Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Whimsical protest

Transforming rubbish into political art

Helen Pausacker

On the shadow puppet screen large black bulldozers destroy the last remaining tree on earth, while Semar — the Javanese clown-servant, himself a god descended to earth — scrambles around, trying to avoid the dozers. Against these black shadows, four humans move like robots, dressed in white and wearing gas masks and flashing electronic devices. They tend china cows and ride bicycles.

But eventually there is no space on earth for such simplicity. War breaks out. The actors bring out an American bomb, a gun, a chainsaw and a Javanese kris, or ceremonial knife. The dark shadows of monsters dance on the screen as the human figures fight and destroy each other. The world winds itself into a frenzy and eventually self-destructs.

Such was Heri Dono’s performance, entitled Licking the Ozone, held as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2005. Through a combination of shadow puppets, mechanical devices, human actors and music, he criticised the modern world. The performance was without dialogue; the chanting of the dalang (puppeteer) was the only human voice.

Art and politics

Heri was born in 1960 in Jakarta. His artistic talent was not encouraged in childhood — he was even punished for drawing in the margins of his exercise books in primary school. His artistic ambitions undeterred, he spent seven years in the 1980s at the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI) in Yogyakarta, followed by two years learning wayang, or shadow puppetry, from the prominent dalang, Sukasman. He has since held numerous exhibitions in Indonesia and influenced a number of Indonesian artists. He jokes that he has created a style he calls ‘Heri Donoism’, shortened in the Indonesian manner to ‘HeDonism’. His work is held in public galleries all over the world, and he has been artist-in-residence in Japan, Canada, England, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. He was one of the artists chosen to represent Indonesia at the Cultural Olympiad in Athens in 2004.

Heri’s art is inseparable from his political views, which encompass both Indonesian and global issues. On a global level, he is concerned about war, the environment and the pace of modern life. In Indonesia he has been particularly concerned with freedom of speech and thought. His work is subtle and infused with humour — it conveys strong messages but also brings a smile to the viewer’s face.

Heri lived his formative years in the repressive Suharto era, in an environment of stultified thinking and learning by rote from textbooks. His rebellion against those times can be seen in works such as Fermentation of the Mind (1994), which shows nine wooden primary school desks, with 18 heads nodding mechanically as if falling asleep. In post-Suharto times, Heri’s work continues to criticise this dullness of mind. Shock Therapy for Political Leaders (2004) (pictured) reflects the concern of the Indonesian people that politicians are still not serving them. In his installation Interrogation (1999), figures are shown on television screens with rifles pointing at them, suggesting that since the fall of the New Order, it is the mass media not the government that is repressing people’s thinking.

Environment and modern lifestyle

Heri’s concern for the environment and pace of modern life is also evident in his personal life. He prefers the slower pace of bicycle riding to modern transport in Yogyakarta, where he lives when he is not artist-in-residence overseas. Yet Heri is not a pastoral artist. His work frequently involves simple, visible, mechanical devices made from second-hand recycled material. This is used to provide a critique of the twenty first century obsession with superficially simple but extraordinarily complex devices — cars full of complex machinery hidden under the bonnet and electronic devices run by complicated computer chips.

He says: ‘At the market in Yogya, you can buy broken bits of old clocks and other mechanical devices by the kilogram; they are no longer bought as individual items. At the next stall vegetables are also sold by the kilogram.’ Just as the cook will turn these raw ingredients into a new dish, so Heri creates his art from his mechanical bits.

To create the devices that animate his work, he collaborates with clock and radio repairers. Heri explains his recycling in terms of Javanese animist belief, where trees, objects and places are seen to have a spirit. ‘Many see the broken clocks and other mechanical devices as rubbish, but by creating art from them, I try to revive their spirit.’ While in Australia, Heri has also tried to revive the spirit of old, discarded material. He made a kayon, or tree-shaped wayang prop, from a cardboard election poster for the now-discarded Labor leader, Mark Latham (see back cover).

Protest against war

For the 2004 Cultural Olympiad in Athens, Heri created a multimedia installation, entitled Trojan Horse (see photo). Toy-like soldiers parachute from a large cardboard horse, which has aeroplane wings. The gift-horse’s mouth opens to reveal a pilot. Heri uses the Greek legend to criticise the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. Other protests have been more direct. A recent painting, Attacking the Innocent, drawn in a naive style, shows a woman with two children, being shot at by military on the ground and in the air. The green soldiers from the Trojan Horse are again shown parachuting to the ground.

Heri’s political analysis is not just international and national in its concerns. It also focuses on his own role in the world — at once internationally acclaimed, but also very small. In A Little Doll (2003-2004) (pictured), Heri portrays the artist as Superman, with his red cape. The artist, who is the centre of attention, is depicted as a doll sitting in the lap of a giant blue-haired girl, while a four-eyed monster photo graphs him and a spotlight shines on him. Heri draws inspiration from Western cartoons, in his style of drawing, the borrowing of individual characters, the humour and the lack of need to be bound to reality. ‘A cartoon character can be squashed flat, and then jump up and continue running,’ he comments. Western cartoon figures are not Heri’s only influence. Javanese wayang figures, which represent the human figure as flat and stylised, have also strongly influenced his work.

Installations and performance art

Heri was one of the pioneer installation and performance artists in Indonesia. ‘As a student,’ he says, ‘I was attracted to the idea of installation art, but it was not on the curriculum and the word ‘instilasi’ hadn’t even entered the Indonesian language. Together with friends, I experimented with installation as an extracurricular activity.’ This interest was inspired by such international movements as Dada in Europe. Like Heri, Dadaists blurred the lines between painters, writers, dancers and musicians, and were not aiming to produce works of beauty, but rather to challenge society with political and social protest. Heri was also influenced by Gestalt psychology, which states that the physical, biological, psychological and symbolic elements within a person are so unified that the differing elements cannot be separated. This combination of elements influenced not just his desire to combine different art forms into one, but also his belief that art and politics cannot be separated. Heri recognised that the Dadaists’ combination of art, theatre and music was also present in his own Javanese tradition. Both these influences are obvious in his Licking the Ozone performance. But the humour in all his work mirrors the way that punakawan (clown-servants) in a wayang performance make fun of the nobility, inserting political comments through jokes.

Heri Dono has deservedly received wide international acclaim. His work in all mediums ranges from the personal to the political, but always with an element of the whimsical. He is a gregarious artist who likes to involve members of the wider community in his work — from the clock-repairers in Yogyakarta to the Melbourne-based Australian and Indonesian actors and musicians in his Fringe Festival performances. Heri believes that all people are artists, and that they feel less distance from art if they can participate in its creation rather than be simply spectators. Far from punishing children for scribbling in the margins, he is devoted to using his art to inspire and invite participation.

Helen Pausacker (admin@insideindonesia.org) is Inside Indonesia’s office and production manager.

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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