Sun, 26 Jan 2003

Oscar Motuloh focuses his lens on the art of dying

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Dying is an art like everything else, says noted Indonesian photographer Oscar Motuloh.

But what kind of art is he actually hinting at in his solo photo exhibition titled The Art of Dying? The public in the capital city had a chance to look into his dramatic black-and white photographic revelations presented (Jan. 16 through Jan. 26) at Bentara Budaya as a photographic concert titled Konser Fotografi `The Art of Dying'.

The pictures were taken at the Paris Pere Lachaise graveyard, where the remains of history's cultural greats like Jean Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, Beaudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and others have been laid to rest, and the memorials remind one of violence and horror plaguing the world. Another part of the exhibit is inspired by the sculptures of Rodin in the museum at Rue de Varenne. There are also pictures from the Montparnasse cemetery.

Accompanied by a new-music form of requiem by master composer Tony Prabowo and sung by Nyak Ina Raseuki, one might have expected a sepulchral ambience. But quite remarkably, the dynamics of life were palpable both in the music as in the extraordinary display.

Most visitors perceived the exhibition as reflecting on death, probably instigated by the title. But one may also be inspired to reflect on the meaning of life as a substantial part on the path towards one's ultimate destination. Whichever way takes prominence in one's ponderings, it will not stray too far from the photographer's own reflections, life and death being of one and the same cycle and intertwined anyway.

So, while Motuloh ponders the graves at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, it is the lives of the buried that take center stage, questioning their merit in the face of history and truth. Bringing out their basic virtues as he feels it, Motuloh's pictorial narrative evokes a sense of the human drama or irony hidden behind disguising appearances.

Therefore, expect realistic portrayals of the tombs, for the pictures are the result of Oscar Motuloh's personal responses to emotions aroused by the object, or the name sculpted on the tomb. At such moments, flashes of what he once read or had thought about determine the shot and the angle from which it is taken.

The result is often staggering, as exemplified by the piece entitled Wheel of Death, Auschwitz III Remembered.

Taken from a certain angle, the sculptures set behind the tomb evoke the illusion of being the emaciated Jews, symbols of barren hopes walking between the leafless trees into death in the notorious Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Equally haunting and suggestive are the other pictures representing the attempted genocide of the Jews emphasized by Hitler's judgment as simply undisguised cowardice.

At a time when photography has proceeded to include the most sophisticated technology and photographic products tend to be a result of advanced technological manipulations, it is noteworthy that Oscar Motuloh uses just a manually operated camera, and his shots are spontaneous reactions.

The lens of my camera often is my third eye, reveals Motuloh, adding that a subconscious state of holding the camera often allows him to see things he would otherwise not have noted.

If it were not for this third eye, for instance, he would have passed Squire Samuel Chaplain at Pere Lachaise without noticing the images in the stone wall with the titles Libera Me and Texture of Sorrow in his pictures.

Indeed, Motuloh's shots are often a result of chance, a fleeting fraction of recognition which might be intertwined with personal passions, readings, issues, concerns and the context of universal truths. Once, when he was coming out of the Rodin museum, the sun was shining, he said, projecting part of a sculpture in the garden over the Tomb of Napoleon at the far end. Michelangelo's Genesis in the Sistine Chapel flashed through his mind, but the hand of judgment could have been another flash of thought.

As much as Motuloh relies on spontaneous reactions for his stirring photographic narratives, he also seems to have a sense for aiming at the essence of things, as evident in Hands of Destiny, a partial representation of Rodin's sculpture of the infamous French martyrs called the Burghers of Calais. Expression of suspense, anguish and dreadful tension unfolds in the bony knuckles and rough lines of the hands.

Oscar Motuloh (born in 1959) started as a journalist with the National news agency Antara, after the thought of the stifling bureaucracy turned him off of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

As usual for a journalist at the time, he did the reporting and brought his own camera to freeze events supporting his reports.

As he proceeded, his horizons widened, with the meaning of mankind, life and death gradually taking center stage. A documentary on the people's celebration of death in Tana Toraja, followed by pictures of the ancient temple of Angkor Wat and the mass graves in Cambodia, were milestones on the way to the depth of the current excellence in `The Art of Dying'.

Oscar Motulloh's exhibition was the first major Indonesian evidence of photography as a medium of art. Credit must be given to art curator Jim Supangkat for "discovering" Oscar Motuloh and bringing him to public attention through CP Artspace in Washington DC in August 2002.

Konser Fotografi 'Art of Dying'; Bentara Budaya, Jalan Palmerah; January 16-26, 2003.