Fri, 23 Jun 2000

Heri Dono genetically engineers 'wayang'

By Prasetyohadi and Pandaya

JAKARTA (JP): Lovers of the arts streamed out of Teater Utan Kayu giggling, grinning and even laughing out loud when discussing the bizarre shadow puppet show they had just seen.

The one-hour show that correlated the "conventional" Javanese wayang with the contemporary form of animation is an experimental art form introduced by Heri Dono, a surrealist painter who proclaims himself an "art performer".

"Did you enjoy it?" one friend asked another. "Hmmm, I liked it but I didn't really get it," her friend replied diplomatically.

For lay people already familiar with the Javanese traditional shadow puppetry, Heri's wayang is just as mind-boggling as his eclectic paintings.

Heri calls his latest work wayang regen, or genetic engineer. Characters are distorted and projected on geber (a cloth screen). Visual language is used to interpret them. Messages are prepared on texts read out theatrically by Dono and his assistant, Guntur Songgolangit.

The characters bear no resemblance to the traditional wayang. They are all deformed to look like creatures from outer space or probably a result of cloning between the local traditional and foreign culture.

The odd atmosphere was felt right after you stepped into the theater, which is often used to showcase experimental arts. It was dimly lit. A large white screen dominated the area. Three kenong (small gongs) were being slowly struck by mechanical devices, making sounds like water dripping in a silent night.

The walls were wrapped in black cloth. A number of adult human-sized wayang were suspended from ropes in front of the screen. Hio incense, used in Chinese traditional rituals, was burning, spreading a strange smell.

The music and all the noisy sounds were prerecorded. While the dalang played, the puppets were projected on the screen and the bare-chested Guntur walked and danced, reading out a text attached to his chest with by string.

"Indonesia is as difficult as making a glass painting -- you do it from the opposite side. In Indonesia, facts are twisted and you will get it wrong if you read it straight." Political leaders were portrayed as hypocrites.

While the puppets were silhouetted, video images were projected from the foreground onto the screen: the images of old Javanese aristocrats, late Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung, funky dogs, monkeys wearing fashionable hats and numerous icons appeared one after another throughout the show.


Heri is among few contemporary artists who have gained acceptability overseas, more so than in their home countries, for their avant-garde works. The British Council in Jakarta sponsored Dono's Tuesday and Wednesday shows.

He debuted as an art performer in 1999 when he performed Kuda Binal (Wild Horse) in Yogyakarta in 1992. It was a mockery of the two-yearly painting biennial (he twisted it into Binal) in the town that he criticized as efforts to "formalize" arts.

Wednesday's performance was titled Lobi-lobi, after a local fruit. "The present cultural and political conditions is like lobi-lobi. It looks good and tasty but don't eat it; it's hard and sour," Dono said in a discussion.

The absurd wayang has the basic idea of the Javanese wayang performance but they turned the whole cosmological concept into something that you will no longer recognize.

Heri was inspired by the art of cartoon animation combined with another Javanese wayang genre called wayang ukur, which is very rare.

The climax was when the artists set fire to two characters of the traditional puppet figures of evil king Rahwana and Pandawa hero Bima. Heri said, in fact, that Bima was just as sadistic.

Observers said that Heri's wayang was an "unfinished" work of art.

Traditional puppet master Jlitheng Suparman of Surakarta, Central Java, described it as "having no soul of tradition". He said Heri had yet to create the theatrical dimension of wayang.

Heri readily acknowledged that all his works were about "imperfection", as apparent in the deformation that features therein.

Collaborator Guntur, himself a puppet master, said the contemporary wayang had nothing to do with tradition. Dono and himself had created a new genre of puppet, he said.

The artists adopted a metaphor of "genetic engineering" of court-centered tradition to something completely new.

Heri said one of the new characters of these wayang was that they had nothing to do with war and violence that is always important in the wayang stories.

The artists said they believed traditional artists should shun rigidity if their works were to be accepted by the modern world.