Curious Creatures of Habit
– Published on the occasion of the exhibition at National University of Singapore NUS
Singapore (14 August ñ 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, 2010
Life in any form never finds its own balance. There is always a continuous fall and rise. - Filippo Sciascia, 2010
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 developed their exhibitionary contributions while keeping in mind the themes each intended to explore. Further negotiations were made with the curator on the placing of works in the gallery to echo, connect 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.
The use of skulls and skeletons as imageries surfaced in Suwage's works since as early as 1995 in works such as "Monolog".
He resurrected the imagery in 2003 and in 2006 makes its reappearance again on the current body of works in the exhibition. The skull is also a fetish motif used by Suwage on various objects including a series of product designs -the Vespa scooters for example and jewellery.
I visited Suwage at his studio on 29 June 2010 as a preparatory trip for the exhibition. In the course of our conversation, Suwage responded to a question regarding the significance of skeletal remains to him. "Bone is more permanent than flesh," he explained, and then went on to second guess, himself, " but bone is not permanent either." His obsessive interest with skeletons started
at a young age, when he collected objects of skulls, skeletons and puppetry. Suwage recalled that his first artwork of a skull was self-made. He later found an anatomical model in China and has since been using it as a mold.
The anatomy and the skeleton are for Suwage value-laden iconographies, associated with the "loss of attributes such as nudity, gender and sexuality" as stated by Supriyanto.
Eros Kai Thanatos '#1 (2010), is an elegant and sophisticated attempt at rendering the anatomy in a highly aestheticised manner over anatomical accuracy. It is worthy of note that Suwage groups the watercolour pieces of skeletons and flora as an installative suite, thereby reinforcing their unification through gesture and landscape, to facilitate a comparison of the different views. He has also given this series of skulls a sense of motion that further adds to the impression
of animation: each section shows a different profile that collectively suggests a journey rather than death. The variety of flowers - rose, lotus, hibiscus and frangipani - are symbolic and are to be read as signifying beauty, purity, divinity, protection and the fragility of life. When read together with the detailed paintings of the jaw bone, teeth and skulls, Eros Kai Thanatos #1 encourages contemplation on the cyclical nature of life and its ephemeral being.
Materials in art making have increasingly been given personal iconological significance by the artists. Artists are ascribing new meanings to the materials and their ability to convey experiences in "real time" in the process of art making.
Eros Kai Thanatos #1 is a series of watercolour paintings, which are not studies of a work but seen as a work in itself. Explaining his process in making the watercolour works, Suwage said: "Making these paintings require a discipline as I need more concentration, physically and mentally". The act of painting in watercolour, becomes a personal challenge to him as the medium has technical demands on application and skill including the control of water and colour constitutions to create transparency and depth, all within a limited time frame.
For Suwage, the attraction of the medium, are the very demands as well as the rewards the process-sensitive medium offers in producing personal and distinctive outcomes. Each painting comes out as an individualised piece, the product and the testament of its process. For Suwage, working with watercolour is a form of training, one that challenges him to remove himself from the technical aspect of his practice. This process differs from his approach to oil paintings, where the tendency is to fall back on a set of approaches developed from his design methodology. Here, he may start with a photograph as a pictorial base towards planning out desired compositional imageries in his paintings.
In Eros Kai Thanatos #1, each image appears as a separate entity on different pieces of paper, only to come together as a consolidated and intuitive installation. Tobacco juice is also used in these new watercolour works. A homemade concoction made from boiling tobacco, the juice is used as a background colour for the works.
This experiment creates a natural sepia colour, that Suwage is fond of which he is unable to achieve in ready made paint medium.
His excitement is undeniable when he explains how he experimented and perfected the making of tobacco juice. Suwage had started using tobacco juice in an earlier watercolour work titled: Self Healing Series (2005).
Self Healing Series displays Suwage's auratic performance of himself. Eros Kai Thanatos #1 and Self Healing Series manifest on his contemplative stance, mediating upon the mysteries of life and wellbeing.
Thus the use of tobacco juice as a medium becomes symbolic for Suwage. "Smoking is one of my personal self healings," he explained, without irony. We see Suwage here thinking through the ultimate realities of life and death to arrive at what becomes for him, a new sanity and even serenity. This process becomes invigorating for Suwage through psychological and spiritual circumstances, a rationale he asserts repeatedly that working on the watercolour series is a therapeutic experience. Suwage appropriates his own works and often uses humor to balance heavy or difficult themes.
He deals with issues on ambiguity, irony and the oppression of minority, using pigs and crows as signifiers. Siklus (2010), presents five 24K gold plated crows on a mound of fifty sets of skeletons made of graphite as the main source of material. Despite its macabre theme, it is a playful work and one without irreverent intentions. "I sympathise with crows as they are scavengers and are considered as omens of bad luck. I decided to glorify the crows by gold plating them." It is evident that Suwage's works were not without a sense of humor. Contrary to memento mori tradition, Siklus sidesteps death to redirect attention to life and the transcendental living.
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 Filippo Sciascia's allegorical works - a metaphor for light and a notion of ideals and realities - similar to a camera or a human eye capturing light. Acquiring the light becomes Sciascia's interest and photography is used as the tool for this purpose. Lyrical, poetic and hypnotic, Sciascia's artworks invoke cinematic and photorealistic approach and treatment, questioning the roles of painting and the artist in contemporary art. Sciascia asserts: "the birth of art had a purpose, but as soon as camera was invented, art has lost its purpose as one now does not need an artist to paint a portrait. The alphabet is man-made, whereas drawing is a natural and fundamental thing in humans, and we seem to have forgotten that."
The monochromatic works in the exhibition of varied media in painting, video and photography are seen in the primary colours of black, white and green. 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 as Sciascia states that "both are opposing colours from the spectrum of light" and in his opinion, "these colours represent a search for balance." He further explains the origins of this work, which references Plato's Allegory of the Cave, representing an extended metaphor, contrasting the way in which we perceive and believe in what is reality. For Plato, the discovery of the true source of being was made possible by departing the shadowy cave of human affairs and entering into the archetypal light in search for knowledge, truth and goodness. Each scene in the Lux Lumina incorporates light to signify a spiritual and ritualistic desire in our daily activities seeking for the truth. Similarly, the appearance of light has often symbolised holiness and a common element in sacred visions. in all religion, light and radiant colour signifies humanity's encounter with the divine.
Sciascia paints a group of children accented under a blaze of light which is positioned above and in front of them in Lumen Sutilis (2010). Light here delineates the light of intimacy and refuge and can only exists in relation to the darkness in the painting.
As a centering 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. Sciascia's practice reveals a certain restlessness in the artist and an obsessive pursuit with the experimentation of making his works. He claims that he is inspired by Joseph Beuys' conceptual approach in devising formal vocabulary, layered with meaning and metaphor. His artworks are infused with mythological, historical and personal resonance and he feels that, "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 as a diary, a recording of his daily events and sporadically, he destroys them as he experiences and moves past a phase where the works become irrelevant in his life.
The transience of a medium also becomes a subject matter used by Sciascia in his paintings, which are painstakingly made and highly tactile. He pushes gesso as a main material, dealing with the paint medium as a sculpture, building layers to create three-dimensional surfaces. Applying gesso thickly and repeatedly, he allows the medium to crack and evolve on its own. He becomes fixated with each crack and fills it with adhesive, to contain, stabilise and to keep it alive.
These paintings become reliefs rather than two-dimensional works. Resin, acrylic, Vinavil adhesive and gesso are used along with a mixture of marble powder, sand or cement to construct his paintings. Sciascia began working with this technique while living in Florence years ago. It began as an accident when a painting he was working on was falling apart and he was challenged to experiment with materials to address the issue. The highly textured surfaces of his paintings usually take between one to three weeks to achieve, during which time he might apply a background colour. Occasionally, the image may come later or interchangeably. These significant cracks create a contrast to the image in the painting and become the basis of all his paintings where the cracks evolve, change and take on an ephemeral life of their own.
The evolution of Sciascia's works is cyclical, symbols are appropriated from previous works and occasionally, these works become sacrificial, painted over and evolved into new works, as observed in Domus Completus (2010), where previous paintings are treated in black colour and used as a part of this installation.
Sciascia's multidisciplinary practice and the evolution of his works act as a metaphor on his own self-examination and the belief that all things are connected and life is transient. I/luminance presents an attempt to examine deeper into the works of Suwage and Sciascia. Concepts acquired may not necessarily be what we grasped by our perceptual experience of the physical objects. Communication and collaboration thus become essential to honour the artists' intent and at the same time, extend the continuous dialogue of the work itself. Both artists' unending desires for experimentation in their practice and the nature of their works have changed our perception of what art is.
The medium used in their works cannot be seen purely as objects because they are linked closely to the personality of each artist.
They both deal with their inner selves 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.
Essay is written based on my conversations with Suwage and Filippo Sciascia from 22 Jun - 26 July 2010 .
Dark and Light by Rifky Effendy
Light and Civilisation In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.
Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.
- Mahatma Gandhi (1869 -1948)
The element of light plays a key role in human civilisation. It is a gift and can be found in abundance in all corners of the world thanks to the Sun. The light illuminates our history. We need light to see: to bring to the brain the information we receive from the world through the eyes. We thus see the reflections of light and the forms of the nature. Upon closer observation, it would transpire that light actually constitutes a magical phenomenon. Light represents life and is a sign of life itself, whether mentally or physiologically. Death is a world without light. In the Holy Scriptures, light represents the divine values, literally or metaphorically. Light is an element that controls human lives on Earth.
According to Buddha, all living beings have been endowed with sparks of divine light. In our descriptions of nature, we use such phrases as "glimmering light", the "primordial light", a "clear mind", and the light that illuminates reality and helps us see our surrounding and understand the reality. The Jewish mystics use similar terms when they talk about the soul or the spark of divine light.
The Quran mentions The Light, the ultimate and most subtle of elements compared to all other elements in the universe. Light plays a central role in spirituality. The presence of light as the opposite of the absence of light (or darkness) is a common metaphor for knowledge; while its absence, evil. God is understood as light with higher frequency. Light, therefore, constitutes the understanding achievable through knowledge and good thoughts; while darkness represents foolishness, judgemental attitude, and the resistance against light. Such ideas are common in both the Eastern and Western forms of spirituality.
In the art history (of the West), light is an element that has contributed a lot to aesthetic thoughts. During the Renaissance era in Italy, between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century, painters developed the technique of chiaroscuro (from Italian "chiaro", or bright, and "oscuro" or dark). Technically, this means the depiction of light in the painting, drawing, or print, in which the depiction of three dimensional volumes are made stronger by colour gradation and the analytical distribution of light and shades - or shading - characterised by a strong contrast between dark and light. Usually, such contrasting light influences the whole composition of the painting.
This had to do with the spirit of the era, the Enlightenment, as well as representing it. Such use of light was applied in religious paintings, for example in the works by El Greco, Domenico Beccafumi, Da Vinci, or Caravaggio, and went on to influence other European painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.
In their paintings, the effect of light is used to manipulate the depiction of reality as well as to represent the divine light that illuminates the main subject, signifying Godly blessing. Such effect creates a theatrical and dramatic atmosphere, making the painting looks grand and sacred. The element of light would go on to inspire the discovery of photography and television, and later on the digital imaging technology such as the signals in computer monitors.
The Allegory of Light
"He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light that all might believe through him." Later Jesus says, "Put your trust in the light while you have it so that you may become sons of light." -John the Baptist, New Testament The Ubud-based Italian artist, Filippo Amato Sciascia, works with a range of media including video, painting, and installation. Curator Agung Hujatnikajennong (in Lux Lumina catalogue) writes that "Sciascia has reached the point at which the practices of art go beyond the boundaries of art as a mere retinal object. His explorations do not only deal with the visual perceptions, but also incorporate understanding and conceptual acts. If human visual perception has an anatomy, then Sciascia's works do not merely play with such anatomy, but instead encourage us to analyse and dissect it further. The works must be read in more expansive manners, going beyond their visible physical forms."
To Sciascia, the element of light forms the basis of his critical thoughts. Through the installation of tents, photo prints, and paintings, the issue of light is transformed into philosophical values, after the artist embarked on an exploration that tended to be scientific in nature, related with how humans live and survive. Sciascia started the series of works under the theme of light with his solo exhibition of Lux Lumina. In his paintings with "a thousand cracks" -which characterises his paintings – Sciasciadepicts a crowd with hugging figures, enveloped in darkness but illuminated by strong light from above.
There is also a male portrait whose face is lit from below, in Lumen Praecipuus, or images of boys under the glimmer of light bulbs, in Lumen Sutilis. Sciascia adopts the technique of chiaroscuro to create flickering effects. In this case, the element of light serves as a kind of allegory for the energy of life, glowing like a divine light depicted In the bible when Moses meets God atop Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments.
Light, for Sciascia, is central to his works, contrary to the paintings of the Enlightenment that lay the emphasis on the dramas of special human beings. In Sciascia's works, light interrupts or blurs our sight, and even disrupt the integrity of human images or the landscapes. The human elements merely serve as a vehicle to form the boundary for the intensity of light -just as the Earth and other planets mark the intensity of the solar light in the Milky Way. Sciascia's paintings reflect the search for the relative concept of light. This is represented through the cracked surfaces of his paintings.
Hujatnikajennong writes that Sciascia includes the unpredictable intervention of nature in his creative process. The painter is never sure how the cracks would turn out. Sciascia's paintings transform the concept of invisible time, making it tangible and traceable - whether through the cracks in his paintings that carry with them the issue of transience, or through his disturbing and terrorising video works.
His subsequent work shows how Sciascia analytically studies light in relation to an important element in human body.
He embarks on a peculiar ritual of magic, which reminds me of what Jean Baudrillard once wrote in an article of how a surgeon works on the operating table, but at the same time resembles a shaman who is reciting mantras to welcome the spirits of the ancestors.
The Light in the Dome Light is something and everything that we're always passionate about! -Filippo Sciasci, 2009
The exploration in the theme of light is represented through metaphorical signs or personal signs, as evident in the works with two black tents, one of them standing straight and is titled Domus Completus and another is half-closed, titled Domus lncipit 1.
Sciascia adds to his works of installation a pile of canvases and small flat monitors showing video glimpses of his works. The tent symbolises and functions as a shelter, a place for protection or a place to live, with natural features or structures that protects from bad weather, danger, or pests.
The first human shelters had been the caves, and then humans made tents from animal hides, stones, straws, vines, or woods. Perhaps in some areas in eastern Indonesia, for example in Papua, we can still find half-spherical traditional houses. A similar shape is found among the Eskimos with their Igloos.
In his previous exhibition, Sciascia also presented an installation of a tent with a metallic structure, formed in the shape of a house, covered with a transparent material, and provided with a shining lamp within, whose glimmer could be seen from the outside. Sciascia thinks that the tent in his installation today is shaped like a dome, a hollow architectural structure in the shape half of ball.
In human civilisation, the dome functions as a shelter and symbolises the site where connections with other human beings are established. It is a state of social and ritual importance, for humans to communicate with God, and is therefore used as the basic structure for houses of devotion: the temple, the church, the mosque. Architecturally, the dome has an extraordinary structural strength, as evident in the Igloos, made of ice blocks, which protect and warm, the Eskimos in a region of extreme weather.
The dome and the tent have a slight resemblance with the structure of human skull that protects the most delicate part of the brain, where the control over the body’s is "overseen" in the pineal gland. The pineal gland (also called the pineal body “epiphysis cerebri” or “the third eyes” is a small endocrine gland the vertebrate brain. The gland produce the serotonin, derivative melatonin, a hormone that affects the modulation of wake/sleep patterns and the seasonal functions.
The pineal gland is about the size of a bean and has a conical shape. It is located near the centre of brain, in a small groove at the back of the bran is and slightly above the hypophysis gland, which is slightly behind the base of the nose, right behind the eyes, attached to the third ventricle. The pineal gland is often call the third eye because it is able to receive light through the retina, collects and stores, visual data in the brain's memory. We can dream of an event that resembles reality because the visual data have been taken from the real world . The pineal gland is activated by light and control a range of with the physical biorhythms. it work in harmony with the hypothalamus gland that control the body, such as the feeling of thirst, hunger, sexual desire, and the biological clock that determines out aging process. During the day it darkens, and when it is dark outside, it lights up.
Sciascia thus built the tents based on an analysis on the essence of human life, through certain cerebral considerations that also include empirical observations. As an allegory, the tents point at the concepts that go beyond mere pictorial issues, going toward the scientific realm that is even almost spiritual in nature.
The Seat of the Soul My view is that this gland is the principal seat of the soul, and the place in which all our thoughts are formed. The reason I believe this is that I cannot find any part of the brain, except this, which is not double. Since we see only one thing with two eyes, and hear only one voice with two ears, and in short have never more than one thought at a time, it must necessarily be the case that the impressions which enter by the two eyes or by the two ears, and so on, unite with each other in some part of the body before being considered by the soul. Now it is impossible to find any such place in the whole head except this gland; moreover it is situated in the most suitable possible place for this purpose, in the middle of all the concavities; and it is supported and surrounded by the little branches of the carotid arteries which bring the spirits into the brain.
- Rene Descartes, 29 January 1640.
Another work of installation by Sciascia is an arrangement of frames with a variety of images. There are photographs of his previous works, caves, ramie tents, and scientific and medical pictures related to the anatomy of the human brain, diagrams, and visual data, combined with other objects such as callipers. The work serves as an allegory of sorts about the anatomy and function of the human brain; how humans pick up light, record visual data, and transform them into signals that help us as we work with our senses.
The pineal gland contains complete visual maps based on the information it receives from the eyes, and plays a key role in several physiological functions. There is a path from the retina to the hypothalamus, called the retinohypothalamic path, which carries the information about the cycle of dark and light. The pineal gland works in a unique way. According to researchers, it is deactivated when we are awake, but when we are asleep, it lights up like a tiny lamp inside our head. Rene Descartes, the philosopher who dedicated much time to the study of pineal gland, called it "the seat of the soul. " He believed that the gland is the connection between human intellect and the body.
Sciascia views light as an extraordinary form of energy that is related with the essence of human life. He depicts it in intriguing ways, for example by depicting it as a spark of divine light in the way of the Enlightenment, or by analysing deeper into the human body, using highly characteristic allegories.
We can say that in his works, Sciascia lays great emphasis on the cerebral and logical aspects; however, he is intrigued by the fundamental aspects within himself pertaining to the mysteries of life and nature, especially those related to the primordial aspects such as light and how human perceives it as a signal that triggers the energy that is essential to our desire to live.
Sciascia sees the issue as the soul that resides within a groove in the centre of our brain, serving as a crucial point that connects the ways we think and move, linking our intellectual capacity with our body. He presents these issues using allegories that are simultaneously scientific and enigmatic, through a series of personal signs. Sciascia shows how he is walking further away in a never-ending exploration, involving his curiosity about the knowledge that exists outside the reality of his self. He seeks the values of human lives using the context of the rational and measured history of Western knowledge, as well as the unpredictable and enigmatic Eastern knowledge, all the while maintaining a distance in order to understand the meaning of the soul with the "third eye." This tendency also shapes a certain sensibility to capture the subject that is very close to him: that of the soul and the body. Through the works, Sciascia creates a record of sort that documents all phases of his life, emotionally and rationally, using the approaches of a modern surgeon and a shaman. He articulates life between light and dark, between the poetic and the scientific, between life and death.
Therefore, Sciascia is always able to capture the "echo" of the strong energy from other artists, in the joint exhibition with Roberto Coda Zabetta from Italy, with Ugo Untoro, and today, with Agus Suwage.
And thus the narrative of the victory of ratio also constitutes its defeat. The ratio forgets that it exists as "fight" only because of the presence of the dark. The dark is not the shortfall of light, but instead is something that makes light what it is. When the dark is rejected and disposed of, nothing remains that is of value. (. .. ) But perhaps the microscope in our hand is something else still. Perhaps it is a part of a rising awe-instead of a machinery of the ratio to conquer fife,
to deny the dark.
- Goenawan Mohamad, June 2010
• Interview with Filippo Sciascia, July 2010
• Agung Hujatnikajennong, Lux Lumina catalogue, 2009