The title of the exhibition is assertively paradoxical – Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria. “Phantasmagoria” was originally used to refer to a modified magic lantern, invented in eighteenth century France that projected ghostly images for amusement. It connotes a disembodiment and abstraction that belongs to the realm of the fantastical and shape-shifting. The machine, conversely, is firmly rooted in the concrete, material world, amidst the mechanical drone of everyday urban life.
The artist, Jompet, harped on enthusiastically over how his works were conceived as a celebration of postcolonial cultural mingling in Javanese culture, a syncretism worth celebration for its “unruly beauty”. This left me puzzled, for what strikes me most about Jompet’s mysterious phantom beings is a quiet voice of futility, a painful inadequacy and the incompleteness of the assimilation. It asserts not the savage poeticism of cultural shape-shifting, but its own self-doubt and uncertainty, like a moulted animal uneasy in its new skin. Are we interpreting the works via two highly disparate postcolonial cultural lenses?
Much of Indonesian contemporary art has attempted to negotiate for a postcolonial cultural identity that emerges from the juxtapositions, contestations and eventual reconciliation of disparate cultural histories. Java’s geographical position, in particular, has made it a nexus of cultural interchange historically. It is particularly difficult to appreciate the strange beings and happenings in Jompet’s works without understanding the cultural context it situates itself within.
Java’s civilisational history is culturally complex, having went through the reigns of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in its early history prior to the advent of Islamic influences and the subsequent colonialism by the Dutch. While a huge majority of the population are presently adherents of the Islamic faith, their ethnic religion, known as Kejawen, is a synthesis of influences from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. It is the open-ended, inclusive nature of Kejawen that fascinates me. Contrary to our expectations of the word “religion”, Kejawen’s emphasis is not on dogma or eschatology. It is a life-based, as opposed to a death-based religion, that emphasises subjectivity and introspection. While it concerns itself primarily with the mystical and metaphysical and eschews the earthly, Kejawen is essentially a highly flexible and open-ended set of beliefs. Consequently, instead of viewing the new and contradictory as an adulteration of cultural purity and thus vehemently resisting them, the Javanese attempts syncretism, integrating them into the cosmological order of existing, long-standing mythologies, traditions and worldviews.
Jompet’s works address two major cultural-historical shock points that directly interrogates and challenges the universality, sustainability and ontological authority of the existing Javanese spiritualism – the Dutch colonialism and the advent of modern technology. The methodology of syncretism, it suggests rather obliquely and paradoxically, is familiarization via mystification through a series of esoteric rites and rituals.
In War of Java, do you remember? #2, we see a visual landscape reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which industrial workers are physically and mentally enslaved by the gears of the industrial machinery. There are several reasons why the advent of industrialism qualifies as a major cultural shock point, particularly in the context of Javanese spiritualism. The machine is, in every sense, a puzzling alien. It is a phantom object that emerged from the abyss of the human imagination, with neither autonomy nor sentience, and yet is capable of becoming a surrogate to human labour. Where can it fit in the Javanese spiritual universe?
Jompet’s video projection may appear like an antagonistic inversion of the relationship between man and machine as explored in Chaplin’s film, but the intention, I believe, is otherwise. In the work, a singular figure appears to be in a trance, moving erratically amidst a convoluted landscape of mechanical harshness. He brandishes a whip and in his trance, he flagellates and appears to attempt to tame the surrounding machines. The ritual appears like a rite of passage, to mystify the machine, blunting their mechanized nature and assimilating it into the provincial Javanese spiritual world. I don’t think Jompet intended for this to be interpreted as a retaliatory effort to subordinate the machine, but more of a mutually generative process of reembodying the alien as a spiritual being, reconstituting the cold, hard steel surfaces as the organic flesh of the reembodied factory. Such ideas will probably come across as strangely esoteric to the uninformed viewer, which is inevitable, given that self-indulgence is probably the defining quality of a trance.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the installation, Java, the War of Ghosts. We see a group of uncanny, phantom beings, lined up in a fashion akin to a military parade. Their bodies are absent, instead all we see are vacant military apparel, guns and drums suspended in midair. On the wall is a video projection featuring the silhouette of a man lashing his whip, with the sound synchronised with the beating of the drums at the parade on the ground. The apparel itself is a heterogenous composite, with parts largely inherited from the Dutch military apparel. The mechanical and electrical parts that support the installation are left plainly exposed, almost like a deliberate revelation.
It is difficult to identify any celebratory sign in an installation which strikes me as deeply bizarre. The phantom soldiers appear vaguely like cultural vanguards, safeguarding traditional culture, but yet they are essentially mere puppets, suspended on strings and controlled by a shamanistic being projected on the wall. Under the clinical glow of the white wall gallery, the installation at times appears like a badly propped horror set. Like the deliberate, persistent flagellation that is a recurring motif in Jompet’s works, the installation brings to mind not the kaleidoscopic beauty of syncretism, but the painful incongruity of a willed assimilation and deliberate amalgamation. Like an exquisite corpse forced into existence that is far too strange and exquisite to be believable.
At the corner of the exhibition space lies a constructed tree that charts the cultural genealogy of Java, as part of the installation, New myth for new family. Little metallic winged creatures lie perched on the branches flapping their wings discordantly, each bearing a name of a family member of the genealogical tree. At the roots are Adam and Eve and at the top, we see the Javanese king. The “myth” in the title refers to the reauthoring of history as instructed by the king at that time to enable a coherent, cogent historical worldview that justifies his authority and that can accommodate the existing cultural realities of that time.
With dried leaves scattered at the foot of the barren tree, the image is anything but celebratory. But neither does it exude any explicit sign of vehement antagonism. The tree stands aloof amidst the cacophony of the flapping mechanical spare parts, seemingly equally undecided about the meaning of its existence. Like the other works in the gallery, it remains mystified, strange and distant – culturally, intellectually and emotionally. Something seems to have been lost in translation.
Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria is currently on display at Osage Singapore from 14 November 2009 to 7 February 2010.