I made my way to Wei-Ling Gallery in KL on a rainy Friday evening to attend the opening of artist Dadang Christanto’s solo exhibition, M I S S I N G. People milled about and nibbled at the hors d’oeuvres. The art almost seemed an afterthought, a backdrop to the party, which felt surreal considering Christanto’s dark subject matter. Soon, Lim Wei-Ling, the gallery owner and founder kicked the night off and introduced us to Dadang Christanto and the context of his work, which is heavily influenced by his personal history of the 1965 Indonesian genocide that began as a Communist purge and resulted in the deaths of more than half a million Indonesians for their supposed links to Communism. Ethnic Chinese Indonesians were also targeted, and Christanto’s family (who are Chinese Indonesian), was not spared. Christanto’s father was dragged from the family’s home one night never to be seen again. As an eight-year-old boy, Christanto was heavily affected by his father’s disappearance, thus his art has become inseparable from this tragedy.
On the opening night, Christanto wore a black t-shirt with “1965” printed in large white letters and was joined by academic Rachmi Diyah Larasati in front of the wall of M I S S I N G portraits. Larasati introduced herself as a friend and collaborator of Christanto’s and also a fellow survivor of the 1965 genocide. What happened next upended the party setting. Larasati left her position at the front of the exhibition, and the gallery went dark. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we could make out Larasati in her white dress gliding through the gallery, her arms cutting through the air in movements adopted from traditional Javanese dance. Larasati improvised her dance in response to the artwork and themes of the exhibition. The silence in the gallery was pierced by the occasional wail from Larasati before she reached the front of the M I S S I N G portraits. She then continued to perform in front of, and to the works. Larasati’s bows to the portraits made clear that we were witnessing a tribute to the victims of 1965, and grounded us in the emotional weight of the exhibition.
“Besides painting, I do explore other media including performance art; I joined (W.S.) Rendra’s “Bengkel Teater” as I felt that there were particular sentiments that can be expressed well through the medium of performance.” While Christanto works in multiple media, themes of suffering and grief recur, though his subjects are not restricted to Indonesia. Says Christanto:
“I never force myself to materialise background stories related to Indonesia…through my work, I talk about human suffering in general. It is a universal subject as discrimination and violence happen around the world continuously.”
In any event, Christanto’s work at Wei-Ling Gallery centres around the 1965 Indonesian tragedy. The title piece of the exhibition are 110 portraits of people who went missing during the genocide that take up an entire wall of the gallery. The portraits feature subjects from the neck up and are executed in expressive strokes of charcoal and acrylic on raw canvas. The backgrounds of the portraits are rendered in varying shades of black. In some portraits, the backgrounds are darker and seem to threaten, or overpower the main subjects of the works.
Each portrait is distinct, yet connected to the larger presentation. In a portrait on the bottom right corner of the wall, a woman looks at the viewer impassively. Seen in isolation, this portrait does not communicate the full gravity of the piece. One has to view it along with the other portraits, some of which depict the battered and bleeding faces of the missing people. The floor-to-ceiling installation has the effect of overwhelming the viewer as one tries to take in the piece as a whole. I moved closer to the individual portraits in order to scrutinize their details and wondered about who these people were. As I looked, I was mindful that this handful of portraits represents the hundreds and thousands of people who were violently killed, and that many Indonesian families still do not know where their loved ones are buried. The importance of the work felt amplified, knowing that discussion of the killings is still taboo in Indonesia despite survivors’ fight for answers.
On the opposite wall of the gallery, is another series of paintings titled Ciduk, Siksa, Bunuh, Buang or Arrest, Torture, Kill, Discard. The 6 paintings from this series unambiguously depict the torture and violence experienced by those who had been taken from their families. All 6 of the portraits feature a person bound, and almost all the subjects are blindfolded. Blood is a recurring motif in Christanto’s work and it features heavily in this series. One portrait, in particular, features a naked, blindfolded man with his hands bound behind him. As his head strains upwards and away from the viewer’s gaze, one is compelled to focus on the blood which frames the man like an aura. The final three of these paintings gives the viewer an unobscured look at the faces of the subjects, though a barrier remains in the form of plastic bags over the victims’ heads. I found the last one particularly haunting, as the man in the painting seemed to look resigned to his fate. Throughout the exhibition, the knowledge of Christanto’s personal experience with the violence of 1965 remained on my mind. If these paintings were hard to look at, what must it have been like for him to paint these events?
The final pieces of the exhibitions are the Head series, which feature three large sculptures of heads made from copper, fibreglass and aluminium. Heads are also a recurring motif in Christanto’s practice and carry different meanings in his work. Of this particular series, he says, “The Head series that is exhibited in M I S S I N G at Wei-Ling Contemporary evokes the fact that it is through the use of our minds that we record memories. Hence, the head is an important symbol of history. I decided to present three pieces of the same shape.”
Despite each sculpture having the same shape, the different materials used give the heads different expressions. For example, to me, the cloudy appearance of the fibreglass head evoked pensiveness. The most elaborate of the heads is made from copper and features carvings of folktales from traditional wayang or Javanese shadow puppetry. I was struck by the multiple layers of this piece. In Malay, wayang refers to the traditional art form of shadow puppetry; but, it can also refer to the theatre of politics. The Head series perhaps best distills the concept of the exhibition as a kind of documentation of history. However, rather than being underpinned by hard facts, this presentation relies on physical manifestations of the artist’s impressions and memories of the continuing trauma and grief that exists.
Note: The feature image of Dadang Christanto is provided courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery. The exhibition is on at Wei-Ling Gallery till 4 November 2018.