There is but one truth spoken in many different languages. This belief lies at the core of Indonesian artist Eddy Susanto’s practice. With his artworks that examine the cultures of Europe and Java, he signals to us that while the forms, protagonists and settings of each culture’s mythologies differ, they ultimately convey similar fundamental truths about humanity.
Over the years, Eddy Susanto has reframed how the East and West meet. The Jakarta-born, Yogyakarta-based artist is on a mission to uncover the culture and seminal texts which are the patrimony of the Javanese. However, some of these have been forgotten over time, due to reasons such as the limits of oral transmission, the impact of colonialism and, later on, mass culture.
Susanto’s starting point is always his native Javanese culture. For years, traditions and stories in Southeast Asia have been mostly orally transmitted, so there has been a shortage of critical discussion of the sources outside academic circles. In this regard, Southeast Asian artists tend to be at the forefront of re-popularising these stories and presenting them to the international public.
The art world started to pay increasing attention to Susanto when he was awarded the Second Bandung Contemporary Art Awards, for his work Java of Dürer. Here, the artist created a comparative artwork that merged the style of the European Renaissance with the arrival of Islam in Java. He recreated the engraving The Men’s Bath by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer with drawing pens. But instead using regular lines, he created images with the words of the Babad Tanah Jawi — a text of Java’s history.
The fact that the figures’ outlines are composed of ancient Javanese script only becomes apparent upon close inspection. Employing this technique in almost all of his subsequent work, it has become his signature. With the graphic nature of Javanese script, Susanto creates lines, shapes, and volume in his images.
While rediscovering ancient myths from the region, Susanto was deeply inspired by the Panji tales: a legend that originated from the village of Gambyok in East Java, written in ancient local Javanese script. It chronicles the adventures, romances, and journeys of Prince Panji to the various lands of Nusantara.
Susanto draws on the myth in The Renaissance of Panji, which was exhibited at Art Jakarta in 2019. Here, he merged these tales with Renaissance depictions of Western myth. At the fair, the artist created a room where scenes of the couples from the Panji tales would appear when the lights were switched on. When viewed under UV light – which switched on off every 5 minutes or so – the same canvases revealed similar Renaissance-styled scenes of couples from Greek myth.
Bridging Java and Italy
Having followed Susanto’s work for more than ten years now, I was overjoyed when I was offered by collector, gallerist and art patron Andonowati to curate Susanto’s first solo show in Italy.
After all, Susanto’s strong ties with Italian art and culture can be traced back to the start of his practice. I teamed up with curator Valentina Levy, who manages a space in Venice called GAD, Giudecca Art District, on the island of Giudecca.
The show, called The Allegory of Hell from Borobudur to Dante takes place from July 28 to September 4 2022. It felt particularly important to present Susanto in Venice in parallel with the 59th Venice Biennale, as Indonesia has no official pavilion this year, and Southeast Asia has scarce representation overall.
For his first Italian solo, Susanto created a series called Java of Dante. As part of his research, he examined iconography and texts. He compared representations of hell on the reliefs of the Borobudur Temple — which draw on Buddhism, with representations of hell and the afterlife according to the Javanese — and the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy over the years. These included the most famous engravings by Gustave Dorè and Giuseppe Bossi.
These are key cultural references. Italians have Dante as their seminal poet who shaped the Italian language. On the other hand, the bas-reliefs on the Borobudur temple are crucial expressions of Javanese culture and Buddhism in Indonesia and wider Southeast Asia.
Just as the Borobudur Temple recalls a pyramid-like structure, Dante’s hell takes the form of an inverted pyramid. The reliefs found at the foot of Borobudur depict the cause of human suffering and the impact of one’s actions on the next life. These connect to each other to tell a story that represents the Mahakarmavibhanga Sutra, or the concept of Karma.
This parallels Dante’s circles of hell, where each sin corresponds to a different punishment. The Javanese temple’s facade also illustrates the pains of hell and the pleasures of heaven. Eddy builds on the parallels between these allegories of the afterlife with six large canvases, which make up Java of Dante, the series on display.
Organised in pairs, the works showcase the Javanese reliefs next to the illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. This highlights not only formal similarities, such as poses, different characters’ attitudes, and the overall compositions but also connects the concepts of the Javanese beliefs on the afterlife and Dante’s circles of sinners.
Again, we find Eddy’s technique of creating images with words. These words form the shapes and outlines of different characters. Here, he recreates Dante’s illustrations with ancient Javanese script, while he forms Borobudur reliefs with Dante’s words.
“We must first understand that the human is an animal symbolicum,” says the artist, highlighting how human beings have historically interpreted the world through symbols. He ponders,
“We can observe two big ideas [around death and the afterlife] developing in almost the same era, in two distant parts of the world, Europe and Java. This points to interconnectedness in the field of consciousness, between human minds.”
The language of Dante’s Paradise
This exhibition is hardly the first time Susanto has referenced Dante. He first alluded to Dante’s Inferno in his seriesTranshumanism Paradox. In particular, he was interested in Dante’s exploration of an imaginary Christian afterlife and how it contributed to shaping the modern Italian language.
Susanto is aware that the text includes many new words and expressions. One is the Italian verb ”transumanar”. This concept shapes Paradise – the third book of the three-part Divine Comedy — with the verb expressing the incommunicability of the utter splendour that is Paradise. This concept proves relevant to his artistic research, in which language clearly plays a central role.
However, in recent times, the word transhumanism has been associated with new ideologies. Driven by the vision of augmenting the natural capacities of human beings through technology, transhumanists strive to defy ageing and death.
This idea contrasts with the system conjured up by Dante, whose entire “Divine Comedy” refers to a strict order of the afterlife. For Dante – whose self-admitted sin was superbia (pride) – it might have seemed pretty astonishing to see humans challenge divine laws.
“I became involved in the contemporary art scene as an outsider, not quite understanding what contemporary art entailed in the beginning,” Susanto explained to me. Focusing on the sincere, almost spiritual dimension of art-making, he concluded,
“I believe that the path of art is direct and true, so we must work with true principles.”
Eddy Susanto: The Allegory of Hell from Borobudur to Dante runs from till 4 September 2022 at GAD – Giudecca Art District. Via Giudecca 211-213 – Venezia (VE), Italy. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.