Set in profile, a man casts a doleful eye on a smaller figure that perches on his forehead and pulls insistently at his tongue, while a miniature chainsaw balances threateningly on his head. The palm of his hand is pierced with a plant-like dagger, and little bodies tumble out feet-first from the bottom of his torso, already bearing knives and swords in preparation for a skirmish. Held hostage by these forces, the man’s stoic acceptance of his apparent fate is both darkly comic and disturbing.
Never Give Up (2015) is an exemplary study of Entang Wiharso’s oeuvre: an allegorical undertaking that depicts the narrative of the postmodern human condition caught in the crossroads of political, ethnic, and religious systems. In fact, Never Say No, Wiharso’s latest show at Singapore Tyler Print Institute, reads like an expanded, digressive effort to interrogate notions of inconsistent social realities in a geopolitically transformed Southeast Asia, a region still strongly tied to tradition as it continues to navigate the benefits and pitfalls of the global economy.
With their strange proportions, Wiharso’s images reference the dramatic characters of wayang kulit, an ancient Javanese storytelling tradition that uses shadow puppetry and draws from both Hindu myths in India and prehistoric animistic rites in Southeast Asia. The works in this show were created with a paper-casting process that introduces color and texture made by threads of soft yarn. The result is a dreamlike flatness, a visual mimicry of the two-dimensional forms of the wayang kulit, as a drama is played out that casts the viewer as a distant witness to a time when gods and humans coexisted and depended on one another.
Characters in Shelter: Forest of Eyes (2015) metamorphose into beings made of vines and branches (they look more like woodland hybrids than human beings) in a labyrinthine tangle of tongues, tendons, and intestines—a visual and corporeal allusion to the medieval concept of the world as a perilous maze where the sacred and the profane intersect. In contrast, Home Sweet Home (2015) is quite entertaining, a vision of what wayang kulit characters might look like in a familial portrait when the chaos in the archetypical battles of good versus evil momentarily halts for a photographer’s hurried snapshot. There is also no lack of satirical playfulness operating in works such as Her Shifting Identity #1 (2015), in which a figure made from a psychedelic mix of colored splotches curls up in a manner that is reminiscent of a somersaulting fetus in a womb.
But unlike the ancient myths of Southeast Asia that wayang kulit recounts, Wiharso’s narratives are wholly steeped in the contemporary notions of cultural appropriation and borderless living. Almost boring in comparison to the wildly rambunctious visual vocabulary of Wiharso’s varied oeuvre, Under Protection for 24 Hours (2015) is a depiction of two women in traditional clothes standing at barred windows against the backdrop of an old European town. One holds a gun, but both are on guard against the influences of foreign ilk, with long, braided hair that ends in crab claws. In a region deeply marked by postcolonial histories and the processes of rapid globalization, the art that is produced often parallels social concerns as evinced by the consistent evocation of identity with the use of the body as a site of contested territory. It is unsurprising that Wiharso, like many other artists of Southeast Asian origin, revisits these conflicting notions of power and tolerance for this exhibition, whose title is a gauntlet clearly thrown to challenge reigning paradigms. There is an unsettling sense of violence—of raw brutality—that seems inherent to many of the images, as body parts stretch out of proportion and sharp daggers hang over the heads of hybrid figures.
In Art as Gift (2015), intertwined bodies tussle viciously for dominance in a display of penetrative acts that are both erotic and menacing. It is the human condition made flesh, or rather, paper that is made to resemble puckered flesh, with images fashioned as though by razor-sharp claws and teeth, created by the need to survive in a present moment that is entangled by conflict. But Art as Gift is simply another take on Wiharso’s ambivalent stance, one that pits contemporary life against archaic folkloric tradition. This theme is so prevalent that it’s impossible to ignore the sense of paralysis that dominates his images—a dire consequence of being trapped in a field of contesting moral compulsions and conflicting expectations.
Entang Wiharso: Never Say No is on view at Singapore Tyler Print Institute through May 30, 2015.