THE HEART OF DARK­NESS

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT RENYI LIM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY LAW SOO PHYE

Praised for his un­flinch­ing artis­tic in­ter­ro­ga­tions of the In­done­sian mass killings of 1965 to 1966, Dadang Chris­tanto’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Malaysia, Miss­ing, has ar­rived at Wei-Ling Con­tem­po­rary. The In­done­sian artist speaks to ThePeak about his coun­try’s vi­o­lent past, peer­ing into the depths of hu­man bru­tal­ity and the power of re­mem­brance.

Praised for his un­flinch­ing artis­tic in­ter­ro­ga­tions of the In­done­sian mass killings of 1965 to 1966, Dadang Chris­tanto’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Malaysia, Miss­ing, has ar­rived at Wei-Ling Con­tem­po­rary. The In­done­sian artist speaks to The Peak about his coun­try’s vi­o­lent past, peer­ing into the depths of hu­man bru­tal­ity and the power of re­mem­brance.

Dadang Chris­tanto sits in a cor­ner of Wei-Ling Con­tem­po­rary, eye­ing an as­sort­ment of kuih that’s just been set down in front of us. “Now, I shall be greedy and take more than one!” he ex­claims, his eyes gleam­ing with imp­ish hu­mour. It’s mid-July and the In­done­sian artist is mak­ing his first of sev­eral vis­its to the sixth floor of The Gar­dens Mall, scop­ing out the gallery in prepa­ra­tion for his up­com­ing solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Miss­ing.

Chris­tanto’s de­but ex­hi­bi­tion in Malaysia, on now un­til 4 No­vem­ber, stands in stark con­trast to his gen­tle per­son­al­ity. His art is steeped in the blood­stained his­tory of In­done­sia’s mass killings of 1965 to 1966 and its count­less vic­tims of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. Re­peated mo­tifs of blood, dis­em­bod­ied heads and anony­mous faces – sym­bols that high­light the ease with which crimes against hu­man­ity can be com­mit­ted – carry the same chill­ing, highly un­set­tling qual­i­ties that run through Jake and Di­nos Chap­man’s Hell, An­nie Lei­bovitz’s im­ages of the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide and Vann Nath’s paint­ings of Cam­bo­dia’s no­to­ri­ous S-21 prison.

“Dadang’s work leaves an in­deli­ble mark on your mind and vis­ually, too,” says Wei-Ling Lim, the Gallery Di­rec­tor of Wei-Ling Gallery. “This is not go­ing to be a pretty ex­hi­bi­tion. It’s not a show that’s easy – it is con­fronta­tional. But who wants a show that’s easy? Robert Rauschen­berg once said: ‘The artist’s job is to be a wit­ness to his time in his­tory.’ Some­one like Dadang has got such a strong voice – not just in In­done­sia, but in­ter­na­tion­ally as well – be­cause he’s be­ing hon­est and truth­ful. He’s show­ing and talk­ing about is­sues that peo­ple want to ig­nore.” Chris­tanto’s pieces, it must be noted, are as much a warn­ing as they are a memo­rial to the dead.

“If you look at the atroc­i­ties of World War II, ev­ery­one said: ‘Let’s never let this hap­pen again.’ They asked how such war crimes were pos­si­ble, but it’s still hap­pen­ing to­day, all around us – atroc­i­ties are oc­cur­ring that haven’t even been

brought to our at­ten­tion,” Lim points out. “Take what’s hap­pen­ing in Syria or Myan­mar, for in­stance. You think, ‘How much power do we have? What can we do to em­power our­selves to make a dif­fer­ence?’ So, we al­ways try to push bound­aries with the work that the gallery shows, and if an artist has pu­rity in their de­liv­ery, we want them to say it as it is, with­out cen­sor­ship.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers a co­he­sive se­lec­tion of his art­work, in­clud­ing new in­stal­la­tions, sculp­tures and a per­for­mance piece – a re­flec­tion of his di­verse body of work, which also in­cludes draw­ings and paint­ings. Within them, el­e­ments such as tor­tured fig­ures that weep tears of blood and red threads dan­gling

from por­traits in the style of 1960s-es­que In­done­sian iden­tity card pho­to­graphs are more than artis­tic al­lu­sions. They bear wit­ness to the artist’s own ex­pe­ri­ences as a child dur­ing the anti-com­mu­nist purges, which saw sup­port­ers of the In­done­sian Com­mu­nist Party (PKI), op­po­nents of the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, union mem­bers, in­tel­lec­tu­als, land­less farm­ers and eth­nic Chi­nese be­ing ar­rested, bru­tally in­ter­ro­gated and mur­dered.

While the ex­act num­ber of vic­tims of the 1965-66 mass killings re­mains un­clear, the East Ti­mor Ac­tion Net­work has stated that re­li­able es­ti­mates sug­gest be­tween 500,000 and one mil­lion peo­ple lost their lives. (Re­cent es­ti­mates have stretched fur­ther, point­ing towards a higher death toll of two or three mil­lion peo­ple, ce­ment­ing its grisly record as one of the blood­i­est mas­sacres of the 20th cen­tury.) Although Joshua Op­pen­heimer’s 2012 doc­u­men­tary, The Act of Killing, helped drag the purges into the glare of the global spot­light, the events of 1965-66 have re­mained shrouded in si­lence, both in In­done­sia and abroad – with a few brave lone voices be­ing raised in protest.

I ask Chris­tanto whether he watched Op­pen­heimer’s film, which – con­tro­ver­sially – was over­looked for Best Doc­u­men­tary Fea­ture at the 86th Academy Awards in favour of a doc­u­men­tary on Amer­i­can backup singers. “I saw it, yes,” he says evenly. “It shows the re­al­ity of what hap­pened, but re­mem­ber – the film only fo­cused on Medan, which doesn’t have such a big pop­u­la­tion. Things were hor­ri­ble every­where in In­done­sia dur­ing 1965-66, but in Java, it was even worse.” The artist him­self was born into an In­done­sian fam­ily of Chi­nese de­scent and raised in Te­gal, a mod­est vil­lage in Cen­tral Java.

He was only eight years old when the rum­blings of Gen­eral Suharto’s cam­paign of ter­ror reached his vil­lage – and once they did, Chris­tanto’s father was dragged from their home by sol­diers, never to be seen or heard from again. “I still re­mem­ber my mother cry­ing through­out that time, but she wouldn’t ex­plain what had hap­pened,” he re­calls. “She just said: ‘Your father’s gone away to an­other city, and he’ll be there for a long time.’ It was only later, when I was play­ing in a field with some other chil­dren, that some of my friends told me: ‘Your father is be­ing held in the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters – he’s be­ing tor­tured.’

“To hear about my father from my friends – it was hor­ri­ble for me. Since I be­longed to the fam­ily of a 1965-66 vic­tim, I was stig­ma­tised and bul­lied by my class­mates. I didn’t want to go to school, so I quit and slept on the streets in­stead. It was a very hard time for my mother – she went from jail

to jail in the city, try­ing to bring him food, but the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters never al­lowed her to see him. That was the strug­gle of so many vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, though.” Did he ever find any clues as to his father’s fate?

“I’ve never been sure. Four or five years ago, I met some­one who was a for­mer ex­e­cu­tioner in Te­gah and tried to find the pos­si­ble lo­ca­tion of where my father might have died. There was a field near a beach where he said they’d ex­e­cuted pris­on­ers and thrown them into the wa­ter or a nearby river af­ter killing them. Ev­ery city in that area has a lot of mass graves. Near Yo­gyakarta, for in­stance, there’s a cave with a deep ravine and a river at the bot­tom. I spoke with a wit­ness from that time, and he said ev­ery night, truck­loads of peo­ple were pushed from that cliff – alive. And when the wa­ter flowed from the river af­ter­wards, it was red.”

It is the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to ac­knowl­edge and apol­o­gise for the events of 1965-66 that fu­els Chris­tanto’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to carry on pro­duc­ing bold, chal­leng­ing art­work such as Slaugh­ter Tun­nel (2015) and his 1979 per­for­mance piece, In Red. “Even my fam­ily in In­done­sia – my brother and sis­ter – don’t want to talk about that time. They’ve said: ‘The past is the past, don’t talk about it any­more.’ But that’s not for me: I have made my­self a wit­ness. Why? If we don’t talk about it, the same forces be­hind the fire and vi­o­lence of the mil­i­tary will be back,” he as­serts.

“No one was ever charged in court and, if that’s the case, they’ll re­turn in the fu­ture. So, why shouldn’t we stand as wit­ness through art­work about such vi­o­lence?

“In Mi­lan Kun­dera’s words: ‘The strug­gle of man against power is the strug­gle of me­mory against for­get­ting.’ We must re­mem­ber be­cause the regime and its fas­cist move­ments will try to shut out the past, but it’s dan­ger­ous for the fu­ture. So, I hope that my work en­cour­ages the In­done­sian pub­lic to open up and dis­cuss their fu­ture as a na­tion.” He brings up the In­ter­na­tional Peo­ple’s Tri­bunal on 1965 Crimes Against Hu­man­ity in In­done­sia (held in the Hague in 2015), which de­clared that In­done­sia com­mit­ted crimes against hu­man­ity dur­ing the 1965–66 mass killings, and that the United States, the United King­dom and Aus­tralia were com­plicit in these crimes.

“The gov­ern­ment re­acted by hold­ing a 1965 Sym­po­sium in Jakarta, but noth­ing hap­pened af­ter that. I mean, what is the next step? There are hu­man rights groups in In­done­sia who are still ask­ing the gov­ern­ment to come up with a so­lu­tion and make it clear what hap­pened dur­ing the killings. If the na­tion is al­ways stuck when it comes to think­ing about what hap­pened, it’s a na­tion that is not free. It’s dif­fer­ent in Ger­many: they’re open about the Holo­caust and they’ve apol­o­gised for it. Af­ter the Rwan­dan geno­cide, the Hutu and Tutsi com­mu­ni­ties reached out towards a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. But in In­done­sia, noth­ing’s hap­pened and that’s not good for our fu­ture.”

De­spite the fact that Chris­tanto moved to Aus­tralia in the 1990s, where he now lives con­tent­edly in Bris­bane (though he makes it a point to travel to In­done­sia at least two or three times each year, where his sis­ter runs a shop), has he ever wor­ried about fac­ing ret­ri­bu­tion for stead­fastly pro­duc­ing his art? “Be­fore this, dur­ing Suharto’s regime and the mil­i­tary or­der, there was al­ways cen­sor­ship. At that time, my art­work was quite metaphor­i­cal,” he laughs wryly. “Now, things are slowly open­ing up and my new works are fairly di­rect.

“But I am lucky. I have been lucky be­cause I can say what I’m think­ing, peo­ple know about me and my art­work, and I have a medium to com­mu­ni­cate with an au­di­ence and with peo­ple. I can ex­press my­self and in­spire them to think about In­done­sia’s past.”

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