Plastic Fantastic Kisses
Dear Readers: This post is an abridged and slightly amended article that was published in the November 2009 issue of Off the Edge magazine. Many thanks to OFTE for allowing us to reproduce it on ARTERI.
Looking at Indonesian photographer Angki Purbandono’s work at Richard Koh Gallery many months ago inspired me to think about how photography expands and challenge fixed notions about itself. This strategy, purposeful or not by the artist, is an interesting one to think about in the digital age, an age that has so revolutionised the way the general public approaches and perceives this medium in particular. So his solo show at Richard Koh Gallery gave me the perfect opportunity to pause, step back and consider the methods of contemporary photography as intrinsically linked to the meaning of the image.
Photography for all its technological immediacy and mass accessibility is still influenced by personal artistic visions and concerns. But photography is also something that the masses readily participate in and as such this popularity has led to its rapid evolution. This has allowed for a certain amount of freedom from traditional elitist artistic processes and thinking. Therefore, currently, everyone has the ability to create their own images quickly (a must in today’s instantaneous world) and with a certain level of sophistication. This sophistication encourages a sense of satisfaction which nurtures people’s ongoing interest in the medium. The huge and awaiting audiences over the internet in online forums such as Flickr, Photobucket, Smugmug and Facebook to name a few, means that everyone can have a potentially limitless fan base, peer to peer commentary and online exhibitions. This emancipation has provided contemporary artists and photographers invested in thinking critically about the medium itself the opportunity to explore the intellectual perception around it, precisely because it is so popular. Which is especially true in Purbandono’s case. Although visitors to the exhibition are greeted with glossy photographic works, the images themselves were created using a flat bed scanner, against a dark background instead of a camera. A scanner. How…. Normal…. I have a scanner too on my desk incorporated with the printer, fax and photo copier, does that mean I can exhibit in galleries? Yes! Yes it does…. That’s the point. The idea and how it destabilises a fixed perception about Art’s authority is what, I gather, is the point.
Through this technique Purbandono seems to be issuing a challenge to artworld elitism that still praises works where the hand of the artist is most apparent, which means that a work is special, unique and therefore valued (that king of Art: Painting, comes to mind). And it is Purbandono’s choice of equipment that is the destabilising force. The scanner is so a part of everyday usage (like the camera) but not widely recognised as a creator of ‘artwork’ that it then becomes a powerful challenge to art world snobbery. So the scanner then sets a whole new set of parameters around thinking about the work. Purbandono’s added use of humour and kitsch through his playful subject matter is part of this challenge but not its driving force and this makes his approach so engaging.
A scanner is a device that optically converts anything that is placed on the machine’s glass window into a digital image. This process of reproduction seems to make Purbandono’s images even more immediate and accessible, more democratic perhaps? This is because the physical distance between the device that records the image and the subject itself is reduced dramatically. The subject is in actual contact with the surface of the scanner. This intimate contact with the glass (the first time you photocopy your face on the xerox machine comes to my mind) brings the subject so much closer to the audience. The detail at which such a high powered scanner is able to reproduce is astonishing and creates sumptuous imagery. Purbandono’s isolation of his objects which emerge from a black hole of darkness further emphasises their detail as well as this idea of time and spatial perception in regards to looking. Therefore the only real physical distance is between the viewer and the image itself.
The idea of distance also comes across in Purbandono’s manipulation of scale with his subject matter. Lauratiningsih, and Sawi Hijau Sakit, display one very small object each: a doll and a mustard leaf respectively. Each has been scaled down to microscopic proportions and floats in the centre of an inky dark theatrical void. In comparison to other images like Cat Food which are very up close and personal Purbandono highlights fragility and forces us to look more closely at his subject asking us to approach the image in order to get a better look.
Of course what I have written so far might make little to no sense let alone relevance to some of you. As someone invested in thinking way too seriously about the status of contemporary art, about mediums, about meaning, authenticity, and why conceptual art is not as popular as it is in other parts of the world I am glad that Purbandono is making me think hard about photography, something I don’t critically consider enough. I am a victim of its popularity which has rendered photography intellectually invisible to the likes of this writer.
But what do all the Barbie doll heads, toy soldiers and fruit mean? From convoluted abstract ponderings to convoluted direct observational ponderings. Purbandono like many artists employs humour as a powerful way of unsettling his audiences. Like his previous 2008 exhibition Happy Scan at Biasa Art Space, Bali, he creates surreal relationships through mini assemblage of grotesque Frankenstein toy animals with human doll heads, and animal figurines and toy soldiers buried, consumed, and exploring vividly coloured fruit. The kitschness of his subject matter, its low brow, everyday quality, that has been selected for intense scrutiny under the scanner’s unforgiving eye seems too simple, too playful to have any real depth to it. Therefore is Purbandono, co-founder of social and community based photography space MES 56 in Jogyakarta, laughing at his audience? Is this yet another example of a contemporary art prankster pulling the wool over our eyes? Well yes and no. Through his technique and staging of found objects he is commenting that very little skill is needed to make art, which upsets a lot of people. What is important to the artist is the strength of the idea and the multiplicity of interpretation. Clown reminds me of comic version of Malaysian painter, Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s erotic fruit series. The sexual innuendo is there but the severed toy clown heads on top of the fruit make it both cynical and nonsensical. Miss Gorilla and Fire hint at female beauty myths, violence, masculinity and the absurdity around these constructs. 2 Small Grenades also feels like a political and economic satire but somehow this all plays a supporting role to the production of the work which for me is where the real meaning lies.
Plastic, is one of Man’s greatest and most destructive inventions. It is everywhere, making our lives easier in the kitchen, making toys cheaper, making manufacturing somehow more efficient, as well as polluting and destroying the environment. An ironic use of the plastic figurines in Purbandono’s work could be an allusion to photography itself as one of the most influential tools of the modern world. It has brought the hierarchy of art crashing down and liberated the masses who can easily re-look, re-imagine and re-interpret the world around them. It is at this juncture that Purbandono stages his statements and asks us all to relax sit back, laugh a little and take it all very seriously at the same time. The paradox of contemporary art continues.
Angki Purbandono, Kissing the Methods was exhibited at Richard Koh Fine Art, 9-23 May 2009.
This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 20 January 2010.