In a Dark Century

Dadang Christanto

6 - 27 April 2001

Click images for full artwork details

Review of 'In a Dark Century' works by Dadang Christanto at RAFT Artspace Darwin

The lessons of history are the central concern of recent works by Dadang Christanto shown in Darwin recently in the recently established RAFT Artspace. These concerns which have their source in the violent cataclysms erupting periodically throughout Indonesia have lessons for all of us in other cultures who rode into the third millennium on a wave of dubious, manufactured jubilation.

Dadang, who is perhaps better known in Australia for performance art than for his visual art practice, is one of a number of significant Indonesian activist artists in exile. He now lives in Darwin and teaches at the University of the Northern Territory. Social justice has always been a major preoccupation for him and much of his work has exposed the plight of those, particularly in his own country, who are victims of systematic violence and militarism.

For the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT3), when he set fire to 47 life-size papier mache figures, Dadang recreated Jakarta's burnings of May 1998 The number 47 was based on the key dates of the violence represented. Called "Fire in May 1998" the work provoked a response of shock among the spectators whop witnessed the immolation of the figures and the apparent impaling of the heads, which remained as charred remnants on poles in the midst of the ashes of the conflagration. Dadang hoped the shock would be "shock capable of illuminating our sense of humanity". The imaginative participation of the viewer is central to the purpose of the work.

The visual works exhibited at RAFT also engage the issue of how to present terrible events authenticity but without alienating the viewer. They refer specifically to killings in Indonesia, but also to the universal growth of violent death in the 20th century around the world. This is the dark century of the show's title in which more than 200 million human beings were killed in conflict, and such violence shows no signs of abating in the new century.

The project, which was begun in December 1999 while Dadang was on a residency in Switzerland, is typical of his work in that it gives an aesthetically beautiful form to a dark subject. Although the images are not immediately confronting they are visually powerful and their aesthetic impact causes them to reverberate in the mind and the visual imagination long after viewing the show.

Most of the work consists of calligraphic drawings of human heads on Japanese rice paper, mounted between two sheets of perspex. The drawing is simple and restrained. Holes have been drilled through the perspex to the forehead of each head and an acupuncture needle with scarlet wool attached is inserted in each hole and embedded in the forehead.

Each of the heads is subtly different, although all share a common humanity, with stylised but recognisable representations of character and emotions. In a number of the works they are arranged in a grid like pattern and in some works the overall shape of the grid resembles a monument or a gravestone which gives the work added gravity of spirit.

These bodiless heads are reminders of the decapitation that often accompanies violent death. The violation of the forehead, the centre of the identity and the seat of our humanity and our energy signifies the total destruction of the subject. The red threads which stand out from the works in vigorous curves and loops, could be the spurt of blood, but may also signify the energy both life giving and life destructive which has its seat in the human brain. According to Dadang they are also flags for the memory, lest we forget the history which germinated such acts of violence and which will produce them again unless we learn its lessons.

The show also contains a striking wall mounted sculpture constructed of red tubular components with red wool attached which evokes huge bursting blood vessels with branching capillaries or perhaps an ancient fortification with encroaching moss on the remnants of the palisade.

The dominant colours of red and black also suggest blood and death. The visual impact is direct and simple but the impact on the imagination is complex and profound with many intermingled associations around the central themes.

Dadang has said, "Remember history well because it offers humankind an opportunity to grow wise and compassionate - or it can transform humankind into cowards, liars and barbarians."

The acupuncture needle into the forehead may also penetrate the energy and the consciousness of the viewer of this show. Being and acupuncture needle it's at once a wound but perhaps also offers a potential for healing.