Interview with Entang Wiharso
Entang Wiharso, born in 1967 in Tegal, Java, is one of Indonesia’s most important living artists. Entang, who holds his heritage very closely, is continuously experimenting and exploring the different aspects of his art. On several occasions this year, he spent time in residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), where he worked with the facility’s primary medium: print.
In the coming months, STPI will exhibit the works that were created during his residency. The Artling speaks with Entang about this experience, his work and his thoughts on Southeast Asian art, and reveals some of his plans on mentoring young artists.
How did this residency come about?
I’ve actually had quite a lot of experience with residency programs, not only in Asia but in Europe and America. Every residency program has a different goal or their own vision. Artists use that vision and collaborate. I just did a residency in Watermill Center, a foundation owned by artist Robert Wilson. It is a very different residency program, artists don’t have to make artwork but you think and research while you’re there. The residency at STPI is very special. I’ve actually come here before with a friend and I saw the facility and thought “this is an artist’s dream, with all kinds of possibilities.” Working with Eitaro and the crew is so professional and everything is very easy, they make it easy for things to happen. If I have an idea, we discuss it. I am familiar with printmaking, but not with this kind of facility. I have a small printing press, my wife is also a printmaker. My practices crosses media, not just painting or sculpture, I’m willing to explore different media. For me, it is about the idea, not just the technique as a goal.
You have worked quite extensively with metal relief throughout your oeuvre. What have some of the challenges been in incorporating printmaking into your vision this time around?
I am familiar with the material, but I always try to discover or shift from different materials, as an artist. Even if it’s the same material, trying to make it something else. The project isn’t finished yet, but it’s more complicated now because I’m not only using metal, but also using glass – metal relief with glass melted into the metal, etc. When I come here I had an idea that I want to print something, to create something new. I didn’t come here empty-handed, I had an idea of what I wanted to do. If I create today, the idea can be from last year, it’s not instant. Of course I discovered some things here, it’s a very organic collaboration in a way. I’m familiar with the team as well, so I’m just continuing my practice. It’s very productive and I have a lot of ideas. The environment is so great, the ideas keep coming.
An acrylic work created during Wiharso’s residency at STPI
Projects such as this one with STPI tend to be significantly collaborative between artist and local artisans, and make use of tools inherent or distinct to the city. How important is it to protect your “Indonesian-ness” in this project?
The Indonesian-ness is already inside me, so I’m not worried about going somewhere and losing my identity. My identity is wherever I go, I don’t want to hold on to history. Of course, my work is about history, present and future. But for me it’s not really a concern for me. There are no boundaries in regards to preserving anything. It’s also my personality, I feel like I’ve always lived in transition. When I was a kid, my parents always moved us around, which was not normal for an Indonesian at all. I lived in a village where everyone stayed in the same place, then we moved to different cities. I didn’t feel like a normal kid, but it was a good experience. The places were all in Java, but each city had its own character. I’m the kind of person to observe, to see and internalize the small details. Being in transition is good for my practice, actually.
Can you tell us about this work (see image below)? You’re known for your symbolism, for putting a lot of layers into a work. What kind of symbolism should we as a viewer be looking for in this series? Is there something we should look out for to understand the meaning that you’re trying to convey to us?
Well actually, when I create something, I don’t want to make something clear because I want the audience or the viewer to be involved in recognizing it themselves and putting meaning together with the artwork. Bottom line is I don’t want to make judgmental art. That’s why I like working with layers. This is called “Body Text”. I create the word through visuals, it’s very personal. But everyone can relate to it.
The artist in the STPI studio with his work
You’ve incorporated words into your work, is this something recent?
This has been for more than ten years. In the beginning I was just scratching into my painting, but now it’s become very visible. The idea is that during the reformation it’s more intensive, because everyone comments on the social or political situation. I’ve been collecting from magazines, newspapers and from friends, and then I write it down. The words in this work: In Java, when people ask “are you hungry?” even if they don’t know you. It’s a custom, a common occurrence. The intention is to offer something, and sometimes it’s not polite. I think it’s dangerous, having to analyze the different layers and having to be polite. Culturally, we let the situation happen because no one stands up to it and always says ‘yes.’ It’s about the different layers of culture, and having to deal with this. I think in Asia it is really common.
Detail view of one of the works created during the STPI residency
In the last few years, cultures have been more aware of each other, by way of social media and the expanding reach of more traditional media. This has affected us in terms of what we know about our neighbors, especially in the region. I’d like to ask you what you think is the direction of Southeast Asian art – do you think we’re moving towards a more collective identity or that we continue to assert our cultural differences?
Well there are so many things. Artists’ minds are not the same, their nature is like a scientist. You want to first see and make observation, and analyze and experiment and make a hypothesis. Every artist has a different platform or format in how to work. One artist wants to create their own identity or culture, like a conservator, to keep away from foreign things. Some artists are willing to engage with the global reality, with what’s happening in neighboring areas or further away. For me, it’s not good or bad, it’s more dynamic and there is more interaction. Thinking about issues in Indonesia and art itself. There’s a commonality or common ground in how to present their region to the global stage. The dangerous thing is that everyone will want to be uniform. Because contemporary art could become very narrow, because the stage has become one stage. Before, everybody wanted to add something, but now with the strong stage and the strong market, now everybody wants to take something from that stage. There’s less experimenting going on, there’s a rush to have success. I believe there are also a lot of artists who still think about how to add something. As an artist, it’s not to always agree. The nature of the artist is to disagree, also as humans in general.
Are there any artists outside of Indonesia that you would like to collaborate with?
Yes, there are so many. In the moment, I don’t want to do any because I’m so busy with my life, not only with art. So in the beginning, I want to make plans like that, but in the end it doesn’t work out. I have Plan A and then I end up with Plan C or D. I just meet somebody and think that they’re interesting. Last month I went to a student exhibition, and I met an incredibly young man who works in animation and graphic art. I asked him to come to my studio to maybe do something together. I also have a full room dedicated to computers that I use to do my projects. So now, I’m working together with a young student, and they can learn and I can work together with them to make something. I want to continue mentoring young minds. My life is always in transition, so meeting new people is sometimes nice to keep different, it’s more dynamic.
The artist explaining his new works at the STPI studio
If your work is viewed 100 years from now, what influences will root your work in this present time?
What do you think? I can’t answer that! It’s very hard to say. It’s hard to place the intention of the imagination.
You use a lot of Javanese objects in your works, especially recently, and your work is shown internationally. How do international audiences react to that?
That is an interesting question. Well, for example, relief doesn’t belong to Java. It belongs to everyone. You go to Europe or South America, there is relief. Everywhere in Asia. I want to play again. What has happened in contemporary art, is that people think that it is something new. It’s like going to the supermarket and seeing something new, and deciding that you want it. I want to play with that mindset. When you take something you should claim it, for me, nothing is art before you claim it. You have to prove it. There have been interesting responses to the current situation. Interestingly, the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye in the 90s came to Indonesia and learned about wood and carving. He took a cement truck and put it in New York. People were crazy wondering what it was. That is art. It already exists, but how do you present it as something that is important. It isn’t important to everyone, but it is important to the artist. When I see people react to my work, it’s very interesting. Indonesians claim it as Indonesian. We have to have long conversations about it. Through art, people can become more tolerant. But because we hold on to things as a personal identity, things become individual instead of shared. We want people to appreciate different things through art. But now it’s become a very narrow paradigm. It’s dangerous. That’s where globalization, which is when people deny it and are scared to change, that’s where terrorism comes about. How can we change? When people are scared to change, it becomes very dangerous. The nature of the art is always to bring people analyzing in a big crowd, people giving and taking. Like the Mona Lisa, everyone wants to see it even if they’ve already seen it in books.
Everyone has been talking about Indonesian art in recent years, what do you think will move Indonesian art to an even bigger stage in about ten years’ time? Is there something that Indonesian art needs to possess or to do before that happens?
Indonesians have a lot of work to do as a nation. Art aspect is part of that. For a couple of years, the realities of the art market on the Asian side, an artist needs to be out there in the dialogue, interested in the content and the idea of the art, that’s more important than the technique. The dialogue also from a technical perspective. There are two kinds of Indonesian art out there right now, one is about the market, the other is about the technique. I believe a lot of artists are keen to try to put their own words to a wider audience. Hopefully it moves in that kind of direction, otherwise nothing will happen and it won’t be meaningful.
Detail view of one of the works created during Wiharso’s STPI residency
How do programs like the STPI residency help move Indonesian art forward?
This is a good collaboration. Not just with the institution and the artist, but it has a wider meaning. On a personal level, our nationality is already structured for that. Talking with other artists, many have the dream to work with STPI. When artists come here, it’s amazing. The printmaking, especially in Southeast Asia, the works on paper are not really appreciated for all kinds of reasons. STPI brings something else, and people forget about the material because you can see the amazing work being done. It destroys the border of the material, and all kinds of attitudes towards it and gets people excited. From the point of view of the collector, people are waiting to get a work from STPI because they know it’s very special.
Do you think you will continue working with prints from this point onwards?
From the beginning I always worked on paper, but I don’t really have a strong presentation in works on paper yet. But I will have a show showing works on paper in Brisbane, so I do have works on paper in storage. I think now I really have a strong desire to do something more, especially from this experience that has enriched me to do something different.
Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors