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In Agan Hara­hap’s satir­i­cal fan­tasy world, US-pres­i­dent elect Don­ald Trump can ap­pear in a batik shirt at a bois­ter­ous In­done­sian mu­sic per­for­mance, and em­bat­tled Jakarta Gover­nor Ba­suki “Ahok” Tja­haja Pur­nama find him­self on the re­ceiv­ing end of kisses from US pop queens Mi­ley Cyrus and Katy Perry or, in per­haps an even un­like­lier sce­nario, am­i­ca­bly shak­ing hands with his neme­sis, Is­lam De­fend­ers Front (FPI) chief Habib Rizieq.

The pho­tog­ra­pher shows that the cam­era can lie as he plays with il­lu­sions, and he has been a pi­o­neer in us­ing digital imag­ing to cre­ate sce­nar­ios whose witty, ironic and thought­pro­vok­ing qual­ity has won fans and press at­ten­tion around the world.

His ex­per­i­men­ta­tions have also in­cluded images of animals in in­con­gru­ous set­tings, such as a pel­i­can peer­ing over a dis­play of fish in a su­per­mar­ket, and su­per­heroes in his­toric photos. He also im­poses his own im­age in some of his works as he rubs shoul­ders with a gag­gle of celebri­ties.

An­other se­ries of photos, some of which have been ex­hib­ited at Sin­ga­pore Bi­en­nale since Oc­to­ber, pur­ports to show the black-and-white works of a 19th cen­tury In­done­sian photo stu­dio, Mardi­jker, but with Euro­pean faces im­posed on the fig­ures in lo­cal at­tire, and vice versa. It’s an ironic take on the ex­oti­ciza­tion of old colo­nial set­tings.

Agan says mod­estly that his in­tro­duc­tion to photography came from “a not very good be­gin­ning — due to var­i­ous lim­i­ta­tions, I was forced to re­peat my univer­sity stud­ies in photography over two years” at the De­sign and Art Col­lege (STDI) in Ban­dung. He at­tributes his real ground­ing in photography to his time at mu­sic mag­a­zine Trax, even if he says he was still con­fused about proper op­er­a­tion of the cam­era and stu­dio lamps.

On the side­lines, he also con­trib­uted to other mag­a­zines of dif­fer­ent gen­res; he said it re­quired him to use his in­stincts as a pho­tog­ra­pher and also a “digital ma­nip­u­la­tor” to meet their de­mands. He had learned pho­to­shop­ping dur­ing his time in col­lege, and the skills came in handy when he worked in me­dia.

“Work­ing in the me­dia also opened my eyes to ma­nip­u­la­tion of facts and re­al­ity dig­i­tally. And it has be­come my ‘guide’ in cre­at­ing,” he said by email.

The phe­nom­e­non of digital photography and how it has changed tra­di­tional photography is at the core of his artis­tic mes­sage.

“In re­la­tion to the devel­op­ment of digital photography and its dis­tri­bu­tion in so­cial me­dia by more peo­ple, I see that these peo­ple are ‘trapped’ in an il­lu­sion of life of their own cre­ation,” he said.

“And so they can­not dis­tin­guish be­tween il­lu­sion and re­al­ity. So I, as a pho­tog­ra­pher born dur­ing the so­cial me­dia and digital era, am of­fer­ing a re­sponse to this with my works.”

Satir­i­cal works are bound to elicit var­ied re­ac­tions. His im­age of a fish pur­port­edly with a ham­mer and sickle on its head stirred up con­tro­versy ear­lier this year. But the 36-year-old said the most con­tro­ver­sial were his works on the Jakarta gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion on so­cial me­dia. Some ac­cused him of spread­ing false­hoods.

“In my opin­ion, we had reached the most ‘chronic’ point, when peo­ple can no longer dis­tin­guish be­tween il­lu­sion and re­al­ity, or hu­mor and li­bel, when peo­ple have for­got­ten to use com­mon sense and their con­science to re­spond to a pho­to­graph that is said to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of re­al­ity,” he said.

Agan is based in Yo­gyakarta, and finds the artis­tic and cul­tural mi­lieu to his lik­ing. “We only need a bi­cy­cle to meet friends, chat and ex­change our thoughts on what­ever we choose. It’s some­thing that is very rare in Jakarta.”

His works have gained an au­di­ence around the world, and he has ex­hib­ited in the Nether­lands, Sin­ga­pore, Ja­pan, Tur­key and France, among other places. As well as ex­hibit­ing at the Sin­ga­pore Bi­en­nale this year, he was also the sole In­done­sian artist par­tic­i­pat­ing in 11th Shanghai Bi­en­nale, show­ing his ear­lier works of grave­stone at a Jakarta pet ceme­tery.

Ul­ti­mately, his artis­tic ex­plo­rations have al­lowed him to make friends with peo­ple from around the world, he added.

“I am still in­ter­ested in study­ing and us­ing so­cial me­dia as my me­dia for cre­at­ing,” he said.

Photos cour­tesy of Agan Hara­hap

Photos cour­tesy of Agan Hara­hap

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