AGUS SUWAGE: CYCLE
After holding his biggest exhibition ever in Indonesia, “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Jogja National Museum, July 5-31, 2009, and Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, October 9 – November 1, 2009), Agus Suwage preoccupied himself mostly with art events and exhibitions abroad. Two significant events that are worthy of note are his exhibition with Filippo Sciascia, “Illuminance” (August 26 – November 14, 2010 at NUS Museum, Singapore, and January 29 – March 4, 2011 at Langgeng Art Foundation, Yogyakarta), and his solo show in New York, “The End Is Just Beginning Is the End” (Tyler Rollins Fine Art, March 3 – April 23, 2011).
Almost all the works that he presented in the two exhibitions deal with the theme of human existence, a theme that he has been working on since 2009, starting with the work An Offering to An Ego (2007-2008). What became increasingly evident in the two exhibitions is the nature of Agus Suwage’s creative work, which engages with one particular theme in an intensive and continuous manner. We have witnessed a similar attribute in his various paintings and installation works in which his self-portrait becomes the main staple—the series of works that the art public in Indonesia and abroad have come to know well, so much so that this character was viewed as a trademark of sorts for Suwage.
Many art observers have often discussed this creative approach of Agus Suwage’s. It might serve us well to revisit the significant issues that Aminudin TH. Siregar has written in one of his reviews about the artist: “Our eyes are being challenged to unravel the mysteries regarding the ‘origins’ of every sign or text that Suwage has constructed in every work or title. The semiotic aspect of Suwage’s works takes us to an ‘eternal chain’ of signifiers which links, elucidates, plays, disagrees, entwines, and builds new structures of meaning from one to the other.”1
As he discusses how Agus Suwage actually often engages in the practice of appropriation, Aminudin TH. Siregar further contends that, “Suwage’s appropriation of his own work is an active process of ‘appropriating appropriation’. Suwage progressively appropriates his previous works to represent them as ‘new’ works although we can often still discern previous ‘meanings’ and familiar elements in their titles.”2
In the introduction that I wrote for the exhibition “Still Crazy After All These Years”, I mention that Agus Suwage’s creative attitude so far—be it about the issues related to the practice of appropriation or how he keeps on piling up layer upon layer of new visual materials that transform the original appearance and meaning—constitutes an aesthetic approach that gives rise to the hyper-pastiche quality of his works, resulting from the act of meta-appropriation.3
I further argue that Agus Suwage’s creative method, in which he often engages in to-and-fro journeys tracing the various paths that he has taken in his own works, constitutes a stance that is equal with the skeptic stance of a scientist who keeps on questioning the different conclusions they have made; the stance that prevents the artist from thinking that he has found the single and absolute “truth”.
Such action might indeed seem excessive as the artist apparently keeps on revisiting, changing, developing one particular work, adding more elements into the work or taking from it. At the same time, however, such action is also reflective in nature; it is a deliberate action, to dare change or improve what had been lacking or “wrong” in the past. That is why we can almost always find self-referential attributes in Agus Suwage’s works, even when he is not presenting them in a series of self-portraits.
The current exhibition, DAUR (CYCLE), presents five of his latest works, which constitute a series that is still related to the previous series of works that he has introduced to us in his previous two exhibitions, “Illuminance” and “The End Is Just Beginning Is the End”. This link, however, exists only with regards to certain elements: some key visual elements and the choice of materials. But, at the same time, we can see that these new works complexly linked to his older works.
Regarding the specific issue of materials, we are now aware that Agus Suwage seems to be moving away from his habit of conveying ideas using paints on canvas. This time, he wants to change and arrange certain materials in order to create an artwork. By transforming the presentation of his works in a fundamental manner, he seems to want to test a range of visual elements and meanings that he has managed to convey using the language of painting.
This time, he smears the surface of his sculpture with graphite powder, and overlays some parts with glittering gold color, in order to acquire a specific color and surface quality in the work. He also uses photography and voice recording as the main element in his work. What is also interesting here is the fact that he uses some materials—corrugated iron sheet and beer bottles—that immediately make us think of recycled used materials.
In terms of the content, apart from continuing the various visual idioms of skulls and human skeletons that he has often used, he shifts the focus of his narrative to issues related to social and political situations around him. This is certainly not a new thing in Agus Suwage’s artistic career. His works at the end of the nineties have revealed such content, in line with the social and political tensions on the eve of the Reformation. Today it seems that Agus Suwage would like to act again as a witness and comment about the many violent acts and authoritarian behaviors to which the intolerant stance of certain groups in Indonesia has given rise.
We would in general agree that this is an urgent matter in the everyday life of the diverse Indonesian nation. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the different conflicts related to the diversity of ethnic groups, traditions, races and religions in Indonesia lately.
As usual with Agus Suwage’s works, however, all of these issues are presented still with touches of humor, mockery, irony and parody—the elements that have so far made up the contents and appearances of his works. This time, for example, he presents a skeleton with golden wings holding a golden sword. The skeleton sits arrogantly over a pyramid constructed out of thousands of empty beer bottles. Considering the title, Monumen yang Menjaga Hankamnas (The Monument that Protects the National Defense and Security), we might speculate about its relation with the stance taken by those who believe that there is a path of violence that they can take in order to protect the nation from everything that God has forbidden (beer, alcohol). Today, however, the guardian is a mere black skeleton, proud with false glory, albeit a gilded one, sitting atop of a monument that is equally false, albeit one that emits blinding green light.
In Tembok Toleransi (The Wall of Tolerance), Agus Suwage uses as his basis his everyday experience of being besieged by muezzins’ calls to prayer from the mosques around his home/studio in Yogyakarta. The call to prayer that should have been beautifully enticing Moslems to pray often turns out to be jolting and deafening, blaring from three, four or five speakers from several nearby mosques at almost the same time, resulting in successive calls reaching to 120-130 dB, 5-10 dB higher than the loudness level in a rock concert that is generally around 115 dB (or 150 dB at the maximum level). Consider also the fact that the sound intensity of 125 dB is enough to cause pain in the ear. Who dares to protest this, though? Everyone in Indonesia is asked to tolerate this. At the end of the day, we develop our tolerance bounded by walls, merely to muffle the deafening sound.
Agus Suwage is indeed spot-on in his observations regarding the irony contained in many everyday occurrences around him. In Ave Maryam, he presents the image of Mother Mary, a figure whose existence and sanctity are acknowledged among Protestants, Catholics and Moslems, with each religion having its own preconception. However, regardless of the fact that the figure is commonly recognized as a “Holy Mother”, this does not mean that tensions or even conflicts can be averted among those who recognize her—her descendants in contemporary time. It should also be mentioned here that the figure of Ave Maryam here is actually Agus Suwage’s self-portrait, with the artist dressing up to mimic the image of Virgin Mary in the classic Catholic iconography. The artist first presented this portrait almost ten years ago, as a part of the work Holy Beer dan kawan-kawan (Holy Beer and Friends, 2003).
Once again, therefore, we witness how Agus Suwage is engaged in the acts of recycling and reusing materials from his past work, while presenting some new and different elements in terms of the content and looks of the work. With the various used and waste materials that he uses, the five works in today’s exhibition of “DAUR” actually assert the key stance in Agus Suwage’s creative process.
The middle section of this catalogue presents a simple diagram—the result of discussions between Agus Suwage and me—revealing the different relationships and how the recycling process takes place, directly or otherwise, in his latest five works.
This diagram does not only show the different relations among the visual signs that he has used and developed so far, but also explains the shifts in the meanings of the works as he changes these works or adds new things to them. We can also see the relations among the works in terms of the materials he uses and the changes in the visual presentations.
In other words, we can say that the relations that have been formed among the works are neither sequential nor chronological. They are actually discursive, occurring in a series of discussions. This is how Agus Suwage reuses and recycles a range of elements in his works so far, and how he mines various possibilities and inventions from his back-and-forth journey—possibilities and inventions that he might very well test and apply on his future works.
Enin Supriyanto — Curator
1 Aminudin TH Siregar, Menimbang Pause/Replay, in the catalogue Pause/Re-Play, 2005, p.9-10.
3 Enin Supriyanto, introduction essay in the catalogue Still Crazy After All These Years, Studio Biru, Yogyakarta, 2009.