Jakarta-based visual artist Ruth Marbun has a unique visual répertoire that is both uncanny and brash. Her contorted characters, often forged from a visceral jumble of blotches and blemishes, soothe the soul with their unapologetic presence. The artist’s automatised and fiercely emotional mark-making has become iconic to her name, such that a Marbun piece would have been difficult to miss at any major regional contemporary art exhibition. But with upcoming art shows on hold, Marbun explores other avenues for unleashing her work. We chat about her experience of finishing up a residency in the midst of a pandemic, and what’s next for artists as they manage their own platforms online.
The first quarter of 2020 has been a defining period for many of us around the world. Describe what the beginning of 2020 has looked like for you.
At the end of January, I was headed to Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to board a flight to Amsterdam with a face mask on and Dettol soap in hand. I remember that the virus had just begun to spread throughout Wuhan, but I never anticipated that it would reach beyond the borders of China. It’s crazy to look back knowing what we know now.
I had been invited to join AGA Lab for a short residency, and despite how the pandemic developed, I never questioned whether or not I would go. I just knew that I needed to be extra careful. I’m glad that I boarded that flight, even if it meant being on lockdown in Amsterdam. My approach to art making has since seen a bit of a transformation – and it’s all because I took the risk to go spend countless hours alone in a printmaking studio.
I’m intrigued – How did undergoing lockdown in Amsterdam transform your approach?
Though stressful at times given the COVID-19 situation, the studio there became a literal safe haven for me. I had an entire list of museums I wanted to visit around the city, but when the virus hit, the studio ended up being the only place to go. Since AGA Lab specialises in printmaking, I decided to take up etching – something that I had never tried before. (Editor’s note: for a quick run-down on how etching works, check out our article on it here!) So, both the virus and this new technique forced me to slow down and to adjust my long-time art practice. My signature method tends to be messy and somewhat arbitrary, as I jump around from A to Z to X to B.
But the procedure for producing an etching is in complete contrast to that kind of workflow. I’ve had to restrict my tendency to move erratically, and instead come up with a structured and systematic list of priorities. Anyone who is familiar with etching knows that you must advance from one precise step to the next. I suppose this was my greatest challenge. Some days I’d see progress, and other days would be wasted away simply cleaning plates and starting over. I stayed through to the end of the residency and came to realise that my new systematic method allowed me to produce works of a higher calibre. I felt more productive.
The process of patiently advancing from one step to another, and sometimes surrendering to a new beginning is a nice metaphor for how to approach life in general. Do you plan to incorporate your new modus operandi into your studio practice back home in Indonesia?
As much as possible, yes! During my last week in Amsterdam, I called several friends back home to find out where I could continue my etching practice when I returned. Well-equipped printmaking facilities are hard to come by in Indonesia. The studios that do exist are very DIY. I’ve become very intrigued by the etching process, so I hope that I can find a way to continue.
Tell me about your interaction with the art world as we phase into the “new normal.” As an artist, has the pressure to “go online” changed the way that you interact with both your work and patrons of your work?
I would say that I am much more active on social media now, but it has been a process. I’ve tried my best not to feed into the need for validation.
I’ve had to sit down and think seriously about how to “go online” in a thoughtful and productive manner that won’t waste any energy. I suppose I had a lot of time to think during my fourteen-day quarantine after returning to Indonesia. This was a period where I romanticised the notion of isolation and spent a lot of time with myself – doing nothing.
In the beginning, I was somewhat opposed to virtual museum tours and live-streamed events. I lead a private life. I find my relationships, family matters, and even the little things that bring me joy so precious that I’ve guarded them from social media. But in feeling such lack from being unable to mingle and chat at physical exhibition openings and art events, I realised that I needed to adapt. As a working artist, “going online” has become the only platform for exhibiting my art, and an important outlet for telling my story and sharing my thoughts.
Has this new form of sharing inspired any new projects specifically?
In my time alone in isolation I worked on a countdown series of fourteen drawings. This exercise gave me something to look forward to each day during a time marked by uncertainty and physical detachment. It was the beginning of this virtual, “new normal” era so I experimented with consistently posting and sharing more of my work online, unfettered and unfiltered.
I also took the time to relaunch a project called Sisasisa Studio, which became a fun way to connect with new people. The first project repurposed scraps from my studio to create greeting cards. The entire series sold out almost immediately. I felt empowered by the directness of the project, and happy to give discarded materials a purpose while forging new relationships with my followers at the same time.
I’ve made peace with the idea of engaging online and in doing so, I discovered the freedom of controlling my own narrative, through my own language, on my own platform. The uncertainty of financial success through the art market has pushed me to explore new ways to support my creative projects in a way that is unrestrained and perhaps feels more authentic. I’m no longer restricted to one certain identity as an artist because the very structures for consuming art are now open to a wide range of re-imagination in the era of the new normal. Why not reimagine the definition of art too?
What is art now?
A way of living.
You’re free to travel anywhere again, where is the first place you’ll make a beeline for?
A printmaking studio!
Feature image: A sketch from Marbun’s quarantine series, often made from food scraps, coffee, and other materials found around her makeshift studio, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.