Jompet Kuswidananto & Katthy Cavaliere

August 25, 2016
Jompet Kuswidananto's 'After Voices' at SCAF Sydney.
Jompet Kuswidananto's 'After Voices' at SCAF Sydney.

“Within the crowd there is equality,” wrote Elias Canetti, in his compelling, eccentric book, Crowds and Power (1960). “All demands for justice and all theories of equality ultimately derive their energy from the actual experience of equality familiar to anyone who has been part of a crowd.”

Yet within that feeling of equality generated by the crowd there is room for considerable difference of opinion. A great mass of people may be united in protest against an unpopular policy or government, but many of those protesters will harbour completely disparate ideas about what constitutes good government.

Jompet Kuswidananto’s installation, After Voices, at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, is an attempt to explore the contradictory nature of the crowd – a phenomenon that fills participants with a feeling of power, of exhilaration, while papering over fundamental differences. The many have become one, but only for a moment. The crowd has no capacity for reasoned argument or decision making. It stirs the emotions but eschews common sense. It can be a beginning but never an end.

Now apply this formula to Indonesia, a nation of 250 million people spread out over 13,000 islands, speaking hundreds of languages. It is a nation in which protests and riots have occurred at regular intervals – the major ones coming in 1965, 1970, 1980 and 1998. The latter precipitated the fall of the Suharto regime but also led to appalling violence directed against the Chinese.

According to curator, Alia Swastika, “after 1998, the student movement seemed to have run out of steam, with little room to manoeuvre in the ongoing political unrest of the nation. The voice of the students seemed to have been absorbed into the noise of the masses, concentrated in public spaces. Open clashes between different civil groups generated fresh hysteria, seeping out of the old traumas generated by past crackdowns, suppression of freedom of speech, and general subjugation of the majority.”

The violence of 1998 was a reaction to food shortages and unemployment, but the crowds were divided between those who blamed the incompetence and corruption of the ruling party, and those angry at the comparative affluence of the Chinese. Some sought a political solution, others a scapegoat and an outlet for their frustrations. This is the “hysteria” that Kuswidananto seeks to capture in a work that fills the central gallery at the SCAF with hundreds of old shoes; an array of flags draped from the ceiling; and the floating masks, helmets and headlights of motorcycle riders whose bodies and machines have been rendered invisible. In the background there is a film re-enactment of a street battle that took place in Yogyakarta during the independence struggles of 1949.

Kuswidananto has created a ghostly army, faceless and menacing. To stand in front of this noisy, kinetic installation is to feel confronted by a large host, while being unable to identify a single person. In the catalogue there are references to at least four different movements represented in this group.

The film looks at an event that has been mythologised in such a way as to glorify Suharto – a piece of propaganda re-staged on an annual basis. It looks back to a time when such a gathering required strict planning and the coming together of participants united under one banner. A mass demonstration today will be generated by social media and be composed of heterogeneous elements.

In this first phase of Indonesian demokrasi, the artist talks about “the conflict between hundreds of new mass organisations, dozens of new political parties, and the individual’s freedom of expression.”

Dadang Christanto, 'They Give evidence, 1996-97

Dadang Christanto, They Give evidence, (1996-97)

One obvious point of comparison for the installation is with the works of Dadang Christanto, such as They give evidence (1996-97), in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. In this work, 16 figures stand in close formation, holding the clothes of victims of violence. The piece is still, silent, as solemn as a funeral ceremony. It is imbued with a sense of mourning for the events of 1965, although it now seems no less relevant to the butchery of 1998.

Kuswidananto avoids the atmosphere of tragedy and embraces chaos. He may be wary of the unpredictable mix of elements in the crowd but there is also something carnivalesque at work. There are both positive and negative energies, balancing the threat of violence with the feeling that a new order is being constructed. If Christanto calls on viewers to never forget the crimes of the past, Kuswidananto looks towards the future with trepidation, but also with hope.

Although the major attraction at Carriageworks at the moment is Francesco Clemente’s Encampment (until 9 Oct.) I’ll save that show for another occasion and look at a small survey by Katthy Cavaliere (1972-2012) which finishes on 11 September.

Loved is an apt title for an exhibition by an artist who appears to have been surrounded by friends who cared deeply about her and have made huge efforts to keep her memory alive. They’ve done a great job, especially Daniel Mudie Cunningham, who has written the text of a large, impressive book published by the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, where the show debuted last year.

Cavaliere’s life was cut short at the age of only 39, and if truth be told her oeuvre is pretty slim. She was no Schubert or Mozart, who crammed a prodigious output into the slenderest of lifetimes. As an artist working mainly in the fields of installation and performance, Cavaliere was dealing with largely ephemeral material, presented to small audiences. Most of the pieces we see at Carriageworks are relics, documents and reconstructions, although they provide us with a luminous portrait of the artist.

Cavaliere’s abiding theme was herself and her childhood. This may sound shallow but the circumstances of her life lend enormous pathos to this exhibition. Born in Italy she returned to Australia as a child and had to learn English at school in the Sydney suburbs. Her father was identified as schizophrenic and would live apart from the family, while her mother worked to support herself and her daughter. In late 2008 Cavaliere’s mother died of ovarian cancer. Shortly afterwards Katthy would be diagnosed with the same condition, which brought about her death only three years later.

Katthy Cavaliere, Katthy's Room, 1998. Photo: Mona/Remi Chauvin

Katthy Cavaliere, Katthy’s Room, 1998. Photo: Mona/Remi Chauvin

It’s a story that leaves one gasping, and can hardly fail to create a sympathetic framework for this display. The artist’s obsession with her own childhood takes on a retrospective importance when we realise how little time she had to be an adult. Pieces such as Katthy’s Room (1998) – a detailed reconstruction of her bedroom which she occupied during its first exhibition – seem horribly sad. The culmination of the performance came when Cavaliere gave away the treasured junk she had accumulated during her schooldays. She felt the need to break free from the preoccupation with her own past, but became traumatised at the thought of parting with these objects.

Katthy Cavaliere, 'Loved'

Katthy Cavaliere, ‘Loved’

When her mother died Cavaliere worked through her grief in a performance called Nest (2010). A grainy super-8 video shows her making a pile of her mother’s clothing on a stony escarpment overlooking the ocean at Clovelly. She ends by sitting naked on the pile, facing out to sea.

Katthy Cavaliere, Brown Paper, 2001, by Katthy Cavaliere. Photo: Mona/Remi Chauvin

Katthy Cavaliere, Brown Paper, 2001. Photo: Mona/Remi Chauvin

Most of Cavaliere’s works contain a simple poetic idea that relates to lost childhood, broken families, and a search for identity that might be painful or weirdly funny. There are pieces such as Brown paper (2001), in which she lay in a giant cardboard box where she blew up and sealed brown paper bags to create a stockpile of her own breath. That piece now seems like an intimation of mortality, with the box playing the role of a coffin. Yet there were many occasions when Cavaliere was able to stand back and laugh at herself, perhaps feeling that her self-obsession was faintly ridiculous.

I’m not sure one could ever say as much about an artist such as Tracy Emin, who has made self-obsession into a stellar career. In a better world it might have been Katthy Cavaliere playing the international superstar, being feted by curators and collectors, talking about herself endlessly to an audience that hangs on every word.

Jompet Kuswidananto: After Voices
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation,
until 10 September.

Katthy Cavaliere: Loved
Carriageworks, until 11 September.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 27th August, 2016