Hearing many voices

Theatre State (above) by Jompet Kuswidananto, is a multi-media work that includes videos, photographs and sculptures.
Theatre State (above) by Jompet Kuswidananto, is a multi-media work that includes videos, photographs and sculptures.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Theatre State by Jompet Kuswidananto (above), is a multi-media work that includes videos, photographs and sculptures.
Theatre State by Jompet Kuswidananto (above), is a multi-media work that includes videos, photographs and sculptures.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Artist Jompet Kuswidananto looks for clarity in the noisy sphere of public expression

A noisy spectacle of people speaking over one another to be heard is how established artist Jompet Kuswidananto views public expression in his home country, Indonesia, today.

"After Suharto's New Order regime ended in 1998, Indonesia became a huge stage for different voices; everyone became free to express himself," he says.

"But it also became a competition to be heard. People made their voices louder, but it only became noisier and the value of the voices decreased."

Even as the 40-year-old artist baulks at the cacophonous fray, he has nonetheless delved into it, curious to understand how social performativity developed in Indonesia, resulting in the present-day predicament.

  • VIEW IT / THEATRE STATE

  • WHERE: Jendela (visual arts space), Level 2 Esplanade, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Till Jan 2, 11am to 8.30pm (weekdays), 10am to 8.30pm (weekends)

    ADMISSION: Free

He had studied communications at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and was a guitarist with a rock band in the mid-1990s.

Following the fall of the New Order regime, he joined the theatre club, Teater Garasi, as a music composer and had his start as a visual artist in 1999, exploring changes in Indonesia's culture.

His latest art installation, Theatre State, which is on show at the Esplanade's visual arts space, Jendela, looks at how individuals and institutions of power in Indonesia have, in the last few decades, acted to voice their views and beliefs in the public arena.

The multi-media work includes videos, photographs and kinetic sculptures such as hand-shaped models that clap silently and in a seemingly sinister way.

These elements are suspended from the ceiling and, below them, rows of chairs that are commonly used for community gatherings in Indonesia are laid out for visitors to sit and slip into the role of the spectator.

The installation is based on personal and historical narratives that are related to performance, either literally or figuratively, and these stories and ideas flow from one to another in the installation. It begins with a reference to the 1979 incident at a poetry reading by Indonesian poet and activist Rendra, where his performance was shut down by an ammonia bomb attack.

Kuswidananto says the incident, for him, marks the moment when the authorities during the New Order regime "started to be aware that the performing arts could be critical of power".

In another part of the installation, he shines a light on the ban on weepy songs during the regime's peak, when the country was flourishing economically.

He says: "Weepy songs were trendy, but they seemed contrary to the idea of development. Their performance seemed like a subversive act."

He also highlights a hush-hush state operation in the 1980s to eliminate crimes and gangsters through a series of photographs that show scarred tattoos on people's bodies. Those who had tattoos and were afraid of being associated with gangsters had tried to remove the ink themselves with acid.

He likens the episode, shrouded in fear and secrecy, to a malevolent, dark play. "Nobody knows who is directing the play and who the actors are," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Hearing many voices'. Print Edition | Subscribe