Illuminance NUS



– Published on the occasion of the exhibition at National University of Singapore NUS (14 August – 14 November 2010)

– Text by Karen Lim and Rifky Effendy

Curious Creatures of Habit by Karen Lim

Nothing is static or absolute and everything starts with self.

—Agus Suwage

Life in any form never finds its own balance. There is always a continuous fall and rise.

—Filippo Sciascia

Illuminance initially started out as a suggestion by Filippo

Sciascia to Agus Suwage to work on a joint exhibition of collaborative works. Their dialogues revolved around their distinctive practices and how their current practices might find meeting points on which their collaboration might be mounted.

The process throughout was informal and as time passed, both artists produced works of their choice and further negotiations were made with curator on the placing of works in the gallery to connect, echo and dialogue.

The works of Suwage and Sciascia on display are mostly new pieces created in recent months. An insightful visual narrative of interconnected and non-linear multi dimensional works reveals the appropriation of iconographies, which are distinctive to both the artists’ creative processes. There is a certain intensity and obsession with skeletons and light as subject matters, integrated from a multitude of sources through the use of decorative patterning, photographs, objects and the natural sciences. The works explore the intersections of life in a convoluted way; cerebral yet intuitive responses in search of wisdom and the transcendental, along with the formation of personal and spiritual identities.


Skulls have been ubiquitous on clothing as they were in 16th Century contexts. In the 16th Century in Europe, anatomy was a necessary part of an artist’s education, and knowledge of it was considered a positive artistic attribute. Skulls were also often seen in many self portraits. They were associated with saints and gentlemen and at times, cast their aura over the visual imageries. In general, the understanding of skulls and skeletons in the 20th Century may seem to be a preoccupation with death, but skull iconography remains strong in the 21st Century as seen in youth, pop culture, as well as in contemporary art. Contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic and Damien Hirst have also used skulls or skeletons in their works, presenting skulls for contemplation.

The reappearance of skulls and skeletons as imageries is seen constantly in Suwage’s works since as early as 1995 in the work “Monolog” and then resurrected in 2003 and later repeatedly appropriated from 2006 till the current new series of works. The skull also becomes a fetish symbol used by Suwage on varied objects including a series of product designs such as on the Vespa scooters and jewelry.

I visited Suwage at his studio on 29 June 2010 as preparatory study for the exhibition. Viewing his works, Suwage had mentioned that, “bone is more permanent than flesh … (pause) and (shrug) … and then said maybe (bone) not as permanent”. His obsessive interest with skeletons started since young when he collected objects of skulls, skeletons and puppetry. Suwage recalled that his first work of a skull was self-made and subsequently, he found an anatomical model from China and had since been using it as the mold. Anatomy and the skeleton for Suwage then become a value-laden iconography, associated with the “loss of attributes such as nudity, gender and sexuality”.

Eros Kai Thanatos #1 (2010), displays an elegant sophisticated attempt at rendering the anatomy in a highly aestheticised manner rather than exhibiting anatomical accuracy. It is worthy of note that Suwage groups his skeletons and flora in this single composition, reinforcing this unification through gesture and landscape, to facilitate a comparison of the different views. He has also given his skulls a sense of motion that further adds to the impression of animation. Each piece shows a different profile suggesting a journey rather than death. The varied flowers of rose, lotus, hibiscus and frangipani are symbolic and read at once of the beauty, purity, divination, protection and the fragility of life. Together with the detailed drawing of the jaw, teeth and skulls, these imageries are a signifier on life and a reminder of our ephemeral being, an internalised vision of contemplation when old forms die and new forms are evolved. Materials used by artists have increasingly had a personal iconological significance imposed on them by the artist themselves. Artists are ascribing new meanings to the material itself and its ability to convey an experience in “real time” dealing with issues on processbased.

This series of watercolour drawings are not studies of a work but seen as a work in itself. In dealing with watercolour, Suwage said, “these drawings become a discipline as I required more concentration, physical and mental health”.

2 The act of painting in watercolour, becomes a personal challenge to him; to complete the work within the time frame to control water and colour, create transparency and depth, and maintain dry and wet at the same time. Generally, the medium created a different effect for him and is very individualised. The outcome of the work is not planned: these works are a form of training for Suwage and challenges him to remove himself from the technical aspect of his practice. This process is the opposite from creating his oil paintings, which he tends to use design methodology: photography as a base to draw, paint and then create imageries in his paintings. Rather than planning the outcome and then paint, each anatomy skeleton appears as a separate entity on different pieces of paper. Suwage paints and then combines the imaginaries in the sequence intuitively.

Tobacco juice has also been included in these new water colour works as part of the medium. A homemade concoction of tobacco soaked in water is boiled, sieved and the liquid is used as a background colour for the works.

This experimentation creates a natural sepia colour, which Suwage is fond of. His excitement is undeniable as one can detect a twinkle in his eyes when he explains how he experiments and perfects the making of the tobacco juice. He even tells you that the smell of the juice is unbearable. Tobacco is considered as one of the most important plants in shamanistic practices, drinking the juice alone channels a source of visions. At times, it is used in healing practices and is considered a medicine. In dealing with tobacco juice as a medium, the medium itself has become symbolic, since Suwage had mentioned that, “smoking is one of my personal self healings”.

3 There is an emotional attachment when Suwage uses tobacco and watercolour as medium. These works are usually referring to him as he personalised the work in a contemplative stance, mediating upon the mysteries of life and death. We see Suwage here thinking through the ultimate realities of death to arrive at what becomes, for him as it had for others, a new sanity and even serenity. The process becomes therapeutic for him through psychological and spiritual circumstances. This is why he has repeatedly mentioned that the watercolour series are for him atherapeutic experience.

Suwage appropriates his own works and explained that he usually uses humor to balance a heavy or difficult theme. He deals with issues on ambiguity, irony and the oppression of minority, using pigs and crows as signifiers. It is evident that Suwage’s works were not without a sense of humor. Circle of Hope (2010), presents five 24K gold plated crows on a mound of fifty sets of skeletons made of graphite as the main source of material – playful without being irreverent.

In Suwage’s own words, “I sympathised with crows as they are scavengers that consume garbage. They are considered as bad luck. I glorify the crows by gold platting them”.

4 Graphite, a two dimensional art medium is appropriated and evolved into a three dimensional sculptural form. The skeletons and crows were produced in a foundry; each piece laboriously produced by hand, from the graphite concoction to be set in the mould, the hand painted eyes, feet and body of the crows, to the individual set of skeletons. As a wide spread memento mori tradition, what we had examined does not trap one in a preoccupation with death. On the contrary, one is directed towards life – towards the effective living of life, without anxiety and a preoccupation with transience.


Sciascia’s paintings have a cinematic and photorealist approach and treatment. They are lyrical, poetic and hypnotic. His practice germinates from the transference of imageries and development of forms and treading on the grounds of the evolution and the history of art. Sciascia had mentioned at his last visit in Singapore that, “alphabets are man-made, whereas drawing is a natural and fundamental thing in humans, which amnesia has risen … the birth of art had a purpose, but as soon as camera was invented, art had lost its purpose, as one does not need an artist to paint a portrait”.

5 His creative process is in his unyielding fixation with searching and gathering information. Such as, his initial search on melatonin, which led him to understand the form and function of the pineal gland, which he adapted for the installation, Domus Completus (2010).

Sciascia claims that his life needed a desire; the conceptual aspect is the motivation behind all his works, which he appropriates and use to reinvent newer works. This could be expressed in painting, music or video and to him; there is no difference between any media or ready-mades. All works have the same value as they intermediate and create their own meanings.

There are works that lose the value and yet there are some that are useful for a while. His works act like a diary recording his daily events and sporadically, he destroys them as he had experienced and past a phase when the works become irrelevant. These works become sacrificial, painted over and evolving into newer works. This evolution is cyclical in a way that he appropriates symbols he had used previously onto new series and periodically repaints over existing works. A metaphor on self examination and an evolution that all things are connected and life is transient.

There is a certain restlessness in Sciascia, in his obsession with the pursuit of something. His paintings are tactile and very handmade. He pushes gesso as a main material, dealing with the paint medium as a sculpture. Applying gesso thickly and repeatedly, and allowing the medium to crack and evolve on its own. Each crack becomes an obsession to fill it with adhesive, to contain it, to keep it stable and alive. These two dimensional paintings are now reliefs, elevated into three dimensional forms. It is this fascination with the process and the material that he is able to find the balance to address his practice. Resin, acrylic, Vinavil adhesive and gesso are used and at times a mixture of marble powder, sand or cement. He explored this technique while living in Florence when he first encountered it as a technical challenge, after the paint on his works were falling apart, resulting in finding the right combination of materials to address the issue. The textured quality took one to three weeks to achieve and sometimes he employed a background colour to create an image during that period.

Occasionally, the image may come later or interchangeably. The cracks achieved reflect on the contrast of the imagery he looks for. It becomes the basis of the work where the cracks evolve, change and take on an ephemeral life on its own. Everything that is seen enters the human eye as a pattern of light qualities. We discern forms in space as configurations of brightness and color.

Shelter, cave and dome are forms we encounter in Sciascia’s allegorical works – a metaphor for light, a notion of ideals and realities – like a camera, similar to the human eye capturing light. Acquiring light became his interest and photography is used as the tool for this purpose. The image at times becomes less important than the medium.

The monochromatic works of each medium has a primary colour in black, white, and green and sometimes in red. To him, red colour is like fire and the heart and also represents the colour of iron chloride, which is often used by Joseph Beuys. Sciascia shared with me his fascination with the conceptual influence from the 60s, which valued materials like fats as a medium used by Beuys. Sciascia uses this idea as the conceptual approach to make his own work.

Sciascia’s Lux Lumina (2010), a three channel video piece at the end of the NX Gallery, seduces viewers into a ritualistic performance where the protagonists are in search of light. The video’s predominant colours are in black and white. Sciascia asserts that “both are opposing colours from the spectrum of light and in his opinion the colours represent a search for balance”.

6 He further explained the origins of this work, which references Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, representing an extended metaphor that is to contrast the way in which we perceive and believe in what is reality. For Plato, discovery of the true source of being was made possible by departing the shadowy cave of human affairs and entering into the archetypal light, a realm of luminous knowledge, truth and goodness.

Light is identified with the joy of the soul and with the functioning of the intellect. Each scene in the video incorporates light beautifully and signifies a spiritual and ritualistic desire in our daily lives and activities seeking for the truth. Similarly, the appearance of light also often symbolises holiness and a common element in sacred visions. In all religion, light and radiant colour signifies humanity’s encounter with the divine.

In dealing with Sciascia’s Lumen Sutilis (2010), a group of children areseen accented under a blaze of light above and in frontof them. Light here delineates the light of intimacy andrefuge and can only exists in relation to darkness. As acentering force, it denotes home and provides a locus for a spiritual journey. These children are seen keeping vigil on the sacred horizons, as beacons signaling the presence of the holy and transcendence of the mundane.

The association with light here symbolises infinite truth, ordering attributes of a spiritual home in a relative chaos of a secular experience.

Illuminance examines deeper into the works of Suwage and Sciascia. Concepts acquired may not necessary be what we grasped by our perceptual experience of the physical objects.

Knowing the artists’ oeuvres, these works cannot be seen purely as objects, because they are linked closely to the personality of each artist.

Both artists’ unending desires for experimentation in their practice and the nature of their works have changed our perception of what art is.

Communication and collaboration thus become essential to honour the artists’ intent and at the same time, extends the continuous dialogue of the work itself. They both deal with their inner self and their works allow varied readings of the psyche – the conscious and unconscious; and highlight the soul as an ephemeral being. As each artist has a different experience of transcendence through his creative process, this becomes a recognisable feature of his physical and psychological healing, and provides intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

The enigmatic works of Suwage and Sciascia encapsulate romanticism succinctly: an emphasis on the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary and the transcendental.


  1. Supriyanto, Enin., ‘Inanimate Performance’ in Agus Suwage: Still Crazy After All These Years, Indonesia, 2010, p 422.
  2. Conversation with Agus Suwage at his studio, Yogja, 29 June 2010.
  3. Supriyanto, Enin., Agus Suwage: Still Crazy After All These Years, Indonesia, 2010, p 359. 
  4. Conversation with Agus Suwage at his studio, Yogja, 29 June 2010.
  5. Conversation with Filippo Sciascia at NUS Museum, Singapore, 22 June 2010.
  6. Skype conversation with Filippo on 26 July 2010.