Boedi Widjaja’s debut New York show tackles contemporary global themes
by Reena Devi
Exhibition: Boedi Widjaja: Declaration of
Venue: Helwaser Gallery, 833 Madison Avenue, Third Floor, New York, NY 10021
Opening Reception: Wednesday, September 11, 2019 from 6-8pm
Exhibition Dates: September 11–November 7, 2019
Artist Performance & Conversation with Boon Hui Tan: Saturday, Sep 14, 2-4pm
Literary Reading with Claudia Serea, Donald Breckinridge, and Celina Su: Monday, Sep 16, 7-9 pm
Singaporean artist Boedi Widjaja is very much in vogue this year with an upcoming debut solo show “Declaration of” in New York at the Helwaser Gallery, following his stint as Facebook Artist in Residence (Singapore) earlier this year. Widjaja will also be presenting a site-specific architectural and sound installation “Black—Hut, Black—Hut” at Singapore Biennale 2019. The increasing appeal of his art lies in its resonance with the 21st century themes of immigration, nationalism, and notions of perception in a hypermediated reality.
The 44-year old who began his artistic pursuit full-time in his mid-thirties has shown in numerous exhibitions internationally, including the Asia Pacific Triennial (2018), the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), and Yinchuan Biennale, China (2016). At home, the award-winning artist has also held solo shows at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2014), and at the Esplanade, Singapore (2012).
Helwaser Gallery's current space on the Upper East Side was opened by veteran husband-and-wife private dealers Antoine and Anne-Marie Helwaser as part of their new focus on developing the careers of contemporary artists. Responding to SG Unbound via email, Junni Chen, Director, Exhibitions and Programs at Helwaser Gallery, said, “Boedi's work speaks to many different facets [of the issues] that contemporary society is grappling with now.”
Widjaja’s first solo presentation in New York “Declaration Of” is very much aligned with the gallery’s vision. The exhibition presents recent and latest works from the artist’s “Imaginary Homeland” series (2015–ongoing) encompassing drawings, photography, and installation. Looking at press photographs taken during the Cold War of Indonesia’s founding figures, Sukarno and Suharto, Widjaja re-examines these images through the lenses of his personal history.
Speaking with SG Unbound, the artist said, “I was born in 1975, 30 years after my homeland Indonesia was nation birthed. When I was 9, the play of domestic and international politics led to a state of ethnic tensions and my parents sent me and my sister to Singapore, another new nation that gained independence in 1965. From a foreign land, staying apart from my parents, all that I could see of Indonesia and her leaders was through the mass media. In "Imaginary Homeland,” the artistic process—of working with mass-media imagery of Indonesian politicians—serves as a prism to diffract the memory alongside the regional history of Southeast Asian nations emerging in the Cold War period.”
A highlight of the exhibition is the newly commissioned work, “九百九十九朵玫瑰 (Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Roses)” (2019), an installation comprising nine small-scale pinhole photos, alongside nine pecis mounted onto a tripod stand. This series of pinhole photos captured former Indonesian President Sukarno’s meetings with leaders of Russia, China, and the US at the time of the Cold War. Using the methods of the camera obscura, Widjaja created these images by exposing photo-sensitive paper to light passing through a small hole made on the top of each peci (popular Indonesian headgear).
The exhibition also presents two large-scale negative drawings: “等著你回來 (Waiting for you)” (2016), referencing a photograph taken during a meeting between Sukarno and the People’s Republic of China’s first Premier and Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai in 1965; and “帶我去月球 (Fly me to the moon)” (2019) alluding to a different image depicting Sukarno sitting alongside the 35th US president, John F. Kennedy. For these negative drawings, the viewer is invited to view them through the camera of a mobile device, with the classic invert settings turned on, revealing the positive images of the work.
Collectively, these drawings reflect on the legacy of Sukarno and his role in steering a newly-independent nation through the fraught geo-political terrain of the time. During his presidency, Sukarno had attempted to balance the sympathies of two power blocs, China and the US. This ultimately led to his own removal from power in 1967 by Major General Suharto.
Using a process-based approach within his practice, Widjaja further put his negative drawings of Sukarno and Suharto through analogue studio photography methods, resulting in a body of images that is removed from their original contexts, in the form of archival prints on diasec. These works, “因為我的心中有你 (Keeping you in my heart)” (2015); “希望你能對我說你愛我 (Please say you love me)” (2015); and “就是找不到往你的方向 (Can’t find my way to you)” (2015), are named after 1980s Mandarin pop songs. Mostly about heartbreak and melodrama, the songs were popular radio selections that the artist listened to while growing up.
This exhibition includes an outdoor installation of ten flags on the gallery terrace. Titled “Art is only a continuation of war by other means (flags)” (2019), the work is the artist’s latest iteration of his outdoor photographic installation, “Art is only a continuation of war by other means” (2016) that was presented at the 1st Yinchuan Biennale. On each flag the artist transposes the short and long clicks of the Morse Code into abstract compositions of red and blue. Together, the flags make out the title of the work, a reference to a famous quote credited to Premier Zhou, who was reported by American journalist Edgar Snow in 1954 to have said, “Diplomacy is only a continuation of war by other means.”
Similarly, Widjaja’s practice involves not just a continuation of theme but also a variety of means. In addition to "Imaginary Homeland” to be presented in New York, his other ongoing series are “Path.," "Stone telling," and "Black—Hut". About these works, he wrote, “Each series has its triggers, focus, and predominant methods or strategies—ranging from mark-making, drawing, and live art to large-scale architectural installations. For example, I started my earliest series ‘Path.’ at a time when I just became a Singapore citizen. ‘Path.’ looks at the migratory notions of belonging, physical movement, and isolation in the context of relentless global migration; for this reason, I found myself often using live art strategies for works in the series.” For the New York show, there will be a live-art event, titled “Threshold,” involving Wijaja and NYC-based Singaporean poet Jee Leong Koh.
Chen, who curated the exhibition at Helwaser Gallery, explained how Widjaja’s works, which comprise such rich contextual history from the 20th century, is relevant to the 21st: “Boedi's “Imaginary Homeland” series is, to me, a close reading of an era that saw the rising importance of mass media, and specifically images, in politics. This body of work also focuses on two key processes in art-making: drawing and photography. Since its inception, the gallery program has always emphasized artists that engaged with historical contexts and conditions—this has always stimulated discussions about our own present realities.”
The artist concurred, “One of the threads in "Imaginary Homeland" is the inquiry into mass-media imagery, that I find to be urgent in our hyper-mediated reality.”
He described how the series started with making negative drawings—inverse images drawn on paper. It was instinctual for him to put the negative images that he drew through analogue and digital photographic processes, “probably because I belonged to the generation of analogue natives who experienced the phases of transition towards digital photography.” Widjaja said. “When I was younger, making a photograph was a deliberate process, starting with loading a roll of film into the camera. Considerable time spanned across the moment photographed, the negatives previewed, and the selected prints seen. Digital cameras significantly compressed the process and rendered photography into moments of instantaneous acts. When phone cameras became ubiquitous, the act of photography vaporized. Today, we peer at and see through our phone cameras, a reality that is lens-enhanced and algorithm-filtered. This new normal in how we see the world is part of what the series is also looking at.”
The artist believes audiences in New York will respond to his work in “Declaration of” in a similar fashion as their Asian or Southeast Asian counterparts: “The series has been presented to audiences in different cities: Singapore; Yinchuan, China; Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Nottingham and London in the UK. Most of the audience, including those in Singapore, are not familiar with the historic events that happened in Indonesia and Southeast Asia during the Cold War period. In this respect, the New York audience will be on similar standing.”
Chen added, “For art lovers and professionals, Boedi's work will be interesting because of its conceptual and processual rigor. I think people with a general interest in the region might also find the show worthwhile and meaningful because it addresses key figures that have shaped Southeast Asian history. For a broad American audience, I think that the issues that Boedi's work raises is extremely timely—it includes a broader reflection on the political climate of the Cold War, to which some comparisons can be made to the current political climate.”
Reena Devi is a Singaporean journalist and cultural critic writing about art and society in the 21st century. Reena holds a Msc. Renaissance to Enlightenment from the University of Edinburgh and worked at the Singapore Art Museum and National Heritage Board from 2012 to 2016. She became a senior reporter at TODAY newspaper (SG) in 2016, fronting the shift to a news-oriented coverage of the local arts scene. She broke over 15 stories in the span of a year, exploring issues such as cultural leadership, racial diversity, arts funding, censorship, and public engagement. Subsequently, she moved to Yahoo Singapore where she wrote in-depth features and broke stories on arts, lifestyle, and entertainment, before leaving in 2018 to write independently for international media such as ArtAsiaPacifc (HK) and Artsy (NY).