Serigala Militia - Transcending the Conventions of Music Videos
I was astounded when I saw Serigala Militia (2006, pp.16-19) at the second Singapore Biennale in 2008. Lured into a room by the distinctive sound of heavy metal, I watched the unique animation projected onto the wall and realized that the images in the video were a series of carved woodblocks. Each of enormous number of carved woodblocks displayed had been individually filmed to create a stop motion animation work. The raw traces of the woodcutting tools, that confront the viewer and hint at the time and work involved in the process of producing the images and the furious beat gap that lies between the slow process of producing the images and the furious beat of the music. In fact, the pairing of woodblock prints and heavy metal music is, in itself, quite outlandish. The work is extremely pop, but at the same time is undeniably craft like and radical, and also has a retro sensibility. I'd never seen anything like it. The heavy metal music and the vocals, which were shouted out in Indonesian, also left an indelible impression.
I was immediately interested when I discovered that this was a music video created for an Indonesian metal band called Seringai by a group of three artists in their 20s, with the unusual name of Tromarama. The artist group was established while the members were students at the Bandung Institute of Technology - Febie Babyrose was studying printmaking, while Herbert Hans and Ruddy Hatumena were studying graphic design in the Visual Communication Design Department. It is clear, after viewing Serigala Militia, that this work is an embodiment of the skills and sensibilities acquired as a result of studying printmaking and design.
Serigala Militia only features two colors-the black surface of the painted plywood and the color of the wood revealed by the cuts into the surface-and arguably depicts a world that has been created with light and shade. The human figures are first depicted only as outlines. Shading is then added, and it is at this point that the figures suddenly acquire three-dimensionality, become 'animated' and start moving-given life as in the original meaning of 'animation'. As the areas between the legs or on either side of the figure are gradually carved away, the space becomes filled with light as a result of carving conveys movement. The way that moving images are created by adopting the basic technique of printmaking-shading and nuance created through carving with a simple format of highlighting certain sections-is deeply impressive. Serigala Militia represents the dynamic primal forces of creation.
Serigala Militia also represents a new interpretation of the medium we know as woodblock printmaking. Because works on paper involve the replication of printed images, they are usually not valued as highly as paintings. However, in Serigala Militia the woodblocks themselves are displayed as one off-works. They are no longer simply a means for printing images onto paper. Instead, the woodblock is both a unique two-dimensional work and the object and mode of expression. The adoption of this new perspective has the effect of transforming preexisting value judgement to effectively erase the boundary that lies between the 'lead role' and the 'support act'.
Tromarama has also addressed the specific purpose of this work-as a music video for a band -with integrity. The word "wolf" is shouted at the audience by the charismatic band Seringai, who enjoy a fanatical following in the Indonesian rock scene, encouraging their fans to stand up to authority, to free themselves from control, and to achieve autonomy. And, as if in agreement with this rebellious spirit, images of animal skulls, barbed wire, speedometers, handcuffs, and soldiers are scattered throughout the work. Meanwhile, the tracks of a military tank are transformed into the drummer's drumsticks, a chainsaw transformed into a guitar neck, and these images are organically integrated with the images of the performing band members. This sense of fun, unique to Tromarama, adds a playful sensibility to the driving sounds of hard rock. The creativity behind the ever-changing images is arguably only possible because the use of animation. In this way, Tromarama explore different ways of visually conveying a message through diverse perspectives, and select the most appropriate means of doing so for each work.
Focusing on All Things Small
In the music video Zsa Zsa Zsu (2007, pp.20-23), created by Tromarama for more pop oriented band R.N.R.M (Rock N Roll Mafia), large quantities of buttons and beads have been used to once again create another out-of-the-box single frame music video. In contrast to Tromarama's previous work, which featured a world created with light and shade, Zsa Zsa Zsu is a flood of color. The steadily changing colors on the screen, red, pink, purple, green, and blue, have the effect of imbuing time and space with movement. The buzzing vibration generated by the subtle differences in the colors of the buttons and beads is a perfect match to R.N.R.M.'s danceable electronic sounds. Tromarama effectively applies color to sound and air as a means of visualizing rhythm. The result is an absence of the master subordinate relationship between the people in the video and the background-after the figures are swallowed up by the buttons and beads, diverse shapes appear and are superimposed over each other, and curved lines appear and shift. In Tromarama's animated work, life is breathed into both living beings and patterns alike. Similarly, items that would normally be overlooked in a live-action video, such as keyboard keys, microphone stands, cables, and power points, acquire presence as they make their appearance in the work. That the video begins with the microphone cord being plugged in is symbolic. At the end of the video, multi-colored cords are connected to a power board. The images of the power points and cords hint at the electricity that is flowing through the equipment. Tromarama's magic, which has the effect of visualizing the electronics underpinning R.N.R.M's music, is nothing short of amazing.
Tromarama's perspicacity and creativity, in which the focus is on everyday items and events that tend to be overlooked despite the fact that they are essential components of our daily lives, also features in Ting* (2008, pp. 24-27). In this work, Tromarama has moved away from the music video format and has instead created a work that is even more unique. The leading role in the video is played by white porcelain mugs. Once again, Tromarama uses time and labor-intensive stop motion animation to depict a grand crockery adventure. This work is arguably underpinned by two themes - forms and patterns, and narrative. Tired of being used everyday, the mugs and plates escape from the crockery cupboard, walk outside and proceed down the street, hiding under dead leaves, eventually forming a circle in a field and dancing. This game that involves hundreds of pieces of tableware lining up, forming circles, and endlessly changing formation is amazing. One of the mugs then becomes a component of the whole, much like buttons in Zsa Zsa Zsu, while in another scene the same mug is imbued with its own personality. It falls over, it panics, and it gets excited, and this is vividly conveyed on screen. Both the mug and humans are depicted in the same way - from both a micro and macro perspective. We are all individuals who are members of an organization, or a dot in the cosmos, but each of us is precious and irreplaceable and individual presence emerges through Tromarama's close-up imagery.
The personal emotions of the Tromarama members have been incorporated into the drama that unfolds in Ting*. Tromarama temporarily suspended its activities after Ruddy Hatumena graduated and joined the workforce. Ting* is a commemorative work in the sense that it was created by the Tromarama members after they had reunited. The three types of mugs, which are making the most of their liberation from life's routines, represent the three artist. The dreams that we all have and the struggles that we all experience are conveyed with humor and lightness through the gentle perspective that Tromarama applies in its depiction of small objects.
Another characteristic of Tromarama's work worthy of mention is their consummate use of sound effect. Bagus Pandega created the clear, resonant sounds by tapping on a large number of water - filled porcelain cups, each cup producing a different pitch depending on the amount of water in that glass. It embodies a very artisanal quality that shares an affinity with Tromarama's stop motion animation. The sounds and rhythms, in perfect sync with the movements depicted in the work, represent an important element of Tromarama's practice that is not restricted to their music videos.
The Art Market and Indonesian Contemporary Art
I would like to touch on the Indonesian art scene that Tromarama is a part of. The Asian art boom that began during the last decade, triggered by an interest in Chinese contemporary art, has had a significant effect on the Indonesian art world. Works by Indonesian artist have fetched huge prices, as though reflecting what was happening in Chinese art, resulting in a rapid growth in numbers of both Indonesian and overseas collectors of Indonesian contemporary art. This was a new phenomenon that had not been seen in the 1990s. Meanwhile, art fairs held in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong had the effect of promoting both Indonesian galleries and artist.1 Numerous artist achieved great success as a result of the boom and many, who until recently had been so poor that they could barely afford to eat, were apparently able to build luxury homes and could be seen driving expensive imported cars.
Many curators and artists, however, feel uncomfortable with this situation. Curator Rifky Effendy is critical of the fact that painting is the predominant medium that continues to sell in the art market, and that an increasing number of Indonesian artists are capitalizing on the popularity of Chinese contemporary art by producing commercial art, or "art for sale" that is imitative of Chinese photo - realism and cynical pop.2 In the catalogue for the exhibition "Refresh", featuring young emerging artists in their 20s including Tromarama, curator Enin Supriyanto, a contributor to this catalogue, asserts that artists shouldn't attempt to reflect the biased preferences of the art market, and that they should instead adopt an uninhibited and more creative spirit - a "DIY" spirit.3
The extent of market influence is arguably also related to the special circumstances of the Indonesian art world. I visited Indonesia as part of my research for this exhibition, and discovered that few of the conventional art museums actively exhibit contemporary work. In contrast, the main venues for contemporary art are private galleries or alternative spaces, and the majority of contemporary art curators are freelance curators who are not necessarily attached to a specific institution. A curator is generally invited by a strong connection between the artist and curator, gallery and collector. The artist is arguably more susceptible to the influence of these immediate commercial connections, or the market economy, when the value of a work of art isn't assessed or exhibited purely in the context of public institution such as an art museum.
Given these circumstances, international exhibition play an important role in revealing the value of art beyond the valued determined by the market. Well - known Indonesian artists such as Heri Dono and Agus Suwage are keenly sought after by biennales and many other international exhibitions, while it was the Singapore Biennale that introduced Tromarama to the world. Tromarama doesn't produce 'painting for sale' targeted at collectors, so it was recognition by an international audience - that has a greater exposure to and therefore understanding of video art than an Indonesian audience - that encouraged the artists to continue producing art. Tromarama's sudden upwards trajectory in their international career resulted from curators from around the world seeing the group's work at the Biennale, just as I did.
The Regionality of Bandung
One of the topics of conversation amongst people in the art world in Indonesia is the difference between artist from Yogyakarta and those from Bandung. "Stories from Two Cities" (2010)4 curated by Alia Swastika for the Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery, is an exhibition that introduces 20 group of young artists based in these two cities. Tromarama was included as a group of artists hailing from Bandung. Although a simple comparison is impossible, I identified certain characteristics after viewing the works by artists from both cities. The works of artists from Yogyakarta tend to be inspired by comics and pop music, feature graffiti, or are colorful representational paintings. In contrast, the work of artists from Bandung are rich in symbolism and design underpinned with meaning, while many work in new forms of media rather than producing conventional paintings. The majority of the participating artists are graduates of either the Indonesia Institute of the Arts (ISI) or the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). These two universities are enormously influential, and it is no exaggeration to say that the contemporary art scene in Indonesia owes its existence to these two institutions.
Traditional culture has been carefully preserved in Yogyakarta, the ancient capital of Indonesia, which is designated as a Special Region and is still the seat of the Sultan. ISI, the precursor of which established in 1950 when Indonesia was forging its national identity after winning independence, has a history of valuing tradition and realism. Meanwhile, Bandung was originally a highland town developed by the Dutch during the colonial period because of its cool climate and which eventually grew into a modern, Westernized city. Modernist thought and universal design language were taught from an early stage by Dutch teachers at ITB, which was originally established as the Technical High School of Bandung in 1920, and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that embraced all things new continues to define ITB today.
ITB's liberated environment is conveyed in the interview with Tromarama in this catalogue. The lectures at ITB include many of artists and curators, arguably making ITB an ideal place for learning about new developments and theories in art, as well as for networking and building connections in the art world. Video art is thriving in Bandung and in his essay in this catalogue Enin Supriyanto provides a detailed explanation this phenomenon, which is of particular interest as it describes what was taking place in Bandung immediately prior to the emergence of artists such as Tromarama.
Art as a Playground
While Tromarama adopts the new technology of video, there is always a focus on the hand-made. Tromarama's main focus has always been use to low-tech methods in which the traces of handwork are retained in the final work and to carefully video one scene at a time in process which can be compared to craft-making. Continuing to explore new materials, Tromarama has adopted the technique of Batik, a traditional Indonesian craft using wax resist dyeing, for the new work Extraneous (2010, pp.14-15) included in this exhibition. Creating Extraneous involved the members first dyeing 210 pieces of fabric, and then creating an installation featuring both the fabric and the animation created by filming the fabric. The theme is the sense of disconnection between the real world and internet - based virtual communication.
Batik has traditionally represented daily circumstances and historical events among its motifs and patterns, and this function inspired the members of Tromarama to attempt to record on fabric the contemporary issues that they themselves have experienced. Looking back at the history of batik provides a convincing demonstration that it is capable of adapting to this sort of new interpretation. The colors and patterns of batik have always reflected regional and class differences and they have undergone changes every time a different culture - Hindu, Buddhist, and Islam, for example - was introduced. Indeed, batik has, at various time, featured Dutch patterns during Dutch colonialist period, Chinese patterns influenced by Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, and even Japanese patterns during the Japanese Military presence in Indonesia during the Second World War. This indicates a cultural flexibility and diversity that is unique to Indonesia, a nation in which hundreds of ethnic groups and cultures coexist.
Tromarama is equally uninhibited and flexible. While the members retain a respect for and love of the traditions of handwork, they do not overly focus on artifice, nor is there any fear of adopting unconventional interpretation or techniques. Along with traditional Indonesian culture, Tromarama casually embraces aspects of American or Japanese pop culture and then rearranges it in its own unique way. The West's struggle between high art and low art and constructions of elaborate concepts are absent from Tromarama's art. I also doubt that they are terribly attached to the concept of creating 'contemporary art' or of being 'artists'. Tromarama simply uses art as an uninhibited avenue for experimentation, as a playground for the mind.
Although their future remains unknown, I hope Tromarama will continue to play in this way, with the members feeling the way forward with their own hands, unbound by the rules or styles of the global art industry. Because I believe that this is what Tromarama is really about.
Natsumi Araki (Curator, Mori Art Museum)
1. Agung Hujatnikajennong, “The Indonesian Art World in the Global Era,” The Mist: A Reflection upon the Development of Indonesian Contemporary Art (ex.cat.), Artsociates, 2010, pp. 8-11.
2. Rifky Effendy, ”The Mist: A Reflection upon the Development of Indonesian Contemporary Art (ex.cat.), Artsociates, 2010, pp. 2-7.
3. Enin Supriyanto, “D.I.Y and Be Happy,” Refresh: New Strategies in Indonesian Contemporary Art (ex.cat.), Valentine Willie Fine Art Singapore, 2009, pp.2-4
4. Stories from Two Citites (ex.cat.), Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery, 2010.
** This essay is published in MAM Project 012: TROMARAMA" catalogue. Published by Mori Art Museum. Date of Publication: August 1, 2010