FX Harsono: Testimonies

Rantai yang Santai (The Relaxed Chain), 1975, Installation with cushions and chains, 67 x 97 x 56 cm, Artist collection

FX Harsono: Testimonies is on show at the Singapore Art Museum from March 4 to May 9, 2010. The exhibition is a survey of works by the Indonesian-Chinese artist FX Harsono, a key figure of the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru or New Art Movement in the 1970s which questioned assumptions on art and the attempts to depoliticize art during the authoritarian regime of that era in Indonesia. Alongside contemporaries including sculptor and art critic Jim Supangkat, Harsono is known for his politically-charged works, employing strong performative and conceptual approaches which were a deviation from the conservative aesthetic existing then.

Rantai yang Santi (The Relaxed Chain) was one of his earliest works. Combining the comfort of a mattress and cushions with the grip of metal chains, it acted as a commentary on a society enjoying the outcomes of a strong centralized government which brought about industrialization and increased living standards, while imprisoned by this same comfort and the clampdown on freedom of expression and political participation. His experimentation from the 1970s led to bolder and politically strident works. Voice without Voice / Sign comprises a series of silkscreens, each with a hand gesture spelling out demokrasi, the Indonesian word for democracy, with the sense of futility and powerlessness of the people heightened by the depiction of a bound hand in the last panel.

Voice Without Voice / Sign, 1993 – 4, Silkscreen on canvas (9 panels), wooden stools and stamps, 143.5 x 95.5 cm each panel, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum collection

A turning point in Harsono’s art practice dates back to the late 1990s. The debilitating impact of the Asian Financial Crisis led to riots in Indonesia which reached its peak in 1998, with acts of violence against the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia, particularly those owning businesses and properties. Prompted to question his place as an ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Harsono shifted gradually away from works dealing with the concerns of broader Indonesian society. While still maintaining its strong political and social relevance, his works began to evoke a quality learning towards introspective anguish, with a surfacing of personal and collective memories and meanings of being Chinese in Indonesia, and its implications on life.

Preserving Life, Terminating Life #1, 2009, Diptych, acrylic and oil on canvas, thread, 200 x 350 cm, Artist collection

Preserving Life, Terminating Life #2, 2009, Diptych, acrylic and oil on canvas, thread, 200 x 350 cm, Artist collection

Preserving Life, Terminating Life #1 and Preserving Life, Terminating Life #2 draws on the unspoken history of the massacre of Chinese in his hometown of Blitar in East Java from 1946 to 1948 which was a result of a belief that the Chinese acted as spies for the Dutch during the period when Indonesia was fighting for its independence. Two photographs from Harsono’s family album which were taken by his photographer father, depict the effort of an expedition in 1951 to exhume 191 bodies from the secret graves.  Harsono conjoins paintings of these together with portraits from the same family album of a newly married couple and young family, speaking to the continuity from life to death and linkages within communities, reinforced by the red thread across each diptych, a color used in traditional Chinese festivities and funerals to ward off bad luck. While being a survey of the artist’s shifts and contribution to direction of artistic endeavors in Indonesia, the exhibition is a statement of truth to the political shifts and fragmentation within the country.

FX Harsono was born in 1948 and studied at the Indonesian Arts Academy in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and the Jakarta Art Institute. In addition to his art practice, he is also a lecturer at the Faculty of Art and Design at Pelita Harapan University, Tangerang (West Java).