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Sad Songs to Euphoria: Jompet Kuswidananto on the Making of Celestial Sorrow

Sad Songs to Euphoria: Jompet Kuswidananto on the Making of Celestial Sorrow

Walker Reader, Allie Tepper, 08.04.19

Yogyakarta-based visual artist, theater maker, and musician Jompet Kuswidananto creates performative installations that reflect on the ghosts of Indonesia’s sociopolitical and colonial history and its cultural transition from dictatorship to democracy in the post-Suharto era. This April 11–13, Kuswidanato visits Minneapolis for the North American premiere of the Walker-co-commissioned performance work Celestial Sorrow. A collaboration with the Brussels/Berlin-based choreographer Meg Stuart, it creates a vibrant world of light, movement, and live music by a five-member group of virtuosic dancers and musicians from across Europe, Japan, and Indonesia. Here, in conversation with curator and Walker Interdisciplinary Fellow Allie Tepper, Kuswidananto discusses his collaborative artistic practice and the influences that drove the making of Celestial Sorrow, from a government ban on sad songs to traumatic inheritances, a fear of the dark, and euphoria.

ALLIE TEPPER (AT): I wanted to ask you about your current fascination with lights as a material and signifier within your work. You just debuted two new installations, Keroncong Concordia at the Sharjah Biennial 14 and On Paradise at aA29 Project Room in Milan, both of which incorporate dimly lit, fallen chandeliers. Your collaboration with Meg Stuart, which you’re debuting at the Walker this week, also centers around a hanging light installation. What brought you on this path?

JOMPET KUSWIDANANTO (JK): I’ve been exploring the wounds of Indonesia’s colonial history and was interested in using lights, particularly in the form of chandeliers, as an image of the colonial dream and identity. At several moments in Indonesian history, during anti-colonial rebellions, chandeliers became a target of iconoclasm. On Paradise speaks about religious-indoctrinated, anti-colonial rebellions in the 19th century, while Keroncong Concordia presents the story of 20th-century colonial elite social clubs and entertainment spaces that segregated its audiences and performers by race, from Dutch, Indonesian, and Chinese to mixed communities. I’m interested in the social wounds that remain from these previous apartheid regulations.

AT: Can you speak a bit about your installation for Celestial Sorrow and where it got its inspiration?

JK: We started this project from many entry points, too many to remember now, from personal memory to social trauma, from a flood of cat pics to banned sad songs, from sound healing to trance dance. In the end theexperience felt like being in a long and random dream. I am trying to bring that feeling into the installation: dreaminess, a sense of vertigo, the celestial.

AT: Cat photos? I wasn’t expecting that.

JK: Ah, yes, well there was a flood of cat pictures that circulated on Twitter during the 2015 Paris and Brussels terror attacks. We were interested in how the photos were used to divert the consciousness of the people at the time. People starting sharing all of these cute cat photos on the internet as a distraction from what was going on. It came up randomly in the making of this piece and is related to the idea of memory and trauma that we were working through—of how you create your own illusions about what is happening, under difficult conditions.

AT: Your work often reflects on the sociopolitical landscape of Indonesia, particularly after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and recent cultural transition into democracy. Can you explain what, if anything, of this history and region has fed into your work for Celestial Sorrow? I remember hearing that the piece was formed in part during a visit Meg had to Yogyakarta, on the island of Java.

JK: In making this work we were exploring memory through brightness and darkness, through the visibility of things, as well through sensory based therapy, like sound healing. There was this discussion about how to make the invisible trauma of political and social events somehow visible, of how to give shape to its shapelessness. We found that the trauma of dictatorship was an interesting way to start imagining the shape of these ghosts of our history. When we were in Indonesia, I gave a tour of places where specific historical events had happened, and we discussed the memory that exists of these sites. We tried to feel the space and its energy and to translate this into the performance and installation. We worked with materials of the dictatorship like anti-communist propaganda films, and we visited the university where many student movements happened and where some students were killed. Through this material, a fear of the dark emerged as a concept. At the same time there was an obsession with brightness. We tried to make this multiplication of the lights. One light was not enough; we needed hundreds.

AT: There’s also a small truck that appears in Celestial Sorrow, one that carries a speaker and a load of lights.

JK: Right, we talked a lot about that truck. It’s also related to the history of Indonesia. The truck has always been there, in different moments. During the anti-communist campaign in the ’60s the truck was used to transport communist people to prisons where they were executed. At other times the truck was used by the army to mobilize people to attack communities. Later in the democratic era the truck has been used to amplify the voice of democracy. The trucks carry speakers and anyone who has the money can mobilize people to amplify their voices. For Indonesians, there is a memory of violence in this kind of truck. We were interested in these stories that came up through it.

The truck we made for Celestial Sorrow carried lights and a recording of the song, “Hati yang luka.” I think the song is the clearest trace of the Indonesian material in the performance. It was a a song that was banned in the ’80s during a campaign by the Suharto regime, which prohibited the playing of all sad songs in the country.

AT: Why were sad songs banned?

JK: It happened for a couple years, around 1986 I think, that sad songs were banned. From my research I found that during that time, Indonesia was in good shape economically, but at the same time there was this trend of sad songs that were being produced and played in the country. The government felt offended by the threat of a sad song, like, “I’m making you happy, why are you sad?” Something like that. The government was in this spirit of developmentalism, and the sad songs became really subversive to that.

AT: They banned it from the radio? Or from concerts and performances, too?

JK: Mostly the radio and television, because these were run by the government.

AT: So the ban created this illusion of a happy state.

JK: Yes, and at the same time the government was supporting rock music. [Laughs]

AT: Really? Why?

JK: They wanted to make a switch from a sad feeling to a more energized, positive vibe. I remember it really well because there were a lot of rock competitions during that time that the government supported. One of the conditions they made was that the content of the song must be positive.

AT: Wow. So the truck in Celestial Sorrow brings back what was banned…

JK: Yes, exactly. But in the end the work is really open to personal interpretation. The references to Indonesian history in the piece are not necessary to catch. The whole project in the end is not about Indonesian history, everyone who was a part of it brought their own personal narratives to the work. These references were just my own points of departure, which I shared with everyone.

AT: Was the title of Celestial Sorrow inspired in part from these sad songs?

JK: It’s really difficult to trace. Of course, the sad songs was one of the reasons, but it’s also related to the violence and traumatic source material that we discussed. Then there’s the celestial part of it. I think of the celestial as a power that you don’t understand. You don’t know how it operates or how to deal with it. This is how I imagined the dictatorship when I experienced it, when I was young. The power of the regime was too big to understand, so it became mystified. The hanging bulbs in the installation are like stars or constellations; there is a reference to the sky and to dreams. But the bulbs are hung quite low, so you can reach them.

AT: So it’s almost like you are trying to break down the myth of the celestial? Or of the regime…

JK: Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it.

AT: Your installations such as After Voices (2016) often energetically incorporate movement and music through the use of automated objects rather than live performers, drawing attention to the absence of bodies and to ghosts. What has it been like to incorporate dancers, and the movement language generated by Meg, into you work? Has it shifted your artistic process in any way?

JK: Ah, yes, in my initial conversation with Meg, we came up with our first keyword: ghost. It was a challenge for me personally as I have been working with my own idea of a ghost for a while that is different from Meg’s. I have been well known for making these bodiless crowd installations, like in After Voices. I used these ghost figures to talk about the fluidity of Indonesian history. The country has been governed by many different regimes for different purposes, so the way you see the history and identity of Indonesia is always changing. With Meg we started to approach the idea of the ghost in more direct and personal ways, like through meeting a shaman. While Meg was in Bali she met somebody who became a medium to connect her with other worlds. While we were in Jogja [Yogyakarta] we went to see different cultural rituals like trance dance.

Working with Meg, as well as everyone in this project, I was dragged into different worlds, and I’ve learned a lot from it. To be honest, my impression of Meg before meeting her was that she was strong figure in the contemporary dance world. I thought: OK, I’m going to meet someone who has a strong formula of making work. But no, I think she really makes a new piece as a new world, one that is different from what came before it. This was a nice surprise for me, as we were able to start the whole artistic process together from the beginning. After Indonesia we came to Berlin and met with other dancers and musicians, who also have their own worlds. Everyone brought their own personal history to the piece, and had the space to test out different ideas. We spent a lot of time experimenting with each others’ material.

AT: Is this the first time you have collaborated with a choreographer?

JK: No, but I don’t do it that often. I’ve worked with the Japanese choreographer Hiroshi Koike a couple of times, and in Indonesia I’m a longtime member of a contemporary theater collective, Teater Garasi, in which we’ve tried, in an amateur way, to cross the borders between theater, dance, and music.

AT: Can you speak about your work with the collective and as a musician? Does it directly feed into the work you do as a visual artist?

JK: I started making art in the last years of Suharto’s regime through music and theater. I was obsessed with the stage and sound during the period of the dictatorship—maybe there was a relation between these two things, I don’t know. I was a student when the regime fell, and I think I was really taken by euphoria. It was like a dinner that everyone was invited to and people came with then-forbidden dishes, then-banned books, then-banned songs, then-hidden history. It became a very new taste of life. This feeling motivated me to utilize art as a way to understand this new reality, and working in a self-supported collective fit our situation well, practically.

In the collective we were very much driven by our concern to rewrite history. We did some pieces based on this idea, but we found out that it really is the work of a lifetime. In the meantime I developed my musical works into a more experimental presentation, combining it with other elements such as videos and installation, and ended up teaching myself visual art. Maybe I’m still moved by the vibration of the euphoria, in the way it keeps me working on the subject of Indonesian history.

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