colourful and vibrant surfaces reveal darker elements beneath, playing on dynamic notions of concealment and display, the invisible (spirituality) and the visible (what one choses to do with their spirituality). Ostensibly, the exhibition scrutinises the outer and inner facets of human existence, layers which are both seen and unseen.

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘I need your hand #2’, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 135 x 170 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection,
© Ay Tjoe Christine

Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘I Need Your Hand #2’, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 135 x 170 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. Private Collection. 
© Ay Tjoe Christine.

Tactile, thick impasto alternates with watery glazes and washes of colour which, when combined with a highly expressive line, results in works that can appear both powerful and spectral, as if disappearing into or emerging from the material of the canvas itself. Referencing a kind of primal mythology, they suggest the conflict between light and dark forces both in terms of iconography and the symbolic or emotional weight. So while much of her work deals with historic understandings of good and evil, “Spirituality and Allegory” seeks to translate ‘good’ and ‘evil’ into contemporary relevance; perhaps that which is good, pure or otherwise tied to a referential religious history may mutate when thought of in different times and places.

This ponderance is driven by the physical urgency of Ay Tjoe’s centrifugal forces. Visceral brushstrokes and partially (or entirely) erased areas of pigment suggest a painterly state of chaos, where beauty dissolves into despondence and equilibrium becomes disharmony. Manifesting a range of feelings such as melancholy, joy and fear, her earthly colour palette is charged and symbolic, alluding to physical and metaphysical levels of being, “to the connection of mind, body and soul and the essential balance between all three”.

Christine Ay Tjoe, "The Path Less Found", installation view at Michael Ku Gallery, Taipei. Left: Christine Ay Tjoe, 'When I Construct A Way Of Going Home #04', 2012, oil on canvas, 170 cm x 200 cm. Right: Christine Ay Tjoe, 'When I See It Is The Only Hope #2', 2012, oil on canvas, 170 cm x 170 cm. Image courtesy Michael Ku Gallery.

Christine Ay Tjoe, “The Path Less Found”, installation view at Michael Ku Gallery, Taipei. Left: Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘When I Construct A Way Of Going Home #04’, 2012, oil on canvas, 170 cm x 200 cm. Right: Christine Ay Tjoe, ‘When I See It Is The Only Hope #2’, 2012, oil on canvas, 170 cm x 170 cm. Image courtesy Michael Ku Gallery.

Figurative fragments

As portions of Ay Tjoe’s canvases are left unmarked, only fragments of her subject matter are made visually manifest. And in thinking of fragmentation – of separation, gap and pause – the experimental writings of Maurice Blanchot come to mind. He writes (PDF Download):

Fragments, destined in part to the blank that separates them, find in this gap not what ends them, but what prolongs them… The interruption’s somehow having the same meaning as that which does not cease.

Fragmentation is only an interruption, but an interruption that also pushes for a continuation – it is as if the fragments cannot stop and the gap that identifies them is also that which allows them to continue. Furthermore, fragments are not simply isolated, like the swirling creatures in Ay Tjoe’s paintings; they suggest meaning whilst they deny it, or at least create an absence of it.

To appreciate the fragmented, tactile nature of Ay Tjoe’s work requires an up-close, personal viewing. Like creating a book or uttering a prayer, each piece not only provides ample eye room for individual contemplation, but commands it, and this sentiment goes beyond her paintings. The multimedia installation Lama Sabakhtani #01 directly translated as ‘lost time’, speaks to Christian mythologies and spiritual concepts that are “supported by her deep insight into human incompletion and Janus-faced nature”. While seemingly abstract, the conceptual work reveals, on the one hand, the actions of Ay Tjoe’s own fleeting emotions, and on the other, her sincere stance as she investigates the relationship between humans and machines, between past, present and an unknown future. By the time we understand her message, will the temporal translation of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ be altered?

Christing Ay Tjoe, ‘Lama Sabakhtani #01’, 2010, mixed media installation, 430 x 250 x 400 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Christing Ay Tjoe, ‘Lama Sabakhtani #01’, 2010, mixed media installation, 430 x 250 x 400 cm. Image courtesy OTA Fine Arts. © Ay Tjoe Christine.

Spiritual art in a secular age

Many artists, living and working in today’s “secular age” or “age of reason” produce artworks aggressively based on their own logic and sensibilities. Ay Tjoe, on the other hand, often seeks inspiration from the Christian Bible, a source material that is both physically and morally “outside herself”. Although not all pieces are doused in religion, many reflect her spiritual propensity for examining human beings and encourages viewers – in this secular age – to seek out truths behind existence, values and shifting understandings.

While her figurative work holds religion as one of its central muses, it reflects an abstracted playfulness that is bathed in fable and experiment. The two seemingly separate territories have their shared commonality and inseparability. Both elevated ‘heavenly’ touch and secular robustness coexist within the universe at the same time. The human being, as Ay Tjoe’s emotional field study, is a mixture of body and mind: the two parts simultaneously coexist.

Despite inherent references to the artist’s personal spirituality and adaptation of (religious) mythologies, Ay Tjoe’s oeuvre is accessible and relatable in its fragmented, confused, emotional and panoptic expression. She concludes:

I believe my work needs to be able to reach every kind of society. Especially the group of people who have the power over others in a huge scale. In this urban life, we still want to prioritise the ideal quality of human and the better quality of human, not worsen it.

Megan Miller

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“Spirituality and Allegory” by Christine Ay Tjoe is on view from 28 April to 19 August 2018 at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, 1-2-1 Hirosaka, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa, Japan 920-8509.

Related topics: Indonesian artists, painting, museum shows, emerging artists, mixed media, events in Japan

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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