Thu, 10 Jul 2003

Heri Dono achieves new milestone

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Heri Dono usually observes June 12, the day of his birth, either with an exhibition of his work, or celebrating with the people of his neighborhood in Yogyakarta. This year, however, he observed his birthday amid the glamour and prestige of the 50th anniversary of Venice Biennale, an art event that is not matched by any other in the world.

Standing by his work The Trojan Cow in the Biennale's main space at Arsenale, Dono thought how lucky he was to have his dream of many years come true. There he was, the first-ever Indonesian artist in one of the main spaces of this international exhibition, personally invited by this year's Biennale director, Francisco Bunami, and curator Hou Hanru, who was responsible for the part called Zone of Urgency. The overall theme of the Biennale is titled Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer.

Dono's work was inspired by the film MadMax and is his critique on 9/11 and the oil race in the Middle East. Two toy- like soldiers symbolize George W. Bush holding a jerry can (of oil) and Tony Blair; also, there is the head of Saddam Hussein. The cow, says Dono, represents the people, whose voices are not heard. It could also symbolize the much-exploited cash cow.

His work, generally considered to be an amalgam of Hindu Javanese culture and a reflection of current practice, often criticizes oppression, power abuse and violent authority. Installations such as Fermentation of Minds, Ceremony of Souls and Political Clowns are his critique on control of the mind through propaganda, obedience and censorship. His poignant messages may be conveyed in a manner that is a reminder of children's images of outer space, but shining through is also his relish of cartoons and a zest for humor that sometimes stretches to the satirical or sarcastic.

Freedom of expression has been his dream since childhood. Born in 1960 and raised in Jakarta, he used to "secretly" visit TIM, the center of art activity at the time. Secretly, because he did not wish any of his friends to know.

"I admired the artists, mostly poets, who could freely say what they wanted to," he said. He decided he would be an artist and enrolled at the Indonesian Institute of Arts in Yogyakarta after he finished high school.

As he pondered about freedom of the mind and of expression, the angel figure, traditionally viewed as the guardian angel, shifted position to epitomize the free flight of imagery. Angels have wings and can fly wherever they want, he once said. And so he let his imagery take him to the remotest corners of the imagination, picking up elements of real life, wayang and cartoon while on the way.

Critical or futuristic, good or bad, Dono's work is about life and human behavior, about social and political conditions in the country or world at large, as seen, among others, in his sculpture installation depicting Angels, the may paintings that came under the overall title of Superheroes and his many imaginative performances.

While most artists try hard to be at the forefront of development, Dono relishes what some may term "backwardness." Instead of using advanced technology, he installs simple mechanical devices in his sculptures or installations, making use of the help of artisans and whoever wants to lend a hand. He loves to have ordinary people become part of his art, not only to help out, but rather to be genuine participants. Believe it or not, even grave diggers dance joyfully in Dono's idiosyncratic performances.

Dono has been consistent in demanding that everyone should be allowed an opportunity for equal existence. In 1992, he organized Kuda Binal, a performance of artists under 35 to protest the Yogyakarta Biennale at that time. Today, he is stretching his commitment by continuing to reinvent traditional and local context into mainstream contemporary art, sharing ideas, knowledge and skill with the young at home as well as abroad. His art and the concepts behind it have earned him a place in many prestigious innovative exhibitions plus many awards, normally given to artistic innovators.

He is a recipient of the Dutch Prince Claus Award (1998), the Unesco Prize for the International Art Biennale in Shanghai, Republic of China, the 2nd Annual Enku Grant Awards, Gifu prefectural government, Japan (2002) and was also honored to be among other respected world artists to fill the new wing of the Asia Society and Museum in New York (2002). He has had solo exhibitions in Indonesia, as well as in Australia, Switzerland, Singapore, Tokyo, Vancouver and Washington DC (April 2003).

Dono is a busy man. Back from Venice, he rushed to Semarang for his solo exhibition there, and, if he can get his visa for Australia, will be participating in a print workshop in Melbourne this week, after which he will perform in August in the Echigo Tsumari Trienale in Nigata, a place north of Tokyo. In this area, farmers left their agriculture-based villages to search for economic prosperity, he revealed, and the art event is intended to appeal to the farmers to come back and till the land. His performance would involve twenty tractors with a golden buffalo on it, while the rhythm of dance would be portrayed by traffic lights.

In September, Dono will be among the artists, selected from among 600 applications, for the International CP Open Biennale in Jakarta. The event is organized by the Indonesian, Washington- based, CP Foundation, which strives to help break down the barriers that separate the mainstream from the rest.

Dono may be flying the world in aircrafts that use the most advanced technology, and visiting countries dominated by modern living, but he feels most comfortable when he is back home in Yogyakarta, gently peddling his old bike through the city's quiet lanes. His imagination, though, will never slow down.