Dadang Christanto: A Voice for Freedom - Art Collector

Issue 65, July - September 2013

Dadang Christanto's passion for human rights resonates throughout his practice. Courtney Kidd speaks to him about his commitment to voicing injustices against humanity.

Artist Dadang Christanto. Portrait by Zan Wimberley.

The Javanese born artist, resident in Australia since 1999, gestures to the door. We head outside, dodge peak hour traffic and stand alongside an innocuous looking transit van. Dadang Christanto unties a vinyl scroll running the length of the van’s rim. It looks to contain rifles or plumber’s tubing. With his luring smile the artist stands back to unfurl a huge luminous red flag. On it is emblazoned a yellow hammer and sickle.

It is the communist symbol uniting industrial and agricultural workers, the flag commonly flown throughout Laos alongside the Laotian flag, the symbol of leftists and the sign that Christanto is determinedly a political artist. His stellar international practice pivots on themes of human suffering and social injustice - its catalyst, the disappearance of his father in 1965. Like many sympathisers of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia), Christanto’s father was abducted and presumably murdered by the military, a violent politic that brought President Suharto to power and silenced the people.

Christanto’s memories of violence and unrest are eloquently transposed in memorable works such as They Give Evidence, a monumental installation first exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Asian Galleries in 2003. Its larger-than-human-scale victims of oppression mutely carry the bodies of the innocent dead while in Heads from the North, this recurrent theme was articulated via bronze sculptured heads floating on a reedy pond in the National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture garden.

Meeting the artist is a privilege and a challenge - English is not his first language. What drives Christanto’s exchange is an overwhelming compassion for humanity and awareness of current political thrusts where everything seems to be about money. He comments: “Not everyone in Indonesia wants money. Not everyone everywhere wants money. Every religion is the same, Islam, Hindu, Christian when we talk about money…. The Counting Project has come out of these thoughts…”

The Counting Project, begun in 1999 while the artist was lecturing at the School of Art and Design in Darwin, is an ongoing venture investigating other countries’ histories in response to millennial celebrations, “Everyone was enthusiastic about the millennium, about 2000 and it seemed important to start this project then.”

The Counting Project is an example of how Christanto will take a common celebration and a tipping point in time - the coming of the new year - and ask his audience to consider the sorrows and injustices of the past. This project embraces concepts that transcend geographical context; imbued with universal concepts of loss and suffering each body of work builds on the previous. As another chronological year passes Christanto’s missive for a future, where there are no victims to count, gains a compelling provenance. This is evidenced in the ways audiences connect with his practice whether he is making sculpture, painting or performance art.

When asked about his current work, Christanto opens a recent catalogue revealing images of cast aluminium busts beautifully decorated with zodiac motifs. They are reminiscent of shadow puppets used in Javanese puppetry, their playful use of positive and negative space juxtaposed with the aesthetic of a traditional medium.

Highly stylised, the painted patterns include wing-tipped monkeys, lotus-like flowers, slender-limbed figures and curlicued antennae centipedes, all charged by a performative urgency and humour.
Christanto describes his process, “I make a model, have assistant. They make a composition of horoscope then get artists to work from this. It is an ancient visual language, more complicated than Western horoscope. An artisan friend who does my work, understands my sketches, colouring, line, composition, is a traditional teacher, knows this art, this art which may disappear.”

What shows audiences that Christanto is a true master is his skill in working across mediums effectively while maintaining the integrity of his intent. And work is the operative word here for Christanto has a hefty pedigree of international exhibitions.

During the interview Christanto’s quest for freedom from oppression leads him to mentioning Multatuli (pseudonym of the author Eduard Douwes Dekke). He quotes evocatively from Multatuli’s renowned anti-colonial book, Max Havelaar “The duty of men is to become a human being.”

Courtney Kidd

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