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Interview with Heri Dono


Interview with Heri Dono
Heri Dono in the STPI workshop. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI

One of Indonesia’s most well-known contemporary artists, Heri Dono, was recently at STPI for his first artist residency at the Singapore institution. The Artling interviewed him to find out more about his creative process during the residency and his upcoming single-artist installation at the Indonesia Pavilion for the Venice Biennale.

This is your first residency at STPI, how have you found it so far? What have you found to be some of the challenges of working with paper and printmaking? I know you use it for some of your other works, but how have you incorporated this into your works created at STPI?

I’ve known of thisstudio since 2003, but this is my first time of the residency program here. Thisis a new experience to explore not just print but also explore three-dimensionalprints, with the different kinds of paper – like you can create very thick orvery thin paper. I have also explored combining paper and prints with metal, or different media.

So you are bringing in your mixed media aspects that you use in your other works into these paper ones?

Yes, it’s been a very interesting aspect that the people here [at STPI] and myself have tried to explore as much as possible. There are many possibilities to create through both conventional and unconventional methods.

What has been your process from coming into the studio – did you come in with ideas from the beginning on what you wanted to create or did you come up with ideas as you talked to the printmakers?

I started my residency with an idea, but I also try to work in an organic way. From one sketch, we can develop to other possibilities – it can be a three-dimensional work, or two-dimensional, or a mix of all of them. The schematics develop as there are different techniques and preparations for the works.

Heri Dono with Chief Printer Eitaro Ogawa in the STPI artist studio. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI


What do you think is the importance of residencies like STPI in evolving the arts scene in Asia?

I think it is important because people only know about etchings or lithography, the conventional ways of print. But the meaning of print is a lot more complex. You can create three-dimensional prints, and it is not only about the texture or the form, but also about the paper itself. I think in this area, in Southeast Asia, paper is very important. But in the hierarchy, it has become like a caste – paper gets a lower quality than canvas or other materials. A residency like this is important so that people know that in the history of art, paper and print has always been important. It existed 1,000 years ago, and people can still continue to keep it and collect artworks on paper.

You were one of the first Southeast Asian artists to break onto the global arts scene. How have you seen the perception of Southeast Asian art change over the years? 

Southeast Asia has developed a lot, not just in the arts but it has also progressed in its economic situation. Many countries in the world now look at Southeast Asia, and can see the meaning of economic creativity. In Southeast Asia it is very important – the idea is now of value, so we have to respect the ideas. In this situation in Southeast Asia, I think people started from respect for the level of technique in the art, to the level of the philosophy of the art, and now it goes into the respect of intellectual property – to respect all ideas of artists.

A lot of your works have very strong Indonesian motifs, like wayang kulit, and other political themes that relate to the country. Your works have also shown very broadly overseas, how have international audiences reacted to that? Do you think that they understand it or do you feel that you need to give them some background to the works so that they understand the different layers? 

Well, actually no one can avoid sociopolitical issues. If the price becomes higher, we have to accept it because of the sociopolitical issues. No one can avoid that. From the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories, they also have a context of the sociopolitical issues between the two kingdoms of Pandavas and Kauravas. A lot of folklore also has sociopolitical issues in their content.

For the international audience, many other countries also have sociopolitical issues – like the Occupy movement. Now in Europe, they ask the artists to be concerned with their situation, not only to make abstract works. They have to be concerned and involved in their situation. Many artists have already made minimalist works, so we have to ask the artists to give consciousness to the people to make life better. So they can understand the content, or the symbols when I create the works.

Heri Dono at the STPI artist studio. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI


So you think that it shows through, because the audience can relate to those different aspects, even if they don’t know the specific situation in Indonesia? 

Yes, I think they can relate to the symbols of the artwork. I think if the artist gets their ideas from sociopolitical issues, it is not necessarily propaganda. But the symbols can send a message from the artist – not in political practice, but in the political consciousness. The exploration becomes a symbol – like Mahatma Gandhi became a symbol. The symbol becomes universal afterward because the symbol is not meant to reflect life separately. Art is a medium that people can be united under, from different religions, from different races. Artists are about egalite – they accept many different cultures, in an equalizing way.

You have a great sense of irony in your works: you juxtapose the playfulness of your cartoon and comic book characters, with the social commentary that you are making underneath. What role does that irony play in your works? 

Well actually, if you see in the traditional theatre or culture, the playful role is the servant or the clown. They can communicate with the king or the landlord in every traditional form. In Indonesia we have Punakawan [characters in wayang kulit]like Semar, Petruk, Bagong, or Gareng – they are all clowns. But they are gods as well. They transform as humans, and they look ugly in form but they can communicate with many levels of people. So they can listen directly from the people, and they can also criticize their king. They are on the level of gods but transformed as humans. So artists are like the metaphor of that. The ideas are not human, they are from our ancestors, and we give this message to the people. But we do not force people to follow this. We just give the platform and information that there is such a matter, and offer a solution.

You started with painting, and have now moved on to the installation works that you are probably most well known for. What made you switch between media? 

When I was a student in 1980s, I tried to see the formula in Asia. They have the concept of Mandala – in Mandala there is no perspective about subject and object, no distance between subject and object. In Asia it only exists between subject and subject, because the distance between the macrocosmos and microcosmos does not exist – the elements (water, air, fire, earth) exist in both. The concept of colonialism always starts from the distance between subject and object. In Europe they have the concept they call Terra Nullius where they try to discover regions beyond their continent. But when Admiral Cheng Ho travelled all over the world, he didn’t conquer any countries. He wanted to share, because all are equal, all are subjects.

So from painting in two dimensions, I started to create works in three-dimensions and create installations. The issue of installation works is the atmosphere. The art and the audience are in the same space – it’s like Mandala. The concept is not separate. I think if Asian artists create installation works, it doesn’t mean that they are following the trend of contemporary art to create installations, but it is more based in the Mandala perspective.

Heri Dono in the STPI workshop. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI


Your works were just announced to be shown in the Venice Biennale for a one-man show for the Indonesian Pavilion, congratulations! Can you tell me a bit more about the Trokomod?

Yes, they are all completed and are now on the way to Venice! The Trokomod is the acronym of ‘Trojan Komodo.’ The story of the Trojan horse from ancient Greece – where they tried to attack the fortress from inside by hiding soldiers inside the statue. Now, the Trojan horse has become the issue not to give war, but to give knowledge.

In this work, it is like how Southeast Asia is sometimes. There is a lot of misunderstanding in global issues. When people talk about East and West, in Europe, they don’t talk about East and West from a geographical globe, but from the geopolitical perspective of capitalist or socialist countries.

In Southeast Asia, we are like a blank spot for modern or contemporary art – we are only seen as traditional, classic, or even primitive. That is not a fair perspective. So I put the Trokomod in the Arsenale in Venice. In the beginning, the Arsenale was used to create weapons. It was also used to store spices in Venice – after the fall of Constantinople, Europeans started to trade directly with Southeast Asia, instead of getting their spices from Turkey. At that point, Asia had already contributed to Europe’s development by introducing machinery and agricultural tools, noodles, gunpowder, etc. 

The Trokomod is not about creating war, but about understanding. It has a periscope, so people can go inside. About 5-8 people can go inside, and see the atmosphere around the work. There are 9 boats floating on the ceiling of the space. There is a gamelan in every boat, and some lanterns with the heads of angels. It is about the maritime culture in Southeast Asia. It was the beginning, and how we built ourselves up. There is also a running text in the chest of the Trokomod – and in the cockpit there are two pilots in the head of the Trokomod. There is batik on the ceiling inside the Trokomod, and there are symbols of many religions, to show it as uniting. There are also artifacts from Western culture like the wigs (the artificial hair for the judge) and an early version of the pistol, and a few books from Karl Marx and many different things. Westerners used to always see Asia as an ethnographic region, but these are the European artifacts.

And these are all your own collection?

Yes. When I was in Europe I used to collect. For me, when I was there in 1990, I saw an artifact as an ethnographical object, a part of history. And now I’m bringing them all back to Europe.

You’re very active in the contemporary arts scene, are there any young Indonesian contemporary artists that we should look out for?

Yes, there are many young Indonesian artists that explore art and more that are becoming interested in the context of sociopolitical issues. There are too many to list!



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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