Celebrity Culture and The Illusion of Eternal Fame
When Sutra first showed me one of the first works for this exhibition – then only the Coco Chanel painting, in her well-known seating position, was close to finish – the question that sprung into mind was, what is it that still fascinates us about portraits of celebrities from the international fashion and entertainment world throughout the ages? Casually speaking, we may say that the reason for this interest lies in the very popularity of these figures: most of us are already familiar with the figures that Sutra gives us here, as we could easily find their images everywhere. It is not difficult to recognize what makes these paintings unique at first glance, especially since here Sutra had used coffee brew and thread. Thinking about Sutra’s works further, I came to the conclusion that what makes them distinct is not what she painted, but how shepainted them. In other words, the biggest distinction lies in the material that Sutra decided to work with – real and virtual – during the creation process.
Over forty years ago, when celebrity culture was at its peak in the United States due to the fast spreading of popular media, a sentence was uttered: in the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes. As he uttered it, Andy Warhol – an artist whose personality was no less famous than his works – was most probably unaware that this short sentence will continue to resonate long after his death.
Now, it has come to be as famous as the people implied in it, renowned for its ability to speak for a particular zeitgeist so succinctly. The reason for this is quite clear: subtly, it points to the technological means that are specific to that particular era, which allow just about everybody – not only those with extraordinary qualities – to be propelled from their status as a nobody to the heights of fame with spectacular speed.At the top, adoration and desire abound and they will be right in the middle of it all, if only for fifteen minutes. This brief sentence is a statement forthetransience of ready-made fame: the speed by which an ‘instant celebrity’ travels to the peak of their popularity will likely be defeated by the speed they undergo on their way down, back to being the average person again.
Then, television was at the cutting edge of mass media communications. Different to the print and audio technologies that precede it, television brought about an unprecedented revolution. This is so not only because its capacity to unite the different bodily senses that were separately engaged with by previous media, but also to bring together people from different parts of the world to a ‘global village’.
Setting aside this brief account of the history of mass media communications to return to the context of contemporary Indonesia, one would be hard pushed to deny that it is not television that has made you and I a citizen of this ‘global village’. One couldclaim that at the heart of the problem lies the strict and one-sided regulations over the content of television programs, whose impactsare apparentin the gap still felt between geographical locations and time periods. Here, viewers do not have firm authority over how their demands and wants are to be fulfilled: when was the last time – if there was ever any – that Woody Allen enthusiasts are able to watch his films from local television channels? And if she were to rely on local television alone, it is doubtful that Sutra will come to know about these iconic figures from the 1960s’ New York and London fashion and entertainment world such as Edie Sedgwick dan Twiggy.
The differentinformation media that are availablealso bring with them different paradigms: this is a conclusion that we may safely draw from comparing the distinct experiences obtained from reading the news in the newspaper, listening and watching it on the television, and choosing over what news we are particularly interested in on the Internet. At the time of this exhibition, the democratization of the production, distribution and consumption of information reaches its peak with the Internet, and how it allows user interaction with a level of freedom and immediacy that was unthought of before. It is this new technological paradigm that made it possible for Sutra to freely choose over which images are deemed suitable by her artistic imagination, by cutting through the boundaries of space and time: as we can see, the original images that these paintings are based onspan at least seven decades and two continents.
The freedom that the Internet gives its users allow them to expose themselves to the“icons” they admire – whatever the reason for that admiration may be – and breed the desire to know more and in greater details about them. Here, the Internet acts not only as the media by which users may fulfill that desire, but also an as aneffective means to cultivate a unique obsession often referred to as ‘the cult of the celebrity’. Most of us are aware of how the Internet seduces as it satisfies: surely Sutra was not alone in her journey into the seemingly infinite online world in her quest for the thousands of images of these famous figures, which soon filled up the hard-drive of her laptop.
This obsession, mediated by the Internet, became the chain that guided Sutra as she filtered through the images, regardless of the fact that she came from a local context that is wholly other to the people that are represented in them.Observing these paintings, it is clearly apparent how Sutra’s skills as a painter are able to fluently speak for the allure of these figures. But beyond that, what is striking is also how important the role that the Internet has in the process of creating a painting (which is considered to be a traditional art form). This is evident in how for Sutra, it is as if this media has completely eroded spatial as well as temporal distance.
When Sutra was searching for these images from various online sites in order to paint from them, she not only occupied a geographical position that are different to the places in which they are originally taken, but also a wide gap in temporal location. By the time she acquired these digital images, the people in the photographs have undergone a further process of mummification (which began by photography) through the Internet. In its history, photography is said to be able to ‘embalm’ a moment in time immediately. However, as opposed to a digital image, a photograph is a finite object with a definite life-time: it is no less physically fragile than any other material thing.
As its materiality is destroyed, whatever memory and aspiration packed into it also disappears. As is the case with fame: if a person’s popularity is only recorded on a piece of photograph or on the tape of a video casette, in a way, their fame will have the same shelf-life as that physical documentation. But, when that fame is recorded through digital processes, a new illusion about fame comes to be formed.
This illusion puts into question the statement made above, uttered by an artist who then became a world-celebrity himself: how transient is the cult of the celebrity that he claimed to last only for fifteen minutes? The figures that Sutra paint here are by no means the average person, but rather those who have gained well-deserved recognition in their fields. For instance, Coco Chanel’s achievements alone have no doubt secured her timeless position in the fashion world. However, what is more interesting here is how the media that Sutra used to obtain these images reminds us that with the Internet, the point is no longer that everybody can now be world-famous for fifteen minutes, but that now they can be famous as if for eternity.
Unlike the ‘freezing’ of time by any other recording media, the mummification through digital processes gives the illusory impression of the actual stopping of time. In the digital images that Sutra used, these figures will never have to suffer a wrinkle, their skin willl never sag, the brightness in their eyes will never fade: their allure appears infinite, as infinite as the Internet itself. For, at this moment in time, can we really imagine the Internet turning extinct, in the way that metal turns to rust or a burned photograph turns to ash?
Nostalgia through Brewed Coffee
When stripped off their temporal context, we – the viewers – have the freedom to project our imagination onto them in any way we see fit. In her paintings, Sutra’s gaze projected a sense of nostalgia. Brewed coffee was used: in order to obtain the desired tone, she mixed Chinese ink with coarse coffee grounds that has been steeped in water. As a result, the appeal of these supposedly mummified famous figures appear to be given a new colour by a time that has past.
According to its etymology, nostalgia may roughly be defined as the melancholy associated with the desire to return home. It is said that this melancholy is rooted inthe knowledge that this desire may never be fulfilled: often upon our return, what we find stands in contrast to what we imagined as although the home itself remains the same, we rarely realize it is us who have changed. This is one of the greatest myths about nostalgia, which assumes that the melancholy felt may be remedied by a simple return to a place that was once left.
This assumption is flawed, since it ignores the spatial context that gives meaning to the time spent in that past place. Are we able to sincerely imagine the sixties lived by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, without imagining the Parisian nightclubs, or an era in which Twiggy reigned, as separate from Carnaby Street in London? What I wish to underline here is that nostalgia is not only a matter of time but also of place, as implied by the idea of the ‘home’ in the term’s etymological history (Ancient Greek – nóstos).
It is this sense of nostalgia that Sutra makes manifest in herpaintings. Here, nostalgia not only refers to a time that has lapsed, but also to the places that was once inhabited. It is true that none of the paintings provide literal clues as to the exact places these figures are in. But, subtle signifiers that point to a locatory context remain: the bedroom where Audrey Hepburn makes a phone call, the dressing room where Freddie Mercury is putting his makeup on, the party where Janis Joplin laughs while holding her drink.
Thread and an Artistic Exploration
These paintings no doubt display Sutra’s painting skills, and it will be hardly a surprise if she was ever mistaken for someone with a background in painting. But in fact, Sutra graduated with a degree in Textiles Craft from Institut Teknologi Bandung. This explains the use of thread in these works. In this particular collection, with the theme of celebrities from the fashion and entertainment world, the nylon thread that Sutra used is an apt material. Unlike natural thread, nylon is artificial, quick to make and easily mass-produced; not a far cry from the qualities that are often attached to popular culture and its production of instant celebrities.
The thread details in these paintings demonstrate an initial step in the exploration of thread’s characteristics and how an artist may work with them. From the discussions that we had during the creation of these works, I was left with a strong impression that Sutra’s interest in textiles will lead her towards future works that are fiber-based, in especially thread. It is nothing new to say that the boundary between art and craft can no longer be founded upon the material used, but, among others, how they are worked with. Personally, I eagerly await Sutra’s coming experimentation with the material that she has intensively studied during her formal education, and the works she will create from a process of thinking through thread.
This essay was opened with a commentary on the role of the Internet in the development of a particular obsession with celebrities, and the kinds of new thought that arise from it, such as the illusion of eternal fame. Beyond this, however, I sense that what also interests Sutra is how the images that she had used are recordings of time that had stood too close to being forgotten. In this aspect, they are concrete manifestations of temporal fragments that almost went without a trace: in some images that time was filled with spontaneous and trivial acts, in others, with the poise of a subject who is fully conscious of the way they carry themselves.
However, if those digital images mummify these figures, in her paintings Sutra gave them a new life by using two methods. First, through her nostalgic point-of-view that she realizes with brewed coffee, and second, through a fascination with textile that led her to using thread. It is because of these that, as an artist, Sutra is able to present a unique perspective to images that we have grown to be so familiar with through countless previous encounters: an artistic achievement desired by many, but rarely reached.
04 May 2012.
Published: May 11, 2012