“Ngudang” is a Javanese term for activities that happen between adults and infants or young children. The goal is to communicate, using gentle language, often High Javanese, along with song. Ngudang is almost always filled with praises for the good looks, beauty, or cleverness of the child. It is one of the first forms of intergenerational interaction – based on which more sophisticated communications will be built.
In the culture of Java, children occupy a very important position. Children are the carriers of fortune. This view may be a remnant of the farming culture of the past, which relied on extensive labor. Having more children meant having more workers, which meant greater productivity, and ultimately, lots of good fortune. That's roughly the logic of the connection between children and fortune in old Javanese culture.
As times have changed, farmlands have been replaced by factories and shopping malls, yet the cult of the child has remained. Only it has changed in form. Active verbal communication patterns have slowly been replaced by gadgets. Children's toys, with all their age designations, have replaced the old verbal communication patterns. Modern children live in cramped urban dwellings accompanied by toys and the sounds of the television. There is no more High Javanese language; the songs of praise are gone. They have all been replaced by digital technology tools and devices. Pregnant women need not sing; all they have to do is place their i-pod earphones on their bulging stomachs, and turn on classical music or strains of sacred verse. Nor is it necessary to cajole little children into conversation and banter – just leave them, engrossed, with an i-pad in hand; this is sure to keep them entertained, and let their parents keep busy with their laptops and apps.
That's more or less the scene for modern, middle-class families in the big cities of Indonesia today. Meanwhile, in lower-class families, ngudang has been supplanted by the active blare of loudspeakers made in China and the maudlin cries of soap operas on TV, or by trashy plastic, battery-operated toys, produced by super cheap labor in mainland China.
This exhibition by Iwan Effendi and Papermoon Puppet Theater raises the ngudang phenomenon as its theme. The most obvious reason for this is the artists' fascination with communication and its patterning.
Papermoon is the brainchild of Maria Tri Sulistyani, a.k.a Ria, and Iwan Effendi. It was born of their obsession to communicate in a different way. To communicate with people of all ages. For them, it was only through puppets that they could realize this.
Ngudang, as a unique model of communication, is (now gradually) getting replaced by sophisticated tools and devices. Ngudang is two-way communication. Even though the ones involved use different languages: one, “human language” and the other, the language of infants. Ngudang also constitutes a response to a misunderstanding, about how people should communicate. All too often, communications are misunderstood in relationships, as a result of encounters in which the same language is used. Whereas in everyday life, communications commonly take place, and even run smoothly, when two different models of language are used. As in ngudang-style communication.
It is here that Papermoon finds its context. The communication patterns Iwan and Ria create are based on difference. Puppets and humans talk – puppets and humans interact – humans and humans communicate. These three stages of communication demonstrate how puppets can create a bridge for communication between people.
Puppets are a key part of Iwan's and Ria's artworks. Their works beyond the stage performances of Papermoon almost always feature this element.
Puppets, in their view, are another form of human being, which may be an extension of the human hand, or substitutes for people themselves.
As shown in Ria's work: a collection of boxes with glass windows, made of multi-colored bits of salvaged wood. Inside the boxes are peculiar articles, made of papier mache, paper clay, wood, and found objects. These strange objects illustrate something – a story. Ria calls these works dioramachronicles.
Those glass-covered, used-wood boxes are representaives of a world, microcosms of the world. Within them, Ria captures details of stories she has picked up, based on the hopes of a lot of other people, who have sent their messages of hope to her. Which Ria then “weaves” into diorama boxes. Makes paper dolls, then attaches bits of newspaper, along with other tiny objects, out of which a story is slowly composed.
A diorama shows the details of a larger story. Usually located in a museum, it depicts an important event, considered to have historic value. It's a threedimensional scene from a particular historical narrative. In Ria's context, the narratives on display are formed by hopes. The hopes of a number of different people. Each hope, respectively, is placed in a box under glass, like a mailbox with a window. Symbolically speaking, RIa's dioramachronicles are mailboxes. Her friends send hopes, but RIa does not realize these hopes, she only illustrates them.
The question then arises: why would these people want to entrust their hopes to Ria, and then let these hopes be embodied in works of art?
When we read these hopes, none of them are “new”; they are hopes that we hear all the time. Because they have to do with the basic hopes people have, to stay alive: equal rights, a green environment, and so on. Since the hopes are cliches, Ria has no difficulty embodying them within her dioramachronicles. Indeed, the friends who leave Ria their messages are well aware of how art (too) can serve as a message sender. By entrusting their messages to her, they are consciously making them more visible, to a larger number of people. So a hope that begins as a gripe is turned into a campaign. As a campaign, that cliche hope might one day inspire a lot of people to do something.
Most of the dolls Ria makes are small-sized. One reason for this is that their containers are not very large, but it is also intended to make the viewer look at them close up. Up close, we can see the details, observe the pale faces of the paper dolls. At a glance, the doll faces look like tandak (the faces of dancers). They are covered in white powder, leaving only a bit of red at the lips. From all of this we know that Ria's work is designed to be “spied on” or "peeped at". By placing these things in small boxes, the act of peeping becomes real. Forget about looking at them from a distance, the way you do when you look at paintings.
We must come closer. In fact, it's as if we have to cock our ears, to hear the dolls whisper, about the stories they carry.
Iwan Effendi is a painter who has recently been working with diverse combinations of media. Having discovered how much fun it is to work in puppet theater media with Papermoon, he has now begun to work with still different forms: three-dimensional works, assemblages of found objects and mechanical motion, drawing and other techniques. He began the process of making his current works by looking at the potential of found objects, be they of wood or other materials. He still departed from a theme, only the theme was non-specific.
The first time I visited Iwan's studio, he seemed to be still confused. Stacks of wooden boxes were piled in one corner of the studio. In another corner of the space, sat a pile of charcoal, some of which appeared to be sculpted. At first it seemed he was starting a process using these media. And then he told me he was running out of ideas, and those half-finished objects were just trash. Unlike other friends of his generation, Iwan seemed restless, or rather, easily bored by conventional media. He had begun his career painting on canvas, paper, or wood, using acrylic paint. Now he was trying out other media. Experimenting with unconventional media proved to be something new for him.
After establishing and being active in the puppet theater, Iwan became interested in two things: history and motion. His latest works encapsulate both these trends. As mentioned above, he began with charcoal, pieces of wood, and found objects. Then he assembled all these things into a sort of “puppet”. Indeed, it was not like the conventional puppets he had made, but something resembling the structure of a puppet. Wooden boxes arranged in order: large ones on the bottom, small ones on the top, like the body and head of a person. To these geometric box shapes he added a set of simple machinery, which can move the hands or certain other parts of the work. When we associate this work with the exhibition title, it becomes clear why this artwork resembles a small child. Ngudang more or less means communicating with a child who can't speak fluently yet. One of the most important things about ngudang is touching and making gentle physical contact. We find the same thing in Iwan's latest works. Touching, gently moving parts of the artwork, is imperative. Without such actions, these mechanical works would not work in accord with their underlying idea.
Iwan likes viewers of his works to be active. Some of the works are to be placed on the floor. You can imagine such works as a little child who is ndeprok (Javanese: comfortably sitting on the floor) waiting to be invited to communicate.
Some of Iwan's works apply alternative coloration techniques, such as burning. Iwan's obsession with charcoal stemmed from his observations about how history is linked to certain traumas, which are imprinted in the minds of young people in Indonesia today. The idiom of charcoal might be right, but at first he had to force it, by positioning the charcoal as an element in his prospective work. The charcoal was like a tumor in the breast of a beautiful woman. Stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Following a series of discussions we held, Iwan changed his approach. He no longer used readymade charcoal, but made it himself. He “burned” his works deliberately to get a carbon effect. Through a controlled method of burning, he created a series of fire “sculptures” out of the soot that solidly attached itself to the wood. Some of the wood turned into charcoal, some of it remained uncharred.
By burning, Iwan obtained a situation that is symbolic of historical phenomena that – (having been) deliberately ommited or forgotten – turn to ash/carbon. At the same time, he also obtained a distinctive visual effect.
In another series, Iwan accidentally discovered that the soot that got attached to the wood, after scraping, would take on associative shapes, which, when finished, became more complete: forms of children, or human body organs. Amazed by the results he got from the various unintentional effects of his effort to find “other media”, Iwan seemed to get a second wind. His experiments had brought him back to a creative state again. As noted above, his sense of over-saturation with the uniform approach of art in recent years, forced him to return, to dig for the roots of the problem in his own art. It was not merely a matter of ideas but also, a matter of materials, or the relationship between the two. And out of this saturation, the mechanical artworks were born.
I think that there are few young artists today who see the correlation between material and idea as an important thing. As a generation that lives under circumstances of extensive sign consumption, there is really no need for them to embark on esthetic quests as Iwan has so laboriously done. Everything is already provided by the digital world. The quest is often treated as an exercise in futility. It is enough for them to mimic. No effort is made to elaborate on what they are consuming. They are satisfied enough with what they have consumed. Growing up in such a “stagnant” situation, the games and experiments Iwan has conducted put him one step ahead of his peers. He has the courage to venture out of his comfort zone.
The Papermoon puppet theater group was founded by Ria and Iwan in 2006. Ria's background as a theatrical performer and her love of the world of children and fairytales led her to the world of the puppet theater. Together with Iwan Effendi, she brought a theater that was initially branded as (just) children's theater in a different direction. That children could enjoy this kind of theater, so be it, but this did not mean that it stopped there; it could also be a “purer" medium of expression. A different kind of expression was initiated, in performances that began to address adult themes. This went on, up to about a year ago, when they successfully staged Mwathirika, a puppet theater piece based on the genocide of communist sympathizers in Indonesia in 1965. Their success in working on “adult” themes enabled the theater group to successfully get past the stereotype of puppet theater in Indonesia, as educational theater for children.
Iwan and Ria are truly inseperable from the group; as its founders, they give its performances color. Ria's ability in directing combines with Irwan's ability to give an artistic touch to the puppets and stage settings. On the occasion of this exhibition, they will take advantage of the gallery setting, which also happens to be a cafe. Judging from their last stage performance, Secangkir Kopi dari Playa (A Cup of Coffee from Playa), their capacity to respond to spaces is amazing. They transformed a warehouse full of dusty antique furniture into an imaginary space that allowed the audience to conjure exotic locales: Havana, Jakarta, and love were materialized. In the gallery space they will respond to the cafe tables as performance platforms. As in their previous works, audience interaction will be required here. It is through audience interaction that the theatrical performance gets realized. Without efforts by the viewers to pull the strings or hold the puppets, the performance would not exist.
This exhibition at Kendra marks a new point of departure for Iwan Effendi, Ria, and Papermoon. Although they depart as a group, all of them essentially bring their own agendas to the exhibition: Iwan, with his mechanical artworks, Ria, with her dioramachronicles, and Papermoon, with its site-specific puppet theater. Let's hope that their agendas will be achieved: we, as onlookers, are the eye witnesses to this important step they take.
Agung Kurniawan, curator and supporting artist, 31-05-2012
(Translated from the Indonesian by Sherry Kasman Entus)