Deanna Grayson – “Is that a pink, puffy winter jacket?” I ask Restu Ratnaningtyas as I approach her latest artwork, which is currently being featured as part of the Baik Art Residency and Exhibition at the Van Every Gallery. The Gallery incorporates work from three contemporary Indonesian artists who are currently working in the gallery space and leaving it open to students who want to come and view the process of creation. “Yes, it is,” she replies, while walking over to her bag and pulling out a green jacket that looks just like the pink one in the artwork (Image 1). This is Ratnaningtyas’s first time in the United States, and when I asked her what she finds the most striking, she replied that it is the cold weather. When I spoke to Ratnaningtyas about her work, she tells me about the struggle we all feel in certain climates to stay warm and the great lengths we will go to preserve our body heat, piling random things on top of us until we feel warm. In her painting, Ratnaningtyas takes this concept to illogical extremes, where even people are being piled on each other as part of the quest to remain warm. The artwork makes me think about the things that we do, and the extremes we go to, to find emotional warmth and pull it close, perhaps at the cost of hurting other people.
Ratnaningtyas brings me over to see some of her other work—small scenes featuring paper-made objects from daily life contained in glass boxes. Ratnaningtyas is both a mother and an artist, and she spoke to me about some of the struggles she feels in her two different roles. Each role comes with its own set of expectations. Her scenes feature objects associated with babies and femininity encourage us to confront whether the role of the mother is something we subscribe to optionally or forcefully, especially in light of perceived societal expectations.
The work that most caught my attention among Ratnaningtyas’s creations was a piece of cloth with a threaded figure of a person who seems to be riding a bicycle, or doing some similar activity, while also being cut in half or dissected (Image 2). One half of the person is centered on the activity, and the other half is floating in space (placed on the cloth slightly above and behind the first half). This work is part of a series that Ratnaningtyas calls “Thread Vomit – Part 2,” likely referring to the boiling thoughts and emotions that the artist allows to spill onto her artwork. Ratnaningtyas and I talked about the idea of doing an activity (or, more generally, living your life), but not being totally present. I think that this lack of presence is something we can all relate to. Many of us fail to live in the moment when we are caught up on social media, or in our own thoughts.
We can wonder if being lost in our own thoughts is as bad as it seems or whether it serves as a path to realization and maybe even survival. Perhaps the grueling monotony of reality, manifested in activities as simple as riding a bicycle, is too numbing to handle without activating drifting thoughts.
Furthermore, would we have any art to create if we never stepped outside of our immediate experiences? Artist Mella Jaarsma, whose work often takes the form of costumes worn by live models, encourages us to (literally) step into unfamiliar experiences and try them on, or at least encounter someone who has done so. The “costumes” (wearable sculptural constructions) that Jaarsma are creating in the Van Every Gallery feature bags (like purses and luggage bags) sewn onto fabric that models wear while moving around the space or standing still. Some of the works, like “The Carrier,” 2016 (which is being shipped over from Los Angeles for the exhibition opening at the Van Every Gallery on February 9, 2017) (Image 3), feature bags that look like expensive designer purses. A viewer can observe the physical and figurative oppression that these brand-name bags instigate or contribute to when looking at the figure in the costume.
Jaarsma, who was born in the Netherlands but has been working in Indonesia for over 30 years, explained to me how important humor is to her artwork. Humor can serve as an access point into difficult topics that might otherwise be too weighty or daunting to approach. The physical image of a figure overcome with bags is funny to us because it is not at all pragmatic, yet completely relatable. Many of us can think of situations where we have carried too many bags and felt overpowered by our luggage.
The appearance of a person with too many bags, and the idea that we have been in that position before, stirs up the dark humor with which we can look at human greed and consumption. Why do we take so many things with us on our journeys? Why are we so afraid of being unprepared when nature seems to strip us of our ability to be perfectly prepared no matter what we pack? Jaarsma’s costumes remind me of a sculpture I encountered last March at the Armory Show by American contemporary artist Nick van Woert. The work is called “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains – Albert Bierstadt 1868” and features random household items and typical travel supplies like soap, laundry detergent, and Gatorade displayed in plastic cases (Image 4). When I spoke with Grimm Gallery director Sebastiaan Brandsen last March about possible conversations that could take place around this work, we discussed the human tendency to over prepare for journeys and road trips. The work is named after a traditional 19th century depiction of the sweeping landscapes of the American West, evoking themes of adventure, exploration and escape. Van Woert displays the unnecessary things that we take with us on the journeys we undertake. He shows us the things that we mindlessly pack into our bags until all our luggage becomes nothing more than a collection of individual capricious containers foaming with the grotesque clutter that we think will remedy our anxieties.
When we embark on a journey – no matter how many unnecessary things we take with us – we are almost always leaving some place we consider to be home. For artist Aliansyah Caniago (Alin), also participating in the Baik Art Residency and Exhibition, home is a small city in Indonesia known as Barus. Caniago has spent much of his artistic career creating works that reveal the environmental dangers of modernization, particularly in Barus and the surrounding areas. When I spoke with Caniago, he relayed to me his deep belief in the power of art to bring about change by generating conversation around ignored or overlooked subjects. He has invited the governor and mayor to his art exhibitions in a direct attempt to impact policy in his hometown.
This past November, Caniago traveled to the village of Miaoli in Taiwan and came across a tree that looked a lot like a tree that he believed to be native to his Indonesian hometown: The Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora). He began asking the local Taiwanese people about the tree and soon realized that the tree was, in fact, a Camphor tree. Caniago believes that the tree got from Indonesia to Taiwan through sea trading, which has been happening throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. In fact, one of the local Taiwanese people that Caniago met was able to show him an 800-year-old Camphor tree in Taiwan. Caniago wondered if the tree had been in Taiwan for so long that some Taiwanese people may associate it with their hometown when really, for Caniago, the tree is an emblem of the Indonesian town of Barus.
Caniago was flooded with the realization that if stories, customs, and even native trees do not get written down and recorded, they can be easily erased from collective memory. In Caniago’s words, “History can so easily become accident.” With modernization hitting Indonesia and wrecking the environment including lakes that used to historically define the landscape, many people have come to define their identity solely based on current media. We can understand what Caniago means by thinking about how often we view ourselves solely as products of our current system or the communities in which we are immersed. Instead, perhaps we can look more to the past to contextualize our being the same way that Caniago spent an hour with me contextualizing his current work by explaining all the work he has done in the past. The art project that Caniago is currently working on in the Van Every Gallery is called “The neighbor’s grass is always greener,” and features a collection of Camphor leaves from Taiwan that he has brought to North Carolina, each leaf in a small plastic bag, to share with us and remind us of the fragility of cultural and natural heritage (Image 5). Caniago also hopes to inspire viewers to become more aware of their past. We all exist on a timeline and in an interconnected web of beings, as tangled and environmentally- destroyed as that net may be.
I would like to thank the artists for allowing me to interview them for this article and sharing their stories with me. I would also like to thank Lia Newman and Katie St. Clair for their suggestions on how to communicate effectively with artists who are in the process of creation.