Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Eko Nu­groho, Per­men & poli­tik sama 2 men­gan­dung pe­ma­nis bu­atan (2013), from the in­stal­la­tion Lot lost (2013-15). Col­lec­tion Art Gallery of NSW. Pur­chased with funds pro­vided by the Neil­son Foun­da­tion and Dick Quan, 2015. On dis­play, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, un­til next year.

In 2000, in Yo­gyakarta, a young In­done­sian artist first pub­lished Dag­ing Tum­buh (Rot­ting Flesh), a zine that em­bod­ied the cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion af­ter the col­lapse of pres­i­dent Suharto’s 31-year rule.

In those early zines, Eko Nu­groho gave readers an in­tro­duc­tory taste of his dark hu­mor­ous im­agery: heads with smoke­stacks, faces with two beaks, ro­botic limbs and jel­ly­fish-like peo­ple. It is im­agery born out of dis­parate in­flu­ences such as graf­fiti, comic books, sci­ence fic­tion, pop­u­lar cul­ture and Ja­vanese tra­di­tions such as wayang the­atre.

Nu­groho, who was born in 1977, be­came an artist at the height of the re­for­masi, a tu­mul­tuous time in the late 1990s marked by vi­o­lent protests and po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. He is now part of a group known as Gen­er­a­tion 2000, which has thrived since the end of the Suharto era.

Since start­ing the zine, Nu­groho has broad­ened his out­put to work across a vast ar­ray of medi­ums, such as paint­ing, draw­ing, sculp­ture, em­broi­deries, artist’s books and video an­i­ma­tion.

The eclec­tic na­ture of his prac­tice is well il­lus­trated by his 2013-15 in­stal­la­tion Lot lost, a re­cent Art Gallery of NSW ac­qui­si­tion, which has just been in­stalled for the first time in the con­tem­po­rary gal­leries.

Seven large em­broi­dered posters fea­ture in the in­stal­la­tion, one of which is Per­men & poli­tik sama 2 men­gan­dung pe­ma­nis bu­atan, de­pict­ing a ro­bot-like car­toon crea­ture in DayGlo colours. Across the bot­tom is a slo­gan in In­done­sian that trans­lates as “candy and pol­i­tics both con­tain ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers”.

The gallery’s as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor of in­ter­na­tional art, Lisa Catt, ex­plains that Nu­groho ob­serves ev­ery­day life and social is­sues in his home coun­try.

“Laced among his procla­ma­tions of colour and con­tra­dic­tion is a pierc­ing so­ciopo­lit­i­cal commentary about the state of democ­racy in In­done­sia to­day,” she says.

“But while the work of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of In­done­sian artists tended to be un­apolo­get­i­cally po­lit­i­cal, Nu­groho takes a far dif­fer­ent tone. His ac­tivism is more dis­creet, guised in candy colours and dark irony.”

Catt says the em­broi­deries in Lot lost are hu­mor­ous in a dark, satir­i­cal way, with a play­ful use of lan­guage. They re­fer to sub­jects such as lax gov­ern­ment stan­dards, cor­rup­tion of pub­lic of­fi­cials, the in­creas­ing in­flu­ence wielded by re­li­gion and in­tol­er­ance to­ward mi­nor­ity groups.

“With their chunky out­lin­ing, flat­tened colour and graf­fiti-like let­ter­ing, the em­broi­deries do in­deed bring to mind a col­lec­tion of street posters,” Catt says.

De­spite Nu­groho’s art hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal edge, Catt says he hasn’t en­coun­tered any in­ter­fer­ence or prob­lems. “This is the whole thing about us­ing satire,” she says. “He comes at it

more from a social an­gle through this fan­tas­ti­cal, vi­brant, vis­ual lan­guage that he has cre­ated. He com­ments but, be­cause it is wrapped up in bright colours and hu­mour, he hasn’t had any is­sues.”

Catt says it has been amaz­ing to see Nu­groho’s tra­jec­tory from mod­est be­gin­nings as a street artist to Lot lost, which in­cor­po­rates the tech­niques he has been ex­per­i­ment­ing with for the past 16 years.

“For me what I love about this work is that, as a viewer from Australia, I find it ex­tremely en­gag­ing be­cause it is some­thing I haven’t seen be­fore and yet it tells me so much about one of our clos­est neigh­bours.

“I re­spect Eko so much as an artist and I think it is so im­por­tant for Aus­tralian cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions to be en­gag­ing with these artists to re­flect this shift in cul­tural con­scious­ness that is go­ing on at the mo­ment within the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.”

Ma­chine em­broi­dery rayon thread on fab­ric, 171.5cm x 155cm

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