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Understanding Genocide Through Art

Understanding Genocide Through Art

by Reena Devi

December 30, 2018

FX HARSONO, Memorandum of Inhumane Act No 3, 2017, pigment based digital print and charcoal on acid free paper, variable dimensions. Courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

This exhibition review was originally published in the November/December 2018 Issue (111) of ArtAsiaPacific

FX Harsono’s solo exhibition, “Reminiscence,” presented by Singapore’s Sullivan + Strumpf, was focused on the artist’s investigation of the genocide of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians in Java, Indonesia, from 1947 to ’49. Widely recognised for his prolific practice, which addresses the plight of minorities and the socially underprivileged, particularly in the context of Indonesia’s history of political turmoil, the show reaffirmed Harsono’s ability to powerfully convey narratives of pain and upheaval.

It may be hard to grasp the heart of violent conflicts from the plethora of media that surrounds us today, but it was nearly impossible to avoid the sense of personal loss expressed in Harsono’s iconic installation The Spirit of Light (2016). A single tombstone, bearing a handful of names, replicates a marked gravesite and commemorates the victims—the actual number of which remains uncertain—murdered during the two-year genocide in Java. The concrete slab basks in a blood-red light, cast by a chandelier suspended above it, and is one example of how Harsono draws attention to the presence of people subsumed by the dark shadow of historical narratives.

Beside the arresting installation was Harsono’s new charcoal drawing, titled Memorandum of Inhumane Act No. 3 (2017), inspired by documentary photographs taken by the artist’s father in the 1950s that depict exhumations of known mass-graves. Closer inspection reveals that the charcoal portrait of Chinese-Indonesian people holding human skulls is superimposed on copies of an official memorandum outlining the acts of violence perpetrated by Indonesian forces on the country’s Chinese population before and after Dutch Police intervention, which Harsono uncovered during his research at the National Archives of the Netherlands.

The overlaying of text and image amplifies the horrors of lives lost, while bringing together personal and authoritative accounts of the events. Nearby, and playing on a monitor, was the new video Taking Nothing But Pictures (2018), centered on a female genocide survivor praying to the dead. On a partition wall across from the screen, the same female figure appeared in The Survivor Story (2016), a series of five paper works, including a black-and-white still from the video with “My name Tjoa Er Ries” and “The Survivor Story” scrawled beneath the subject’s image. Among the other components were archival government documents, a black-and-white photo of a ceremony with people holding flags, and a list of people’s names possibly from a grave marker, embossed in red. The artist unmistakably communicates history and the weight of his past, which he shares with his community, bound by ties of blood and loss.

FX HARSONO, Memory of The Survivor (detail), 2016, wooden furniture, fused deposition models, standing lamp, ceramics, sound recording, radio, video projection, batik fabrics, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

Behind the partition was another of Harsono’s well-known installations, Memory of the Survivor (2016), a living room featuring a wheelchair and period furniture with white, three-dimensional models of tombstones placed in various vintage cabinets and tables, as well as found photographs hanging on the walls. An old Dutch radio sat below these photographs, playing broadcasts related to Indonesian political history.

The living room setting effectively humanised the period of troubling history—it is as if genocide inhabits what could be a viewer’s home. Yet, there is no anger or bitterness in the work, just quiet acknowledgment of facts and faces. Harsono’s artist statement reinforces this position:
“I am not angry . . . It has never been my intention to place blame with anyone. Rather this is a call to everyone to accept the truth of history, however wretched it is, for a stronger nation.”
Genocide is far more relevant today than we care to admit. There are quite a number of us, even among the millennial generation, who have had our connections to our lands of origin—where our great-grandparents or grandparents came from—suppressed or erased because of political upheavals and displacement. Harsono’s body of work in “Reminiscence” dares to acknowledge this.

In a time when global powers continue to commit or turn blind eyes to past and present acts of violence against minorities in favour of political control and economic growth, examining the pains of those who have been marginalised, without inciting retaliation, is all the more relevant and necessary.

Read more exhibition-related news here


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