mescegenreation: Contemporary Indonesian Photography
by Justin Clemens
A horrible neologism, I know, but I couldn’t otherwise think how to present in a single word the deranging sense of genre, generation and miscegenation that these contemporary photographs from Indonesia inspire. Genre: the subjacent formal constraints that regulate the content, disposition and reception of images. Generation: at once the production of something new from existing genres, but also identifying the spirit of a specific epoch (‘Gen X,’ for example or ‘Mes 56’). Miscegenation: the illicit crossing of allegedly incommensurable genres. Mescegenreation is therefore a word which attempts to do what it denotes: something has gone awry in the processes of reproduction and display. It remains but is no longer the elements that compose it. It can be beautiful, it can be funny — but it can also be pretty disturbing.
Agan Harahap’s photographs are a case in point. In each, we find animals grafted into otherwise unremarkable quotidian situations. In one, a kangaroo peruses a sheaf of books at the back of what looks to be a relatively high-class bookshop, the alert, pricked ears and shaded spine of the roo — a notoriously stupid Australian animal, by the way, just look at the size of the head — seem at odds with its clumsy positioning in the alcove. In another, a tiger grooms itself on a day-bed; another depicts two deer poking their heads from the half-down windows of a car; in yet another, a cute little white rabbit fucks its equally-cute black companion on the luxurious couverture of a plump double bed. The quiet wit of the juxtapositions is maintained by the high-resolution monochrome of the prints themselves. Not quite surrealism, not quite sentimental whimsy, not quite allegory or satire, the images — like so many in this show — nonetheless have a political bite.
At first glance, Akiq Abdul Wahid’s sequence of photographs couldn’t be more different: they are bright, external, non-figurative, yet mescegenreation is also at work. What is initially most striking about Wahid’s photographs are their extraordinarily intense colours: the fulgurating blues, yellows, and greens of sky, sea, trees, hills, signs. Even the greys are somehow rendered intense. Compositionally, however, these photographs are incredible, targeting almost geometrically correspondences within the landscape. Odd sculpted trees mirror each other; hexagon tiles flip into the striations of windswept sand; a rural A-frame finds a shadowy peaked double in a distant mountain; loudspeakers and bamboo sheaves jet from dense leaves. The sequence is a constant interplay between colour disjunctions and geometrical resemblances, in which the invisible place from which the shots are taken becomes a paradoxical focus.
Angki Purbandono’s Beyond Versace does something of another order in its own short-circuiting of form and content. Purbandono has produced a series of images of homeless people and their clothing: a bearded man clothed in nothing but filthy underpants trudges a street at night; another man, grimacing, etiolated, semi-naked, shoves his hands down the front of his pants; another has passed out on a pile of colourful rubbish, inexplicably surrounded by discarded sandals; two are entirely naked; others lack any seat to their soiled and torn trousers…. The presentation of abject poverty goes on. Purbandono literalises all the familiar talk of ‘street photography,’ but in a way that isn’t susceptible to romantic idealisation. In fact, part of the horror of these photographs is that they, first, treat street-people as really of the streets that ‘we’ too like to think of ourselves as being of; and, second, the images themselves are treated as if they were contemporary fashion images. These photographs are extremely confronting, not least because they confound those internally excluded from the goods of society with those who are their most privileged beneficiaries. When a homeless man pouts back at the lens like he were a US teen model, you can’t help but get a shock — not least, the shock of recognising how much contemporary corporate communications mesh forms with content in a way that dissimulates their normalizing oppressiveness.
Jim Allen Abel’s Uniform Code and Uniform Series extends the miscegenreanated politics of imagery to the functionaries of the Indonesian state. In a series of photographs that parody Yves Klein’s famous (doctored?) image of his own leap into the void, Abel presents uniformed figures — cops, soldiers, attendants, and so on, their heads swathed in bright leaves or feathers or flowers — wielding axes in bizarre acrobatic positions, perched on rooftops or beaches, on tables or fragile ladders, leaning at impossible angles. The uniforms de-individualise with the same gesture with which they authorize. The functionary brandishing the axe of the state: the satire and slapstick is at once preposterous and ominous.
In a series which, as the title has it, presents an Elephant on its Axis in a range of situations, Wimo Ambala Bayang extends the miscegenreation. Like Harahap, we find a displaced animal in unexpected spaces; like Wahid, we find disjunctions and conjunctions of nature and artifice; like Purbandono, we find a disturbing political critique of corporate colonialism; like Abel, we find the evidence of impossible angles. In one shot, the gargantuan elephant, propped up on the remains of a truck by huge bamboo poles, has been photoshopped into a blasted landscape before a distant, smoking Mount Merapi, an active volcano which erupted in 25 October 2010. In other shots, we find the same elephant at a famous Yogyakarta beach, before a monument in Tugu, and at a large public square for a palace. Bayang’s work, as I have said of Abel’s, is also preposterous and ominous: don’t mention the (dead) elephant in the room (environment)….
Despite my embarrassing ignorance of contemporary Indonesian photography, from the evidence of this show one cannot doubt its singular inventiveness and power. These photographers are, from their very particular locale— the fourth most populous country in the world, comprised of an archipelago of over 13,000 islands — creating stunning images which, as well as being aesthetically effective in their experiments with form and content, are also intervening politically in the regime of representations. The human/animal divide, the human/environment divide, the human/human divide, the colonial/colonised divide — all are staged, and put to work in diverse ways. This is why I have harped on this name, this theme, of mescegenreation: these artists expose the monstrosity of the existent through their own monstrous cross-breeding programs.
Justin Clemens (born 22 April 1969) is an Australian philosopher, translator, social critic, and poet. He is primarily known today for his work on Alain Badiou as an editor, translator, and scholar writing, speaking, and lecturing on the impact of Badiou’s thought in this contemporary juncture. A former instructor in the Psychoanalytic Studies department at Deakin University, Clemens now teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne where he first earned his degrees: a B.A. (1990), an M.A. (1995), and a PhD (1999).
Clemens is currently Secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, Australia, and art critic for the Australian magazine The Monthly. In his own published work, he writes extensively on psychoanalysis, contemporary European philosophy, and literature. Clemens has also published poetry and prose fiction.