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The Representation of Visual Illusion
Uniform is an important part of social life where communal ideas are highly valued, such as in Indonesia. In cultural studies, the uniform has become part of a social symbol, exceeding its functional value as clothing. How the uniform is socially signified, one may observe the borders between individual/communal, I/we that is continuously intersecting and dissolving. The art project that Jim Allen Abel has been engaged in the past two years, explores his interest in how the idea of uniform is often used to obscure the existence of individuals and their specific roles in constituting a bigger entity.
Jimbo, that is how Jim Allen Abel is nicknamed, based his art project on his personal background and conversations with his father who was a teacher. As a civil servant, teachers also dissolve their individuality and merge with a greater entity, namely the ‘civil servants corps’ with their distinctive uniform. The conversation with his late father about how the figure of a teacher, especially a history teacher like his father, had given major influences in shaping the social perspectives of students, this brought Jimbo an awareness that reliance to initiatives of individuals who are bounded to a certain entity would not take us very far. Uniform as a representation of teacher, for instance, is required to build a social system that will support the realization of their objectives. At this point, individuality has to deal with bureaucratic procedures— the person often overshadowed by the social system. From this rather simple outset, Jimbo developed his idea by collecting various types of uniforms whose associations have been widely perceived in public. He selects some of the uniforms to highlight certain social groups deemed important in the history of the formation of modern Indonesian society and to represent distinct social groups that are more recognizable to an Indonesian audience.
One of the most interesting historical accounts on the social development of uniform is written by Henk Schulte Nordholt (the Nederlands). His book Outward Appearances describes how the idea of the uniform was introduced as a part of the modern social institution, particularly during the early era of colonialism and the early formation of national identity, where the uniform became a crucial visual symbol.
In Jimbo’s works, we can at least discern seven social groups represented in the self-portrait series in the style of a passport photo. In this series, Jimbo covers the models’ heads and faces with certain objects, drawing the focus of attention to the uniforms, not to the people wearing them. Under the aegis of a uniform, the self being portrayed is overshadowed by the social collective symbolized by the uniform. By covering the heads in the photographs, Jimbo is exposing the subject’s individuality and personality to increasing obscurity within their association with the social meanings of uniform.
In the second photo series, Jimbo takes a step further away from the static concept of self-portrait to action photography. He composes different backgrounds and individual narratives for the subject, enacted by himself, to compliantly respond to a given image of reality. Jimbo is trying to juxtapose the social meaning and association commonly attached to the uniform with something entirely new and different. There is a desire to deconstruct the already established meaning associations and to offer new ones free from existing structures, which require and encourage the audience to construct and form their own meanings. The actions that Jimbo performed while wearing this uniform can be very different from what people may recall most about the profession identified with the uniform.
Jimbo represents the deconstructive actions, among others, by displacing the police, whose image are commonly associated to traffic situations, to the beach, carrying axes and posing acrobatic moves like circus players. Similar actions are also played out by military persona in other images. Just like the self-portrait series, the model’s heads and faces are veiled with foreign objects. By removing the background from its familiar setting, Jimbo tinkers with the idea of displacement in his work. In contemporary photography, displacement as a tactic is often tied to the tendency to emphasize the unusual side of reality, or to accentuate the unfamiliar by manipulating reality to deconstruct established meaning. The use of displacement in Jimbo’s works, by moving from self-portraiture to performative photography, also suggests a non-static impression where we may find many in-between spaces and new possibilities from the visual realities presented.
By moving the location, unconsciously the association of meaning is also shifted. In Jimbo’s works, the shift of uniform’s visual meaning also reflects how association does not have absolute truth. Therefore, the attributes and images attached to the individual wearing a uniform is basically a false image, which refers to the quality or performance of professional or social group rather than the image of one’s individuality. Of course, since it is a part of a social institution, attributes of this kind easily shift its meaning.
In the last series of his works, Jimbo creates an installation that points out something that is specifically found in Yogyakarta. Aside from the phenomenon of uniform as a visual symbol, Jimbo perceives that in Yogyakarta, rear-view mirror is an important commodity in the ‘street’ industry of Yogyakarta. Jimbo presents this installation as a part of his work which is indirectly connected to the issue of uniform and provokes us into a ‘way of seeing’. As a city where motorcycle becomes the dominant vehicle it is relatively easy to find a kiosk selling various types of rear-view mirrors along the street. For Jimbo, the rear-view mirror reminds him to always look back and believe the representation of visual illusion. At the same time, despite its functionality, the rear-view mirrors is often placed simply as trivial accessories. Jimbo plays around with the way we ‘look back’.
What is interesting about the installation titled ‘The Army of Me’ is he gathered a 100 people to be part of this project. He went to public spaces such as train stations, university campuses, and the people he met on the street, he then asked them to wear the military uniform and pose with a gun toy. His statement about this installation is, ‘I want to show people how easy it is to build their own armies, as you can arm them with their own gun and ask them to wear a uniform.’ Each of the one hundred people being photographed were on their own motorcycle, and posed their personal self statements. This proving that the meaning of these military symbols are still dominated by the collective memory of repressive regime from the past.
This process was not easy, gathering 100 people since many of them still think that playing with national sacred symbols, such as a military uniforms, is considered something dangerous. Some people even connect this idea to images of terrorism.
Jim Allen Abel graduated a photography major in the Faculty of Arts of Record Media, Indonesia Institute of Arts Yogyakarta. He is an active member of MES 56 Photography Collective and runs one of its programs, Kantor Berita MES 56 which focuses on expanding information networks and knowledge on photography by covering the latest discourses in photographic studies and practices through regular discussions. The uniform project is one of his individual projects that departs from the collective vision of seeing photography as something that is not only representing reality but is also an attempt to continuously tinker with, manipulate, and problematize the idea of visual reality. In this context, photography becomes a means to perceive everyday life through a critical and analytical lense.
Jim Allen Abel was given opportunity to take part a two-month residency in Korea, where he was involved in a project that ‘forced’ him to work interactively with a public audience. He presented the idea of the Museum of Everyday Life, where he invited people living in the surrounding neighborhood where he was doing his residency to share photos of personal memories and exhibit them as part of the museums collection. This project introduced Jimbo to wider possibilities of becoming involved in more community-based photographic projects in the future. At the same time, during his time in Korea, Jimbo also learned about the development of contemporary art in Korea, as one of the major players in Asia today. The development and the interweaving relations between visual arts and photography seemed to productively inspire Jimbo’s creative process.
Although the uniform series has not developed into an interactive art project, it is carrying the spirit and commitment to explore and maintain certain ideas for a longer period of time while observing its potential development. Jimbo has demonstrated a strong passion for utilizing photography as a learning avenue for understanding social phenomena and looking for ways to represent them through imaginative and aesthetic concepts.