For his first solo exhibition in New York, Indonesian artist Boedi Widjaja reflects on themes of memory, grief and realization in an examination of his own feelings and difficulty grappling with Indonesian history, and a place he would like to call home.
TEXT: Bansie Vasvani
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Helwaser Gallery
The feeling of dislocation is something that Boedi Widjaja understands all too well. Born to Chinese parents living in Indonesia, nine-year-old Widjaja was sent to live in Singapore at the height of Sinophobic sentiments during the Suharto regime. The pain of leaving home and trying to find his identity is a driving force behind his work. For his first solo exhibition in New York, Helwaser Gallery is presenting “Declaration of”, comprised of drawings, photography, and installations inspired by press images taken during the Cold War of Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia, and his successor Suharto. Widjaja’s works may be read as a reflection on themes of memory, grief, and realization. But more importantly are how questions provoked by his feelings of isolation are used to examine his own difficulty grappling with Indonesian history, and a place he would like to call home.
The graphite drawing Fly me to the moon (2019), from Widjaja’s ongoing series “Imaginary Homeland” (2015–) is a case in point. The image references Sukarno’s visit to meet President Kennedy in the United States in 1961. Widjaja’s meticulous reproduction of this archival photograph as a negative drawing in which Kennedy’s body and a part of Sukarno’s head and arms are obscured by the white background might be seen as commentary on the difficulty of completely understanding the past. What exactly transpired between the two leaders is hard to tell, because a few years later in 1963, Sukarno all but broke relations with the United States. But when analyzed alongside an earlier image Waiting for you (2016), of Sukarno meeting with Zhou Enlai, the People’s Republic of China’s first Premier and foreign minister, in 1965, in which the figures in the negative drawing are seen shaking hands, a revitalized portrait of the first post-colonial leader of Indonesia begins to emerge. Although one cannot call these drawings portraits in the traditional sense, they certainly attempt to showcase Sukarno as the charismatic fighter who freed his country from the yoke of Dutch colonization. When the drawings are viewed through a camera lens the positive image that appears by inverting the color settings on one’s cellular phone might even seem like a hagiographical celebration of Sukarno.
Even the installation Nine-Hundred and Ninety-Nine Roses (2019), comprising of a series of small pinhole negatives, feature Sukarno meeting with leaders from all over the world. Spread across the wall, the negatives are made by Widjaja’s ingenious transformation of nine peci hats—traditional headgear worn by Sukarno—into pinhole cameras. Yet the tiny scale of the pictures, and the eeriness of the negative drawings in which the figures are mere shadows of themselves complicate our interpretation of the images. Sukarno’s ghostly form also reminds us of his rule as a dictator and his alignment with the Indonesian communist party that led to his eventual downfall. These literal facsimiles of black and white photographs fail to establish the kind of intimacy that the elemental nature of traditional black and white images do. There is no cozy nostalgia here, nor is there trust and a two-way collaboration between subject and viewer.
The ambiguity of the works, which are uplifting and befuddling at the same time, is pushed to a completely different dimension in the three archival prints made by manipulating negative drawings of Sukarno and Suharto through an analogue photo process. The resulting images of blurred and murky forms as seen in Please say you love me (2015), and Keeping you in my heart (2015), echo Widjaja’s tenuous connection with his homeland, which is entirely negotiated through these archival pictures. For Widjaja the times they commemorate cannot be relived, and the haziness here is indicative of the enigma in trying to understand what must have been, and what his parents—who continued to live in Indonesia—might have experienced.
The duality in Widjaja’s art of obscuring and revealing meaning continues in his outdoor installation, Art is only a continuation of war by other means (2019). Here, encoded alphabets represented through red and blue geometric patterns on several flags spell out the title of the work, but can only be read in Morse code. This method of investigating varied possibilities of understanding is also channeled through Widjaja’s voice and presence in a collaborative performance with the poet Jee Leong Koh in the gallery. In this work he advances our perception of how he transcends his dislocation and reconnects with his birthplace. A verse read from Koh’s poem, Fall: Five Poems, in which Widjaja’s belief that his practice conjures a “metaphysical ground; non-material terra firma that invariably echoes its origin,” is beautifully summarized in the closing lines:
He listens for the stumble in a poem: so he can find the stone.
On a white stone is scribbled this short poem: I stumbled.
When you stumble over a stone, do not pocket the stone.
I do not say, O poem, you are a stone, but I say you are home.
Here, take this stone: may it be to you a guide and a poem.
Boedi Widjaja: Declaration of
11 September – 7 November, 2019
Helwaser Gallery, New York
About the artist
Named one of ArtReview Asia’s FutureGreats 2014, the works of Boedi Widjaja (b. 1975, Java, Indonesia) connect to diverse conceptual references through his own lived experience of migration, culture and aesthetics. Immigrating to Singapore at the age of 9, Widjaja’s works draw on his experiences, investigating concerns regarding diaspora, hybridity, travel and isolation. Often process-based and conceptually-charged, Widjaja’s artistic outcomes take the form of multiple mediums ranging from drawings to installations, sound and live art. Boedi Widjaja currently lives and works in Singapore.
Bansie Vasvani is a curator and art critic with a focus on Asian and other non-Western art practices. She investigates contemporary art that mines issues of cultural identity, politics, immigration, and the commingling of varied cultural influences. Bansie travels frequently to Asia to study, research, and write critically. Currently she is working on showcasing art from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India at several institutions.
Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Review Asia, Artnet news, Art21 Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Sculpture Magazine, Daily Serving, Aesthetica Magazine, and Modern Art Asia amongst many other publications.
Bansie has a BA in English literature, Bombay University; an MA in English and American Literature, Northeastern University; ABD (all but dissertation) in English and American Literature, CUNY Graduate Center; and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Christies Education, New York where she earned the Best Student Award.