Harsono's engagement

Harsono's engagement

When asked to speak up about FX Harsono’s artwork at the opening of an exhibition of his photo-etchings in Amsterdam in january 2003, I qualified Harsono as ‘the warrior-artist’.

I compared him with Arjuna and when I did so he laughed and refused the comparison. He mentioned important differences between him and the mythological hero of the Baghavad Gita, known to be a handsome prince and a well-known womanizer, qualities that, Harsono, who is an extremely modest man, rejects as being applicable to himself. Nevertheless, aside from these particular characteristics, the comparison, for an occidental observer, seems for every hundred percent justified: since Harsono joined in 1974 the art group called Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, the Movement for Indonesian New Arts, his social engagement and his combatant attitude connected to that engagement has never left him. Just as the prominent Pendava-brother listened to his Lord and fulfilled his mission to fight against the Kaurava-army, Harsono listened to his conscience that inspired him during his whole life as an artist to take up arms against the socio-political injustices that he notices in the reality of the world surrounding him. He is indeed a warrior. His art is, metaphorically speaking, his weapon.

For a western observer of art this is, nowadays, remarkable. In the West, be it Europe or be it America, social engagement is, generally speaking, no longer popular among artists. Actual occidental postmodernism has favored presentation of possible meaning, of open interpretation, without clear socio-political positioning. It is true that deconstructivism strives for truthfinding, in revealing techniques of manipulation, in unmasking lies meant to distort people’s mentalities and opinions. This is which gives deconstructivism the smell of socio-political engagement. But the fiercest criticism does, for all kinds of historical reasons, seldom lead to firm standpoints in matters of society, to the neatness we have seen in earlier times, when in fine art as well as in literature artists positioned themselves clearly in international and national political and ideological questions. The actual commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of interpretation, combined with a desperate sense of the complexity of the world’s reality and, here and there, also with a decadent surrender to the seductions of commercialization, has conducted many artists to abhor any didacticism.

This reluctance to be didactic is absent from Harsono’s artistic activities. He wants his works to be didactic. When I learned to know his works and his artistic and social presuppositions, I was struck and charmed by them. They remembered me the days that I was starting, as a newcomer in Indonesia, my teachings at the Universitas Indonesia. When my students and I discussed a literary text, I had the habit of asking them what they thought or felt about it, and most of the time the answer was: ‘I liked the book. I can learn a lot from it.’ I was delighted to hear that, for the simple reason that in my own country and elsewhere in Europe students do, usually, not any longer consider literature a means for knowlegde, but mostly rather as an opportunity for sophisticated entertainment. Which I think is a pity, because art and literature are more than that.

For Harsono art is no entertainment. Art, for Harsono, is a means of semiosis, i.e. a production of meaning, production of a clear message, a message serving a threefold goal. First of all, Harsono speaks up, tells the truth as he sees it. Secondly, in his relation with his public, he battles for awareness. His social engagement gets people to be conscious of the socio-political situation. He mobilizes people’s minds, and hopes to make them think seriously about political power that may not be visible to everybody, but that is an underlying force, often producing effects of violent oppression. He comments visually, in his personal way, public events that make power manifest. And thirdly, he wants to facilitate people to express their opinions by graphic reproductions, giving himself an exemple of how that can be done.

Of course, all this is no sufficient condition for making Harsono the outstanding artist that he is. Good feelings, good insight, good intentions are not enough to give an artist his prestige, nor do they always succeed in providing his work with sufficient power and impact on our brains, hearts and souls. More is needed to create the special spiritual complicity that, as art lovers, we feel in our relation to great artists. Rembrandt, by painting portraits of persons and groups, made it possible that centuries later we feel familiar with the men, women and even animals that he shows us on his paintings, drawings and etchings. When his imagination creates representations of Biblical scenes, he communicates to us his religious devotion. Van Gogh, as an artist went outdoors, dressed his easel in the open air, in front of people, trees, flowers, and thus opened new ways of seeing reality in all its diversity, its manifold beauty in forms and colour. It was not their choice of objects that made them great artists, it was their talent, their skill, their originality.

There are many different methods that can be used to consider the talent and originality of an artist. Art critics may choose the historic path and consider the influences he has undergone from predecessors or contemporary colleagues, often recognizable influences but from which he has freed himself. Or the artist’s specific handling of material may be considered. Et cetera. My approach will be a semiotic one. I will concentrate on Harsono’s handling of visual signs in his photo-etchings.

In visual art iconocity is a basic component. The iconic sign is in its simplest definition the sign by similarity, by resemblance. In a realistic painting we recognize people, animals, landscape, houses. Even in non-figurative painting we recognize forms and colours that we relate to real elements, be it really existing, tangible objects, or just feelings, states of mind. We may relate chaotic structures on the canvas to concrete or spiritual chaos. Iconic signs offer the interpreting person a possibility to create a relation between the sign and some object, some reference. Iconicity is the basis both of the creative artistic labour of the sender of the artwork and of the creative interpretative response of the adressee.

Let me give an example. On Harsono’s photo-etching, of 2001, called Super Women we se indeed several women represented along the lines of iconicity, the representation being photographic. We distinguish two categories of women. There is a group of real human beings and there are some un-human beings, puppets. The first group shows likeness with women whom we meet in the real world, i.e. the world where you can touch people, where you can participate in real joy, real suffering and where you know that laughs and tears are in fact connected to real joy and suffering. The second group belongs to fictive, virtual, fantasmatic worlds. These women are constructions. If they show anger and threat, the signs of these feelings on the faces of the puppets are artificial imitations of the real signs of the same feelings on the faces of real persons.

Two of the virtual ‘superwomen’ show clear sexy characteristics. Long legs, big breasts. They carry fireweapons, have impressive dominant looks, as players in a game that is openly or secretly sadomasochistic. The fantasy-lady down in the right corner of the image looks, by her appearance and her attributes, like a fairytale goddess. The ‘real’ women are dressed simply, as workers in some industry. They constitute a real group, a small collectivity. The smile on the face of one of them shows that they are good-humoured, probably glad to be together.

An iconic sign can be discovered in the structure of white and grey over the surface of the etching: the grey constituing a cross in the light background. The light surface contains the fictive ‘superwomen’. In the horizontal part of the grey cross we see the group of women-labourers. This, of course, is a metaphor. The fictive women, the puppets, can be found in the light of the media. The real, anonymous, women stay in the dark, that is to say that they do not belong to the collective knowledge of the masses.

In the vertical part, one of the labouring women takes a beforegrounded place; she is the central person in the whole image. This is also a metaphor. It is clear that she is the most important women in the picture. I guess no-one can look at this woman and not being impressed by the evident strength of this human being. Impossible, I think, not to feel sympathy and admiration for this woman. We may think: this woman and her colleagues deserve to be called ‘superwomen’.

If so, Harsono, by semiotic means, has lead us to an important conclusion: we may dream of super women, toys, in fantasmatic worlds as represented in fairytales, moviepictures, computergames, but we better consider hard working women in the real world as super women. Omages or representations we meet with in the virtual worlds can be misleading when translated, without critical sense, to the real world of labour. If Harsono’s etching is called ‘Super women’, the title invites us to reconsider this notion: the superwomen of the real world are not those who carry pistols or magic wands. The super women in the real world are the women that earn their money by hard work.

May-be the most significant sign in the etching called ‘Super women’ is the light that falls on the overall of the central woman worker. It looks as if she is coming out of the grey darkness and into the light of our interest, sympathy and solidarity. This ‘super woman’ is, in a sense: coming out.

Is this all the etching tells us? No. There are different kinds of collateral signs to discover, not always easy to find and not easy to interpret. There is for instance the presence of a text, composed of words. Words are no icons, but conventional signs – Symbols, as Peirce called them. It is fascinating to search for the meaning of such a collection of words in the context of the etching as a whole. We recognize the word ‘kasus’, the name ‘Arab Saudi’ and we recognize numbers, a percentage (‘100%’) and years (‘tahun 1998, 1999). May we admit that this is a fragment of some report about quantities of labour of emigrant Indonesian workers? Was their number rising (‘meningkat’) in those years? If so, the constrasting representation of the groups of women has its complement in another denoted contrast: the reality, in flesh and blood, of the emigrant women-workers, in opposition to the cool words and numbers in some official report about their situation.

It is part of Harsono’s semiotic strategy to show connexions and/or oppositions. By these oppositions he draws attention to relationships between power and oppression. This is illustrated by the five photo-etchings he made in 1999, as a series of look-a-like stamps for a fictive state, that he called the Republik Indochaos. We do not need much intelligence to understand that this non-existing state is the Republic of Indonesia. A first stamp shows the portrait of a man: a head of state, as is usual in autocratically governed countries. Iconocity helps us to recognize ex-president Suharto. The date printed on the stamp is 1998. In that year the dictator was still in power. The end of his reign is marked by a word that is written all over the picture, as if some civil servant had rubberstamped it: LENGSER. Which means ‘gone’, ‘done with’.
This is a very clear message, produced along the lines of irony. Irony functions on the basis of opposition: the traditional presence of the portrait of a head of state on the stamps of a country is here confronted with the funny name of Indochaos, with the word LENGSER and with the hardly visible pictures of manifesting people on the background. Every Indonesian still remembers the times when the picture of president Suharto figured on postal stamps. This is the referential element in Harsono’s photo-etching.
And so is the date of 1998, that is by itself a reference, an indexical sign for the end of the Orde Baru.

The main oppositional semiotic proceeding applied in this series of ‘stamps’ consists in a basic irony. Normally stamps show picures that are elements integrated in a strategy of political or national propaganda. Stamps show nice images, ‘belles images’, as Simone de Beauvoir called it in one of her best novels. Harsono shows, on his fictive stamps, realities that are not nice, realities that dismantle the ‘belles images’ of a regime. We see the results of fire and destruction; burnt motorcycles and also the burnt face of a human being. Or we see intervention of the policeforce. A policeman beating up with his stick a young female demonstrator lying on the ground is a reminder of the tv-picture - that was repeatedly shown the world over - of a woman running for the police, felling down, and being kicked on the head by the boot of a policeman who had pursued her.

We may say that in this case the artwork is as a weapon opposed to the weapon in the hand of the barbarous policeman. The words written all over the picture are relatively moderate: kekerasan tidak menyelesaikan masalah, violence does not resolve problems. I believe that Harsono is absolutely serious when he writes such a statement all over his etching, but I cannot help smiling: this is a bitter understatement, a too gentle euphemism, when we think of the brutal repression that took place in the streets of Jakarta during the last days of Orde Baru.

The stamp showing soldiers aiming their guns, ready to fire, is more explicit. The text is: BELAJAR MEMBUNUH, LEARNING TO KILL. Learning to kill whom? The upper side of the stamp gives the answer. The guns are not aimed at some external enemy, a foreign army. We see the legs of citizens, close together, demonstrators, we may presume. The Indonesian army has, officially, two functions, she is dwifungsi, with a protective task versus enemies from abroad, but also versus enemies from inside. But, when people who are opposed to the politics of rulers, are simply considered as enemies of the state, protection of the state turns out to be oppressive, violent and cruel. Soldiers who shoot at their own compatriots are not protecting the nation from enemies, they murder their own people, which is atrocious especially when these people try to call for a democratic, honest society.

All this is expressed by visual, non-verbal, semiotic means. The small textual elements, except from the word Indochaos, (kekerasan tidak menyelesaikan masalah and BELAJAR MEMBUNUH) do not have referential functions. They are not indexical signs related to some particular event. They are expressions of Harsono’s personal ideology. Explicitly in the maxim ‘violence does not resolve problems’. Implicitly in ‘LEARNING TO KILL’, because the sentence, BELAJAR MEMBUNUH, means that, when you give guns to young fellows and learn them to aim at people and fire, you are learning them to kill human beings.

These sentences are like statements, like the oneliners by which general rules are formulated, as well in mathematical theorems as in dogmatic prescriptions. These are the general rules by which semiosis leads to conclusions. And by which we come to a personal understanding of the world. Important interpretations, that result in acts, are based on personal general rules, the presuppositions that we often are forced to call prejudice. When we try to understand why people act in a specific way, we must try to find out which general rules are stocked in their heads. And when we try to make people aware of bad behaviour in social and political life, we will try to show what are the basic general rules that generate the despicable acts. That is exactly what Harsono is doing in his art. Indirectly he tells us: it is better not to think that violence can solve problems, it is better not to learn young fellows to kill people.

Of course, language in fine art can be considered to be a functional weakness. Words are conventional signs, bound to a code, i.e.a specific language, Indonesian or English or Japanese or whatever. Non-Indonesians may miss the meaning of the Indonesian words on Harsono’s etchings. Visual, iconic, signs have their impact without too much problems, in every country. Nevertheless, Harsono’s use of the Indonesian language is understandable; his intended public is Indonesian. His very small, very little verbal elements are easily translatable for non-Indonesians. His sentences have the function of helping his countrymen to fix in their minds the maxims he wants to propagate.

The simplicity of dichotomic opposition serves this same goal of persuasion and awakening of consciousness. There is a photo-etching entitled Pig or angel? So what? It shows the simplified image of a policeman’s head with helmet, drawn over a pig. Above are wings, angels. We suppose the question is addressed to the police: what will it be, pig or angel? That is to say: what will the police consider to be its mission, to oppress or to protect the citizens?

The semiotic proceeding here is the visual metaphor. A metaphor that could be generalized when one widens the message to a question concerning the future of the Idonesian state: will it be a state of pigs or a state of angels? And why nog going on generalizing? In what direction will the world move, will it be a world of pigs or a world of angels? And, making our choice, what will we assume as our contribution to its evolution? On what side will we choose to battle?

Harsono’s art as socio-political ‘weapon’ contains several risks. As far as the actual situation is concerned, I wonder if, notwithstanding his didactic intentions, his intended public can be mobilized to receive his important message. Among people who have a contact with fine art, let us say people from the upper middle class, there certainly will be who have the hearts and the minds necessary to recognize the value and the essence of Harsono’s message. But I also imagine people who reject his artworks because of their form, of their meaning. In the meantime it is clear that Harsono, knowing this better than me and others, deserves our admiration for his courage to have chosen this ideal of communicating with the people, that suffers from injustice. Inspired by people who recognized in Harsono a ‘comrade in arms’, he must have started, I think, to do what he felt necessary to do. There is an old French saying: having hope is not indispensable for someone to undertake something and, in order to persevere, he does not even need success. This noble saying is applicable to Harsono, whose idealistic engagement deprives him of easy commercialization, but brings him sympathy and admiration from those who recognize his value.

From the viewpoint of the occidental artlover there can be another risk. As I already said, in Europe and America, the artists have, generally speaking, turned away from engagement, from clear standpoints, from well defined meanings, from messages. In accordance with that, the public asks for enigmatic works of art, that have no clear meaning or clearly no meaning at all. Extreme, even shocking originality. Puzzling bizareness. Cynic humor. A decadent form of entertainement. Those are the most asked for qualities that a sophisticated well-to-do public in western countries have a tendency to wish from their complying artists (fortunately, they do not all comply). The risk is that the average western merchant of art will ignore Harsono’s work, as being not ’trendy’ enough.

Strange enough the opposite is occuring in Indonesia. The country being an emerging democracy, the creation of artwork with a socio-political significance is the daily bread of many artists. As every artist feels the need to distinguish himself from his colleagues, this poses a special problem to Indonesian artists, in particular to Harsono. The actual, and thus ephemerical and fugitive, character of the public events to which Harsono’s artworks refer offer the risk of losses of meaning, especially on an emotional level. Still now, our heart cries when we see the woman-demonstrator lying on the street while a policeman is beating her up, when we see soldiers aiming their rifles at human beings who ask for a better society and a better life. There are certainly Indonesians who feel grudge mixed with satisfaction when they see the stamp of 1998 with Suharto’s image rubberstamped with the word LENGSER. One day this will be history. Youngsters may not ignore what happened in 1998, who was Suharto, but they will not feel the emotional connotation that must have been immediately present in the hearts of their parents when they saw this picure in their days.

This does not in the least diminish the worth of Harsono’s artworks. On the contrary, I consider him to be a spiritual familymember of artists who have been great witnesses of their time. I think of European writers like Zola, Dickens, Graves, Malraux, Remarque, Solzhenitsyn. And, in the field of visual art, Dix, Van Gogh, Goya, Kollwitz, Picasso, Repin. And many others.

In more recent work Harsono’s attention is drawn to the problems of Indonesians of Chinese ethnic origin. He has been shocked very much by the rape of Chinese women during riots in the period of public opposition to the Suharto regime. Having Chinese roots himself he may feel for these victimized women a solidarity as to members of a same family. He becomes more and more aware of officially instituted procedures that make discriminated second class citizens of people from Chinese descendance: interdiction to have Chinese names, restricted entry to universities and schools, special code on identity cards. It is delicate matter; there are signs that the artist would like to treat the subject in his artworks, but feels a hesitation to do so.

One of Harsono’s most recent photo-etchings widens his engagement towards a non-political and more existential and even universalistic level. It is called Tubuhku adalah ladang, My body is a planting field. It shows a man, who is the artist himself, spreading his arms and hands in a gesture of offering and moving his head upwards, while from his body young plants come up. The most striking characteristic of this artwork, for those who know of Harsono’s previous pictures, is the absence of some actual historical, socio-political reference. The reference in this image is just a human being that is giving himself over to what may be considered a kind of sacrifice of himself in a mystic attitude, that is like an attitude of prayer, of surrender or offering to a divine power. It is a very inspiring representation that enables a multiplicity of interpretations.

The absence of immediate, clear reference to actuality or historicity is in itself a sign, a sign of the fundamental nature of the representation: this man seems to receive an inspiration that gives birth to plants growingfrom his body. It is probable that this is to be taken as a metaphor. The plants are represented with their roots, here very concrete, but as interpreting person I think also of the metaphoric meaning of the word ‘roots’. On the other hand there are all kinds of traditional, conventional signs (Symbols in Peirce’s terminology), in which we recognize mathematical signs for equality, infinity, universality, and also feminity, reversed. In opposition of what we have seen in Harsono’s earlier works, the interpretation of these signs is not precise. It is as if these signs alltogether tell us this: the world is full of signs, do not ignore them. Here Harsono comes closer to what happens in the works of contemporary occidental artists.

Thus, the whole picture has the nature of a twofaced general sign: it tells about a new phase in Harsono’s artistic evolution, and at the same time tells about the optimistic, open attitude that a human being can adopt in his life. This intriguing recent work of Harsono makes us all, semioticians and others, curious to see what his future developments will be. He is without any doubt an artist who has not said his last word.

February 2003