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Trauma and Amnesia Dadang Christanto Exhibition: Remembering Silence


EGIME change is violent. There are several ways of dealing with this violent genesis: glorification (for example, Indonesia’s independence war of 1945-1949); amnesia (19651966 and perhaps also 1998); and glorification of the new regime’s genesis and condemnation of the previous one. However, individual lives lost are collateral damage in regime change, crushed by the proverbial weight of history, even though, this goes against moral intuition. Can private trauma still become a call for humanity and public justice? To murder randomly in great numbers and enforce to disregard—to forego civic re-

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membering—is to install public fear, which silences the possibility of politics. And this kept Suharto’s New Order regime in power for over three decades: the depoliticization of society by instilling fear. The violent genesis of the New Order regime was coupled with enforced public amnesia, which installed fear in society and fear made political action hazardous. No one knows how many were murdered in Indonesia during the tumultuous years between 1965 and1966, let alone where the graves are located to pay our respects. Even today, this is not knowledge that will be unearthed any time soon. And with all the lives lost, ideas became suspect as well. The denial of the magnitude of the mass kill-

ings, of ideas, of reality, of private trauma and the possibility of public memory created the fear the New Order used to maintain its power. George Orwell shows in his novel 1984 that such state-sponsored fear infects language as well. Language becomes a form of violence to distort reality (philosopher Judith Shklar calls this the ‘cognitive nightmare’ element in 1984; see also Benedict Anderson’s Language and Power). And who controls language, controls public memory, which can conflict with private memories of personal trauma. The language needed to express and make public the memories was erased and forgotten. Does that make us complicit? The arts have always been vital to public memory: monuments and statues glorifying or commemorating the (violent) past attest to that. While these monuments and statues have a public function, often, however, they are too static to do justice to our past, especially the individual traumas.




1. The Unforgettable Year, 2012, aluminum. 2. They Had Dreams, Once, 2012, Acrylic paint on aluminum, 55x60x90cm (10 pieces). 3. It Is Here Where I Find You, 2012, Steel and aluminum, 280x280x240cm. 4. The Ever Evolving Face, 2012, Acrylic paint on aluminum, 105x110x160cm.

Artist Dadang Christanto has opted for different avenues to create works of poetic justice. In his art, remembering is his leitmotif and he deals with private trauma as well as public amnesia. In his works, Christanto attempts to create a visual idiom to deal with forgotten memories. Born in Tegal, Central Java in 1957, Christanto was educated as a painter in Yogyakarta. Since 1999, he has resided in Australia, where he has had most of his solo exhibitions over the past decade. With his exhibitions around Java in recent months, we have beome reacquainted with his work. Seeing Java was his solo exhibition organized by Valentine Willie Fine Art at Sangkring Art Space in Yogyakarta (31 December 2011 – 4 February 2012) and at ITB’s Soemardja Gallery in Bandung (31 May – 22 June 2012). Somehow, Seeing Java felt stale; perhaps we became too accustomed to the visual idiom of the works presented in that exhibit. So I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Yuz Museum

in Jakarta to see Christanto’s Remembering Silence. This solo exhibition at the Yuz Museum went beyond my expectations. The show, curated by Agung Hujatnikajennong, was two years in the making. But it was definitely worth the wait. This must-see exhibition is a monumental requiem; visually as well as technically it is at once a breath of fresh air and disturbing in the themes it addresses. Perhaps we should say that while thematically Christanto’s new works come from the same well – as Farah Wardani put it in the 2005 solo exhibition catalog Testimony of the Trees (CP Foundation, Jakarta): his work oscillates within “a cycle of memory, between trauma and amnesia.” But because the artist used visually different ways to shape these themes, it comes across stronger than Seeing Java. Heads have been Christanto’s visual trademarks for a number of years, and often the choice of material for these severed

heads was terracotta, but now aluminum and acrylic paint were his choice of materials to give shape to the unspeakable. He said that he is “afraid that if I speak of violence issues in a verbal manner, I will only reproduce violence.” The virtue of great art is that it can go where language cannot enter. The artist acknowledges this when he said this his “work is open to interpretation, so anybody is able to interpret or dialogue with that work.” Christanto’s works find their source in, as he put it, “a mixture between memories, reminiscence, or images that I can’t simply erase.” It’s also often emphasized that his work is rooted in his own biography: his father was abducted in 1965, never to be seen again, which doesn’t make his work autobiographical. The themes and memories Christanto deals with are turned into art by shaping them visually. Three works at his Remembering Silence solo exhibition stood out and are burned—forever?—in my memory. ‘Unforgettable Year’ is an installation of 75 heads in three different sizes: respectively one, nine and 65 heads, which refers to the year 1965 and as a result it is a memorial for all the nameless who are victims of a double crime. First, they were murdered, and then their names were erased from collective memory. If Indonesia ever decides to install a memorial to commemorate the 1965-1966 atrocities (tragedy is a gross understatement) then this work is a perfect cenotaph. ‘They Had Dreams, Once’ is a series of 10 heads onto two tables. Each head is ‘decorated’ with symbols from ancient old ‘Javanism’ while leaving the faces bare. Each head represents a figure important to Christanto: D.N. Aidit, Njoto, Sulasmi, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Soekarno, Haji Misbach, Widji Tukul, Sudisman, Musso, Amir Syarifudin and Tan Malaka. Memories of these figures and of Javanism are fading out. ‘And It Is Here Where I Found You’ is a steel and aluminum room that, as soon as one steps inside, has a mausoleum-like quality. Communism can no longer haunt Indonesia. However, the nameless are specters that return time after time in Christanto’s art to visit us from the beyond to mutely remind us to remember them. ● ROY VORAGEN


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Dadang Christanto: Trauma and Amnesia  

A review of Dadang Christanto's solo exhibition Remembering Silence at Yuz Museum, Jakarta, 2012, for Tempo Magazine (English edition).