[This post originally appeared as a catalogue essay for Siahaan’s installation at Open Space in the fall of 2003. It was reprinted for Siahaan’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta, in 2004.- J.L.]
Semsar Siahaan: G-8 Pizza and Study of the Falling Man
Between pain and pleasure there are three
creatures. One looks at a wall,
the second puts on a sad disposition
and the third advances on tiptoes;
but, between you and me,
only second creatures exist.
– Cesar Vallejo[i]
Exile presumes suffering, not only in homesickness but also more constantly and inescapably, in the loneliness of a new place. Faces, stories and motifs are pulled from the plights out of which they were born, to become a series of personal responsibilities which must be supported, or defended, or rendered coherent (if this is possible), but above all repeated, towards or against a future assimilation, order, conversation.
Semsar Siahaan has in fact strenuously denied that he is in exile, is an exile[ii], just as he has denied that he is an ‘activist artist’ per se, though he has been tortured by the military as a demonstrator[iii] and had his work as an artist monitored, restrained, delayed and otherwise put down by Suharto’s New Order Regime. His period away from Indonesia has been marked by friendships and misunderstandings: not a self-styled isolation, but a hospitality and agency seeking the same in a new and most likely temporary setting. His frank attitudes towards the inherently human (and humane) nature of art making and its inevitable political consequences have remained unchanged; his mistrust of the politics of parties and markets has intensified. Privately, Semsar has confided that this exhibition may indeed be his ‘farewell’ to Victoria. If this becomes the case, then this period of asylum and recuperation wasn’t – isn’t – an exile, but something else: a suspension, a communiqué, a rest (albeit not without its own agitation, alienation, exhaustion…).
While this exhibition marks Semsar’s fourth solo show in less than five years of residing in Victoria, it may be the one most characteristic of his time spent here. The show’s centrepiece, G-8 Pizza, began with the theme of the slaughterhouse, which has preoccupied the artist since at least the early 1990’s. The cardboard packing materials used are ones that Semsar retrieves regularly from a bin near the apartment where he has lived for 31/2 years. The ambitious energy of the work – the size and scope of the project, the risk and deliberation of the drawings, all executed inside of 8 weeks of constant effort – represents most particularly the continuum of his medium and personality, from patience and accumulation to impulse, hazard and consequence.
G-Pizza is comprised of eight sections, like slices of a pie, depicting on a public scale a cartoonish nightmare of global scandal; the rape, dissection and devouring of the world by monstrous actors. Each segment features a different creature or character, none of which can be pinned down to a strict symbolic interpretation. Rather, they trade in allusive sensation, from farcical outrage to subconscious anxiety; the nauseous thrill that one’s life is immediately or indirectly, unavoidably, inevitably being intruded upon and controlled. Gamblers of obscene leverage, eugenics surgeons, gluttonous wrestlers, leeches – the index of morphology speaks of primitive responses, or responses insufficiently formed for lack of nourishment; those fed on (and consumed by) irrational fears.
It is no surprise to learn that the artist refers to these creatures as Manubilis (collapsing words for animal/man/devil), a kind of magician-parasite or demiurge. [iv] Their grotesquery relies on the shock of the hybrid, which is never so much a horror at mongrel parts alone as it is a horror of slippage, of a loss of form and underlying coherence. In this way, they are icons of a common global delirium: the sense that one never knows the true facts of a given incident, local or elsewhere, but accepts every item of news, every rhetorical appeal to the emotions, through a system of contradictory and self-defeating filters and biases, aware but paralysed. Can a given media outlet be trusted? Are any of these conspiracy theories true, given the irrational way they announce themselves? How is it that a person becomes a terrorist? If the point is that we can’t know, we won’t know, what is the message of this mass of communications, being not after all, a bearer of universal tidings, but the explosion of countless local rumours? The result is unformed, imbecilic, and its product, rather than thought, is something that in passing resembles mythology.
Surrounding the manubilis figures are images that likewise morph uneasily from the banal to the horrific. What first appear to be screens, bearing blue halo-like shapes – streamlined logos or exposed picture tubes – turn out to be the ‘bug-zapper’ lights found in industrial abattoirs. An X-like form resembling an animal carcass suspended by hooks slashes across the composition, dividing the operators from their audience. The X recalls a cape or curtain, a dramatic flourish appended to backs of the global police who stand guard – those players in a kind of pageant. Semsar has achieved a striking range of indeterminacy within his limited palette. Oily black pulls and tugs theatrically in the carcasses, drips and dashes unpredictably from the demons, fixes shadows that stretch to implicate constituent bodies: the mute body of the meat; the uniform-body of riot police; the anonymous, countless crowd-body of the witnesses.
The way in which the crowd has been rendered is different, most particularly in contrast to the caricatures of uniformity the police represent. Soberly doodle-ish, the audience is both vital with particulars and absent to the point of dissolving into scrawls. Among the black mumbles are select figures isolated in white. Karl Marx, Tolstoy, John Lennon, the great art-guru Joseph Beuys, murdered Indonesian labour activist Marsinah, and others, including Semsar himself, stand as presiding ghosts, somber observers or misplaced friends. They round out the sense that this circular, repetitive narrative is a tableau of both immediacy and duration, writhing in its centre, calmly accumulating definition at its edges. In this regard, references to the history of expressive political art come to mind: the work of Max Beckman (both the famous triptych and the later self-portraits) in reference to his exile in the United States; Diego Rivera’s inclusion of himself into murals combining a fantastical folk history with instrumental political messages; the emergence in Kathe Kollwitz’s use of illustrational motifs of the autobiographical from the didactic – and of an unexpected warmth in the immediate encounter that belies the linearity of the work in reproduction.
Originally intended as wall-mounted images, the drawings of Study of the Falling Man now meet their companion piece more directly, but with some dismay as well. Placed on sticks like placards and weighed down with sandbags, the drawings stake out their elbow-room in the gallery, yet drift like monuments of contingency: disaster relief; territorial marker; shifting protest line; or the anonymous deadweight of one officially ‘disappeared.’
The drawings that comprise the Studies are also executed on recovered cardboard, with the difference that the original shape of the packing materials has been allowed to remain intact. The result is oddly cruciform or totemic shapes that both frame and direct readings of the drawing process itself. Rendered in the same fashion as the Pizza, yet with a more introspective tone to the improvisation, the drawing of the Studies invokes the lost experience, the undistinguished identity, in a recessive, constantly shifting imagery of faces and packing codes, gestural, signatory strokes and serial numbers. Faces are interrupted by packing templates, but equally often interface with mask-like results; symmetries suggesting both the ritual and clinical emerge. One senses on the one hand the unreality of contemporary time, production and waste. On the other hand are Semsar’s references to memory, a second, more delicate displacement, which meets the first with both acknowledgement and defiance. Many of the images in the Falling Man drawings echo the artist’s notebooks: quotidian sketches of figures giving birth to arcs and slashes of line; crowds of marks which assemble to form words.
The crosses are not explicitly Christian (though the artist has cited this as an aspect of his upbringing). More accurate to the morphology of this reading is to recognize in the cross and the X general post-colonial symptoms of the opening and closing of speech, territory and name. Semsar has complimented his study of the manubilis with longstanding designs for a ‘human/animal’ movement; an emphasis on art of any style or medium as having communal and humane potential.
While his early paintings depicted a heroic artist wielding brushes of fire, and his most notorious actions involved the burning of sculpture and drawings, these Studies are more reticent and fallible. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they seem more self-consciously resilient as well. Semsar handles the materials respectfully, acknowledging the irony that the boxes are an excellent surface for conte in particular – a ready supply of pristine waste that would be unavailable outside of the West. It seems fitting that from this surface he draws, by contrast, surprising depth, warm ochre rising from the grisaille to outlive it.
The figures which populate Semsar’s early painting and drawing often bear a resemblance to the artists own features, more youthfully androgynous and – even in postures of agony – sculpturally whole. As experience modulates his own ambitions, from an activist who occupies the pigmented centre of a target, to a circumspect and contemplative expatriate, Semsar’s image becomes not so much singular as mutual. The heroic self-portrait of the early canvasses, detailed in a language then still generous with the pleasure of its ambitions, has thinned uncertainly, faced the mediation of its struggle and the co-option of its gestures. At times worn-down, made awkward by a left hand instead of a right, or split into fragments which share space with advertisements and memories, this figure is an outcome, one of many that a person must adopt and discard, as need be, within and without asylum.