Can photography show us the other side of Death, that ultimate blackness for which we have no real image?
Yesterday with other guides-in-training at the Castlemaine Art Museum I attended a trial run of a creative writing workshop run by Wahibe Moussa in the contemporary Indonesian art exhibition Perempuan at the Museum.
Wahibe is a story-teller and performer as well as creative writer. I was anticipating the discomfort I have felt at the hands of other actors in workshops; shades of the cringeworthy — and compulsory — teacher’s college drama class, and of ‘Legz Akimbo Theatre Company‘!
Instead there were only very necessary exercises to limber hunched shoulders and writer’s cramp, a bit of running around to keep warm in the unheated gallery (closed to the public that day), and the generation of a word in response to one given, the latter ensuring Wahibe could learn everyone’s names. She herself was a little on edge being in front of a group who of course specialises in discussing and writing about art, but we quickly warmed to each other. She was quick to point out that the workshop was not about art writing, but creative writing inspired by art. Was I going to be able to make that shift of emphasis?
Knowing only that the stimulus of our explorations would be the Permepuan exhibition I had been thinking about which work I would write about. I had prepared mentally to write something around the Ruth Marbun’s fabric sculpture installation One Is A Million about the way Indonesian culture is akin to Australia’s in the 1970s via a personal experience of that period, especially for women — though none of the artists of Perempuan (which means female) were alive then — and in relation to abortion in particular.
Wahibe emphasised that it should be an artwork that aroused curiosity, one to which were drawn. Her direction changed my mind, so Instead I turned to one work that we as guides had not discussed, and which had been passed over due to time constraints when the lawyer and collector Konfir Kabo, Mara Sison, and Resika Tikoalu presented their floor talk. That is Take my heart in sweet surrender and tenderly say that I’m the one you love and live until the end of time, 2018, by Octora Chan (*1982, West Java).
We sat near our selected works and, at Wahibe’s suggestion we thought about Light, and as she instructed, wrote continuously, without lifting our pens letting the words “run out of the ends of our pens”.
Please indulge me as I transcribe, without editing, the ink left in my notebook (before my pen actually did run out)…
The light in this work is affected by the glass covering the images inside so that the room enters the hearse and exposes the images to the world outside. Is there something about death and reflection? Each of the faces of the deceased can be seen either as pigment on metal, or as an image. The pearls covering them and the pits in the metal eroding them are star-like. The emulsion is night. They thinly cover folded thin tin sheets, and as someone bumped lightly against the shaft of the hearse, the faces all nodded in reaction. How would that look as it is pulled down the roughly paved street? They are fragile. Light too is bounced and ricocheted back and forth inside this prism.
“What drew you?” Wahibe asked us
My pen answered: The unknown it contains. It is a vehicle of death. I wanted to see who was inside.
“What is the quality of the light” she asked
Deadly darkness is the most apparent quality of these six icons, and yet they shine…the pearls do more than just decorate, they add darkness through contrast like night stars.
Having a heart attack, I remember dying. I remember welcoming the darkness, and the same night into which I was falling is here, generously supplied by this artist who perhaps purchased this hearse? found it in a junk yard? restored it? been given it, or inherited it? Who draws it? There is no-one. Its spokes are black metal and scrape off light as they turn. Gold trim adds its counter-tenor to that of the glass so that a chorus of lights surround these six icons. Why six? Why am I counting? Because lining the roof are twelve strips of various widths painted black with a sheen, like the floor, likewise of planks in which wood-grain is faintly alight. The mottling of the metal…
Pens down, we chased each other around the gallery at a brisk walk, dodging artworks, to warm stiff limbs, pretending to be in a frantic rush as if late for a train or job interview or…our shuffling footsteps lost Wahibe’s words before, once again we took up our pens and were prompted to write about texture…
…The mottled metal. I’m now closely peering at the wheels, realising that wood strips are wrapped around the iron rim! The beautifully wrought wheels have hardly ever moved, as their timber tyres have few chips, splintered only slightly at the edge — imagine running a hand over them could feel smooth here, then gritty, grimy, there splintered, pitted, sharp edged. One of the tyres seems older and is joined in different way so that the strip of timber is unevenly cut at the join – the work of an older more experienced craftworker much more careful in
preserving conserving materials than the more recent person who was restoring it. It is an ingenious, economical very square construction, as are the icons themselves which are simply cut and bent — relate to the crosses around the roof that have been cut to fit exactly along its perimeter.
“Write about the physical material” Wahibe cried out to the group dispersed around the gallery.
Though they cannot have known one another, I think about the relationship of the artist and the original craftsperson; where does one stop and the other start? This was an existing object, a practical also ceremonial vehicle made for the purpose. The artist has picked up aspects of the original object and extrapolated from them to make more. The crosses around the roof have been carefully fitted to the design – 36 x 2 = 72 + 16 x 2 = 104 of them — strange numbers — the pearls (must I count them too?) then take on numerological or astrological implications, so that the constellation around the head in one draws attention to how they stud the head itself of another on the other side of the carriage. The metal of these retablos is carefully cut, though not as precisely as the crosses, which must have been bespoke…die-cut (technology dating to Victorian era?) and fit exactly…
Here we stopped, and Wahibe asked us to look over what we had written, and draw out a bit more, or pick out a few phrases and perhaps expand on them. I tore the sheets out of my notebook and laid then out in front of me. I usually type, and I found my awful handwriting was very hard to glance over, but phrases came together…
I wanted to look inside.
I wanted to bring light into it
Facing death facing me.
There was no-one pulling the hearse.
The faces of the deceased are six
The crosses are 104
Numerology, astrology, craft in woodwork, cabinet-making, metalwork have been brought to this vehicle to which the artist has added a critical iconography
Wahibe asked us to consider these; “whimsy”; “using tradition to break tradition”; “horrible beauty”; “naked imperfection”; “sharp as a pin” – phrases I remember being used during the floor talk
There is whimsy in the idea of making metal retablos to occupy this vehicle. They break tradition with tradition; that of photography, contemporary with the making of the coffin-carriage, of the tin-type, the poor man’s daguerreotype, just as this hand-cart is a substitute for a grand horse-drawn hearse. The use of photography, I think (in my ignorance of Indonesian culture) would have broken into a tradition where there was no image of the deceased.
This work guides us in how we convince ourselves of the seriousness of death. But it is not. It is tinny. A tin god. The purpose of all this ceremony, its cheap, impoverished grandeur (where are the black horses?) is under-cut by the cut-metal artworks wobbling like the novelty dog on the back sill of a 1950s FX Holden car, just as cutting remarks may be made as the funeral passes. They sum up this beautifully, economically, expertly made vehicle (in which only those who are no longer here ride). We the dead with no-where to go. We are already there. The imperfect, naked pearls scattered over as a blessing, cheat death.
There is no-one there
Death in its horror
Beauty in its nakedness
We finished the session with a discussion of the test workshop.
For me, Wahibe Moussa’s stream-of-consciousness approach accessed another source in art writing; curiosity. That was at the heart of it. I would not normally have concentrated on the readymade hearse in writing a blog post about Octora as a photographer. I’m surprised to reflect that I gravitated toward this work not because it contained six photographs, but because it allowed me to confront the paradox of death.
How does one tie a creative writing approach with writing from conventional research? The first step would be to realise that Curiosity drives all research. Then, that both forms involve research – in the case of this creative writing, experimenting with and interpreting personal reactions that are recorded as they are felt. This writing, if done quickly, continually nudges ego aside; it’s not “about me”, but about discovering what the artwork does. Being a gallery guide discussing an artwork with a visitor or group, or opening an exhibition as I often did during my career, is to be often surprised by the words and ideas that emerge from that temporal urgency of being ‘on the spot’.
Knowledge gathered about the artwork, artist and context elsewhere — but still out of curiosity — is as valuable. In writing critique, aesthetics, art history or theory, the process is a distillation and synthesis of many voices, including the artist’s, allied with observation, as it must be.
Creative writing unlocks that which the artwork prompts, stimulates or inspires. It may move at a parallel, or on a tangent to the artist’s ideas, but that is legitimate, as any creative endeavour opens itself to further interpretation or risks stagnating as merely propaganda or didacticism.
In this case, if we turn to the artist herself, Octora, we discover that by her placement of self-portraits made using 19th century techniques inside a Victorian western-style hearse she intends to undermine the European identification and stereotyping of the Indonesian woman as ‘exotic’ that has survived since Dutch colonial times and still impacts the representation of women in present-day Indonesia.
A 2017 performance Global apartheid voyeurism: The pose by the artist expresses this in bold: in the one-hour durational performance Octora posed, tottering precariously on high heels with her head encircled by a steel band in reference to the Victorian head brace used in studios when photographic technology required long exposures. Her physical tension, and the viewers’, was attenuated by the accompanying Mandarin love song Love without end [不了情] (1961), composed by Wok Luk Ling and sung by Tsui Ping.
The metal plates either side of the performer, distortedly reflecting her tortured posture refer to the preservation in early Dutch colonial photography of Balinese women which Octora sourced from the Netherlands’ Leiden University’s online repository on which to base a number of self-portraits.
In her own words, speaking from from her earlier experience in simultaneously studying and combining her Fine Arts degree at Institut Teknologi Bandung (2002 – 2007) with Bachelor of Law, Parahyangan Catholic University (2001 – 2006), she emphasises the political potency of the camera;
“A photograph is not merely evidence of the past or a slice of a passing moment, it is performative and still performs to distort actual reality today. The ethnographic portrait distorts relations between people from different socio-cultural backgrounds as well as the reality of the self, just like the mechanisms of power.”
She went on, 2016 – 2017, undertake Master of Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of The Arts, University of Melbourne, and exhibited before and since in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Indonesia, Germany (where she undertook a residency in 2014), France and Australia.
Project Eleven is a philanthropic initiative that supports artists and projects that explore new frontiers with a particular focus on the cultural exchange of Asian contemporary visual art and new music.
[My apologies: a lockdown in Victoria has temporarily prevented me getting into the Art Museum for better pictures of Octora Chan’s installation]