Transcendental Paper by Bambang Sugiharto


Jagat Kertas (Paper Universe), Installation, 
Bentara Budaya Jakarta, 10-19 May, 2011
Paper is an essential part of human civilization, the medium that makes possible the proliferation of ideas, the bridge that mediates the best minds in human history from one epoch to another.  Indeed, in human civilization paper has never been simply a material thing; it has constantly transformed itself into a spiritual vehicle, transcended its physical nature and, in that way, broken through any kind of human boundaries. It follows that the reflection on, or working with, paper would naturally mean tracing the dynamics of civilization: tracing its happiness and suffering, its dilemmas and deepest hopes.

Such a reflection is exactly what would be expected from the exhibition of senior artist Setiawan Sabana, at Bentara Budaya Jakarta, May 10-19, 2011. The artist did not simply work on paper, but rather transformed it into various metaphors and interesting conceptual transfigurations. The paper was not simply used as the material or a background, but rather as a language in itself. The work was not limited to a certain form or style. Indeed his exhibition consisted of installation works, paintings, video,  sculpture, print works, mixed media, performance art and simple objects. All were made of paper or connected to paper. At the culmination of his career, this reputable artist does not seem to bother anymore about aesthetic fuss or formal technical norms. It does not matter anymore even whether or not his works can still be called ‘art’.  For him, it seems, such a concern is already a thing of the past.  What counts for him at present is how to articulate the dialectics between the fluctuation of civilization and his own spiritual journey. And contemporary art seems to give him the freedom to use any mode of expression and style, and as a consequence, his works are also open to any kind of interpretation and further interactive.

Starting with graphic printmaking in his earlier artistic career, his interest in paper deepened.  In the 80s, it was Setiawan’s experiencein Australia that first sparked his interest in paper.  While busy with photo etching he gradually came to become aware of the unique character of paper: its texture, its thickness, its colors and fibers.  His experience in Japan opened his eyes to the profane and sacred character of paper.  The traditional Japanese paper, washi, made him aware of the various functions of paper in human life: through paper one can even communicate with the ancestors and the mystical other-world. His study in the U.S. opened his mind to the plethora of possibilities of contemporary art. In the 90s he came to the awareness that in Indonesia the tradition of printmaking needed a significant break-through. The art of printmaking, he said, called for a redefinition and reinterpretation in terms of the contemporary art world and the Indonesian context. This was the reason why he gradually distanced himself from any formal theoretical and methodological framework, and instead, started with the exploration of new possibilities and the sympathetic observation of the specific Indonesian context.  Since then his exploration of the potential of paper seemed inexorable. In his hands paper was no longer simply a medium; it became an extremely versatile conceptual language. He created his own various kinds of paper, played and worked with it, and eventually paper became his primary subject as well as his strategy to address and elaborate on social issues, and to reflect on the tacit dynamics of human life: its hidden suffering, happiness, hypocrisy and deepest yearnings.  The way he works is interdisciplinary. He uses, for instance, archeology, anthropology, history and philosophy to understand better the position of paper in civilization. He was concerned especially about the paradox of paper: it is so transient and vulnerable, yet it has also built great and long lasting civilizations. 

Jagat Kertas (Paper Universe), Installation,
Bentara Budaya Jakarta, 10-19 May, 2011
The turning point of Setiawan’s work was when he created the Monument of Paper (1997, 2005). It was the moment when for the first time he shook off the formalistic aesthetic tradition of printmaking.  The work was an installation consisted of piles of various decaying books.  Despite the simplicity of the idea and technique, it created a very strong impression and stimulated profound reflection.  This work, while traveling to Venice Biennale, Istanbul or Alexandria, time and again gave him unique experiences in terms of the reaction of the spectators.  In Istanbul someone was so impressed by the work that, in return, he gave Setiawan a beautiful book, which turned out to be a scripture of a new religion. In Alexandria someone told him that he was “mummifying” the book. And in Australia, among the Aborigines, under the fantastic dome of a starry night sky, he unexpectedly found on the ground a petrified paper which really looked like a fossil, fossilized paper.  All such experiences eventually drove him to ‘read’ the whole of civilization in terms of the history of paper, and reflect further on the destiny of its culture. This brought him to the bigger installation work, The Legend of Paper, which consisted of many smaller works, including the previous Monument of Paper.  The Legend of Paper was a compilation of many works stemming from his reflections on various disasters such as the tsunami, the increasing environmental pollution and global political violence, etc.  One of the most interesting works here was the Symphony in Black: the Global Orchestra.  This was an installation of music-stands normally used in an orchestra, and the sheets music on them were gruesome papers  smeared with black carbon and embellished with photos of casualties of war, soldiers in action, George Bush giving a speech, etc., while there were  also some intravenous-feeding bottles hanging here and there. This was an allusion to the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. army (2005).  Another impressive work of this installation series was the Spirit of Civilization.  This was gigantic paper curtains cascading from the ceiling. The work was inspired by the image of ghostly spirits in Indonesian culture, and indeed it seemed to create a creepy atmosphere of the spirit of the abandoned paper-culture. In several exhibits, this work in fact stimulated responses from other artists in the form of music performance and performance art.

All this illustrates that Setiawan’s creative process is closely linked to his spiritual experiences.  His personal journey of life has invariably led him to the awareness of the cosmic energy mysteriously at work in many important moments of his life; the energy of soil, water, fire, light, even prayer, music, words, etc. And now, at the age of 60, as he arrives at another breathtaking new decade, he experiences a significant shift in his basic point of view.  He no longer simply reads the book of civilization, he now sees through it to enjoy the interconnection of cosmic spiritual energy behind what is visible, at the levels of micro cosmos, meta cosmos, as well as macro cosmos.

Thus, his previous works were a profound reflection on the illusory side of civilization, the ambiguity of intellectuality, or the tragedy of global interaction, articulated through the metaphor of paper.  At the same time they were an invitation to rethink the essence of paper in an age where the role of paper has been encroached upon by the screens of the new media, computer and digital technology in general.  However, if in the previous exhibitions Setiawan’s works were philosophical, in his latest exhibition in Bentara Budaya, Jakarta, the works were more poetic and mystical in character.  The mode of Installation seemed the right choice, because they transformed the whole space of the gallery into an all-consuming cosmic atmosphere which interconnected the objects into one theme.  In that way, it also positioned us in the orbit of objects, and thereby drove us to review our position in the larger cosmic constellation. What we saw there were some banal objects such as a big mortar for pounding rice, plasma TV, books, stone, figures, gigantic curtains falling from the ceiling, etc., all made of paper.   Illuminated by beams of light here and there the objects were transformed poetically into signs and traces of the inner dynamics of human civilization. The cascade of gigantic paper curtains was not merely the spirit of a vanishing paper-culture, it also seemed to insinuate the  frightening  wilderness of ideas in modern intellectual culture; the piles of scorched books looked like a gruesome epitaph of intellectual vanity;  the fibers  of paper on the screen of a plasma TV  became  a sort of  landscape of outer space;  the hollow human paper figures seemed to allude to the vulnerability of body and humanity, etc.  This, however, was not so much a pessimistic  and gloomy perspective on civilization as the depiction of a spiritual evolution  which sees  through life from the shifting  frames of reference:  the shift from culture to nature, and finally to the spiritual dimension behind both.

Jagad kertas Leluhur, 2011, mixed media,
Bentara Budaya Jakarta, 10-19 May, 2011
But above all, one of the salient features of the works was the symbol of a black circle, symbolizing the universe, but more often it looked like holes, present in most of the works. The holes in the piles of scorched books, in the petrified paper, in the view of the outer space; everywhere. The black holes   seemed to invite us to see through and beyond the physical dimension of the works, leading our inner eye toward the most sublime beyond the macro cosmos but also to the ultimate depths of our inner micro cosmos. The holes seemed to serve as small peeping holes to see the ultimate cosmic emptiness, the mystical paradox of full-emptiness or empty-fullness: the answer to the whence and whither of our existence. Thus if a poem is the maximization of the capacity of limited words  to articulate  the ineffable, the works of Setiawan are truly poetic in that within their limited physical simplicity they are trying to articulate the unlimited and sublime behind human reality.

In this exhibition Setiawan seemed to recollect and at the same time highlight retrospectively his spiritual journey. What is interesting is that in this mature stage of his career, he reconnects all of his works with his inner disposition, and the other way round, opens his inner journey to the outer world. This explains why these days he has been busy in the garage at his house. The garage has been transformed into “Garasi 10”, a small venue for various cultural activities, a sort of meeting point between his private life and public affair. “Garasi 10” is a space for interaction, be it a discussion, film screening, exhibition, or live music, etc.  Interaction and collaboration are indeed his latest concern, and with that he seems to return the arts to its essential nature which is relational, and to its basic role as the conscience of human culture.

Bambang Sugiharto is a professor of aesthetics and observer of arts and culture, currently teaching at Parahyangan Catholic University and Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia | All Images: courtesy of Carla Bianpoen | From C-Art Magazine August-September 2011

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