Pop Culmination

Category: Curatorial

Bre Redana*

A multitude of artists today are moving in droves, adopting the painting style called “the contemporary”—a style of painting with which today’s artists are familiar—as if fearing that if they do not take that grand train, they will be left behind in the trend, missing the party, missing the chance, outrun by history, missing the paradise. But in the speeding era, there is always a person who patiently chisels the works, in the search for an identity through daily travails, and after passing through one period after another, reaching a culmination in the form of spontaneity that unites the actions and ideas, intention and deed, routine and breakthrough, the mundane and the refined, the past of history and the dynamics of today, etc.

The Dynamics in Gampingan

Ipong Purnama Sidhi, 53 years old this 2008, reminisces about his time as a student at the ASRI (Indonesian Institute of Art), Yogyakarta, whose campus was in the area of Gampingan at the time. Ipong can remember not only the place where he boarded, but also the food booth where he usually ate, the voluptuous gudeg seller, the various events from his daily and college lives, which took place in 1975 – 1981. As for his study, among his many lecturers, the one he always remembers is Fadjar Sidik, who at the time was head of the Painting Department.

“When Pak Fadjar Sidik was ill, just before he died, I had the chance to visit him. He didn’t react to some other people at the time. But when I came, he took a long look, and then we even chatted and laughed together, so much so that the graph on the electrocardiograph went wild. The nurse warned us and asked me to go,” Ipong reminisces about Fadjar Sidik, who passed away in 2004.

Fadjar Sidik—loyal to the tradition held in ASRI, with its figures such as Affandi, Trubus, Sapto Hoedojo, and others—encouraged the students and stressed on the need for a strong character. Students should not be reluctant to hold exhibitions. What they must strive for was the development of strong characters, more or less like the dictum of the painter whose influence has been significant in this country: Sudjojono. Paintings, according to Sudjojono’s widely known creed, are “jiwa kethok,” “the revealed soul.” Without a strong character, the painters would not be taken seriously.

Within the history of art education in Indonesia, what had happened at ASRI Yogya is deemed different from what had happened at ITB (Bandung Institute of Technology) at the time. The two cities that have been playing a significant role within the dynamics of art in Indonesia are considered different. While Yogya functioned more like a “sanggar” or a communal studio, Bandung was known with its structured education system, with a stringent academic tradition, stressing on the technical capability of the students before they were prepared to perform out of the campus. Unlike Yogyakarta, whose students went out of the school, painting on the streets and in the market, Bandung generally educated the students in the studio, with technical rehearsals, loyal to the standard set by such educators as Ries Mulder, who was known as the figure who introduced cubism to Indonesia. Thus in Bandung, as the critic Eddy Soetriyono once wrote, himself also a graduate of ITB, art does not accept the excuse that “it does not have to be beautiful.” Eddy went on further to say that Ries Mulder’s students (Sadali, Mochtar Apin, Srihadi, and But Mochtar among others) never took beauty for granted.

The above background information is given solely with the intention of explaining the context in which artists like Ipong grew at the time. With the knowledge about impressionism and its figures like Monet, Manet, Renoir, or Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who made a breakthrough by purifying the painting and bringing it down to the fundamental elements of lines, colors, planes, and textures, the students strove to find their character. Is it not like what Barthes has said when he discusses about text—that text is not a “theological” string that descends down from the heaven; rather, it is a multidimensional space in which a myriad of texts—none of them original—blend and clash? In other words, in the process of searching for one’s character or identity, there are always texts, symbols, signs, narratives, and others that have existed before, forming a kind of discursive construction.

It is therefore understandable that the influence of Cobra, an art movement that proliferated in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—thus the name of Cobra—could sweep Ipong-the-student along. The simultaneity of lines, colors, plane processing, within the scope of influence exerted by the lecturers who were also pouring their emotions on the instant they created their works, was certainly related to the choice of style that Ipong adopted for his paintings at the time. He lived within an environment where painting was done quickly, expressively, strong in character, revealing traces of emotions. As to where the idioms were discovered, Ipong quotes Picasso, “…if there’s something to be stolen, I steal it.” Ipong does not deny how in terms of colors and forms he has been influenced by such figure as Asger Jorn, who aside from being a painter is also known as an essayist. In terms of wildness, there is also the influence of Jean Dubuffet, whom art history associates with “Art Brut”—which, like its name suggests, is related with some sort of brutality. The spattering and drips of paints on the canvas might have been borrowed from Jackson Pollock, whose break with all forms of (aesthetic) repressions at the time had emancipated America to stand on the same level with Europe.

Here we meet one of Ipong’s works, an illustrative work, with a form of simultaneity in the expression of lines, points, colors, strokes, spatters, all seemingly made in one breathtake. This was made in 1976. The time frame is necessary, because it means that the forms Ipong so far brings with him has been with him since more than thirty years ago—when such forms have not become trendy and neither were they ready meals for the art market, unlike today. Ipong’s early works in 1976, made on a piece of plywood using wall paints, and another made in 1978, a work of oil paints on canvas, were bought by the government, in this case the Ministry of Education and Culture. The two works are now in the collection of the National Gallery.

“I remember that the 1978 work was sold for Rp 40,000. At the time, one US dollar was equal to Rp 415. For a student, I felt that I had so much money. My friends asked me to buy them meals. Pak Fadjar Sidik also said, ‘Come, Pong, buy us meals…!’” Ipong reminisces.

In 1981, just before his graduation, like other students Ipong must exhibit his works at ASRI Hall in Gampingan. He displayed fifteen works, as a requisite for graduation. As soon as Ipong was pronounced as passing the final test, the works were gone. The lecturers requested his works for their collection. Ipong says, “They collected the works for free. Well, you must understand, it wasn’t quite booming yet…”

The Dynamics in Palmerah

Palmerah, Jakarta, is where the media conglomerate which would later be known as KKG (Kompas Gramedia Group) headquartered. Here is the office of the editors of the Kompas daily, of boards of editors of various magazines within the same group, of the printing house, publishing houses, as well as the home for a traditional Kudus house that had been brought to Jakarta in 1984, which then functioned as the building of Bentara Budaya, where cultural activities of the group were held. In 1982, after graduating from ASRI Yogyakarta, Ipong moved to Jakarta and joined the group, working as a book designer in the publishing house of PT Gramedia. From time to time—especially in that era—there was the cynicism that was sometimes revealed in insinuating jokes: why would an artist work in an office? There was an attitude of not taking seriously graduates of the art education institutions who worked in offices such as publishing houses or in the advertising industry. It was similar to the cynicism toward the student activists at the time who worked in big corporations. They were seen as accomplices of capitalism.

In reality, office work indeed poses the threat of trapping someone in a routine: doing the same work every day. Routine work is often considered as undermining creativity. It might be so, but the Executive of the Kompas daily and the Chief Executive Officer of the group, Jakob Oetama, always reminds and encourages people about the importance of doing routine work, or even doing the things that others consider as menial, unimportant, mundane. Jakob often says how from the small things that are scattered about, seemingly unstructured, which we go on doing every day, we can create something big. As a man from the past era, Jakob often mentions the “oto”—a child’s bib made from unused pieces of fabric sewn together. Today, such rags are creatively used in Bali to make colorful blankets.

Ipong’s earnestness in doing his daily work was actually apparent. Within the period of around eight years (1982 – 1990) when he was working as a book designer, he received seven awards for book design. In other words, he received an award for almost every year of his career as a designer. In 1990, he was transferred to do the design of the Kompas daily. When he moved to the daily, besides designing the newspaper, he also made illustrations, for example for the short stories that were published every Sunday. He also wrote art reviews. In 1995, he was transferred again, this time to Bentara Budaya. Here, Ipong has the task of managing the art activities held by Bentara Budaya, ranging from performing art activities to art exhibitions. For the art exhibitions, Ipong has also been working as one of the curators.

As he first started to work in Palmerah until many years after, Ipong practically stopped painting—as he admits it himself. “I haven’t been painting for around fifteen years,” he says. “In Bentara Budaya, the task is to honor the artists, take care of them, giving them opportunities to perform,” he says about his position in Bentara Budaya, which he has been holding to this day.

It was only in 1997 that Ipong took up painting again, although it was not with any particular intensity. Sometimes he took part in joint exhibitions with other painters. He tells us, “When I’m sane, I paint. But I’m more often insane.” The drive to paint again, which had not been quite intense as he was “more often insane,” started to become rather reinvigorated when he received an offer to exhibit his works at Tony Raka Art Gallery, in Ubud, Bali, November 2007. The exhibition in Bali has surreptitiously revitalized the painter in him.

The drive to paint went in full form, as if having gulped Viagra pills, as he was challenged to present his works in a solo exhibition, in the art room that wishes to become a companion to artists, the vivi yip art room. This is probably what Jakob Oetama means: nothing is futile in our daily travails. Working in the Kompas daily making illustrations, engaged in the dynamics of newspaper publishing, inundated by information and the problems of information, all of those have apparently been preparing an increasingly solid base for Ipong to use when he was challenged to express his ideas and the pertaining forms harmoniously, in speed and simultaneity—just as it is in the dynamics of newspaper publishing.

The images that have been in his mind, lying dormant for years, went flooding out. Like in a computer, as soon as the ‘enter’ key is pressed, all the master images that have been stored in his mind emerge. In a period of around five months, from March to July 2008, about 35 to 40 paintings took shape. And it seems as if they are still not enough. There is a flood of uncontained energy. Seeing the wooden boxes in the gallery, usually used as pedestals for the displayed works, Ipong had the idea of screen-printing his characteristic images on the boxes. Images and ideas, united in a point of culmination, emerge, exposing the dynamics of daily lives. From here on, we do not need to look further for the theme of the exhibition. The theme is there, ready for Ipong to use: Pop Culmination.

Pop culmination

Life experiences, daily events, memories, emotions, all find their stylized forms without much ado. The stylized forms are ready to express the brimming emotions. Ipong remembers his mother, whom he says was a simple mother, at least if compared to his father, whom he says was educated and intellectual. With all those memories, however, it is the figure of the mother that has left a more significant mark upon the six children, Ipong one of them. He expresses this with the image of a female figure in the corner of the canvas, beautiful, gentle, trusting, raising hopes. On the other side of the canvas, six hands are trying to reach her. That is how Ipong reveals himself in the work. The painting is titled Mother of Hope. Still about the relationship between a child and the mother, Ipong describes such relationship in the series of “Mother & Child Reunion,” borrowing the title of a song by the musician who was an icon of the seventies generation, Paul Simon.

It is indeed the human relationships that give a distinct color to Ipong’s work. Human relationship in the contemporary society is sometimes absurd, ironic, even tragic. The boundary between tragedy and comedy is not clear. The smile—does it show happiness, or bitterness? The tragic-comedy of the urbanite is revealed in the series entitled “Aftermath.” As the title suggests, something has happened before, but what was it, what took place before the “Aftermath”? Is it an act of love-making? Done in the bed of marital formalism, or in the surreptitious chamber of extra-marital affairs? The figures in “Aftermath” can lead us to various kinds of reading, in the context of the urban dynamics that is all so unpredictable and sometimes tragic.

Tragedy, in any case, has been following humans throughout the long history of civilization. Around the fourteenth century, Dante has written La Divina Commedia. The clown in Ipong’s work, white-faced, grinning, preparing a joke or unconsciously experiencing the bitterness of life, with one hand on the chest—can it be that he is expressing the history of human’s painful and tragic journey? The work is titled Divine Comedy, the English version of Dante’s La Divina Commedia. Another work, showing a similar spirit with the previous work, reveals a grotesquely-faced figure, his hand pointing toward the head, reminding one of Robert De Niro’s madcap in The Deer Hunter, when he fools around with the perilous play of Russian Roulette. The work is entitled Jakarta Roulette. An atmosphere of insanity is apparent in another work, with a figure who is laughing for God-knows-whatever-reason while covering his ears. That is the work with the ironical title of Dumber is Golden. It is as ironic as the work entitled Never Marry the Angel. Why can one not marry the angel? The answer can be seen in the work: the angel has only one wing, and she has a child, too. So, Never Marry the Angel.

The ancient instinct is held in all of us humans, and probably that is what makes Ipong often use symbols of creatures considered as remainders of the primeval era—geckoes, for example. A tattooed figure—in which, like other figures in Ipong’s works, the sexual identity is not clear, a man or a woman?—is holding a gecko. The tattoo as well as the gecko insinuate primitiveness, and so the work has a satiric title, playing on the term ‘globalization,’ i.e. Ancientation. Primitiveness, while revealed on the surface in the tattoo, in the more profound level is contained and hidden within the self, in the passions, in the physical desires. It resides in the instinct that is furtively revealed in the work in which a figure has been more definitely referred to the figure of a beautiful woman, probably with a voluptuous body, and there are hands trying to grope her, Devil in the Flesh.

Ipong feels free to let his imaginations run far. He has made an illustration for the short story written by Martin Aleida, entitled “Mangku Mencari Doa di Daratan Jauh” (Mangku Seeks a Prayer in Faraway Lands). The story tells of a person that has been thoroughly marginalized in his homeland, Bali. The character decides to go far to the Island of Sumatra, to Lampung to be exact. After portraying the itinerant figure accompanied by a monkey and a dog, crossing cities and towns like Sanur, Banyuwangi, Jakarta, and so forth, Ipong goes on with his own experience, making a stop in Singapore, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, and others, as he mentions in the work. It is not off the mark, I think, if the work borrows the title of a book by the philosopher Umberto Eco: Travel in Hyperreality. Other works, Anomaly, Bravery, Octopussy, Red & My Pillow, Dream of Whom, and Double Fantasy are works that confirm Ipong process of simultaneity in the creation of his works. It is not only the forms and the ideas that have been harmoniously united, but also the titles that immediately surface accompanying the works.

I am closing the introduction as Ipong is finishing one of his works, in which a face is revealed, one that is no longer young, full of wrinkles, as if containing not only life experiences of the past, the bitterness, but also a kind of madness. Ipong keeps on making strokes wildly on his canvas. Probably this is the one work that most aptly describes the artist and his works. The title of this particular work is a play on the title of the book by James Joyce, A Portrait of the Oldman as an Insane.

Pejaten, July 2008
* Bre Redana, journalist of the Kompas daily. The essay is written as Ipong is still busily finishing his works.

Published: July 21, 2008

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