“How could the grand narrative of legitimation still have credibility in these circumstances?”
It is immediately apparent that Eddy Susanto’s works in this exhibition are made up of handwritten texts arranged and composed into images. Perhaps this is why his works come across more as drawings than as paintings. These works are visual narrations constructed from textual narrations. Although they appear visually unassuming, like common illustrations, they quickly inspire awe when we realize that each image is made up of thousands even hundreds of thousands of words taken from the works of great philosophers and thinkers, whose ideas are believed to have great impact on our modern world today.
Eddy’s creative method reminds us of concrete poetry or prose, i.e. written words that are also visual compositions. For his part, Eddy does not use poetry or prose to create his visual narrations, but rather he composes them by using grand narratives or meta discourses. The sheer amount of text that Eddy uses for his works are strung together in a way that they look like lines drawn upon canvas; in some parts, overlapping words conjure up spatial nuance.
Texts, usually written in Javanese script, are an inseparable part of Eddy Susanto’s artworks thus far. Eddy Susanto takes texts from various sources to be parodied, deconstructed, and allegorized. Starting from his position as a Javanese man with an interest in Javanese identity and philosophy, he diligently works with Javanese script to construct a visual language (in painting format). Eddy’s works thus far tend to discuss the dynamics of power politics, especially on how hegemonies influence other more vulnerable or lesser regions, as well as their historical and current social implications. Eddy believes that global perceptions are created using patterns that have been forcefully constructed by hegemonic cultures and civilizations and their influence over global society. It follows that Western culture and civilization influence, even mold, global perception.
Eddy’s use of Javanese script represents his attempt to subvert [Western] cultural domination. Textual narrations from Javanese culture are concretized into visual shapes. Although it is clear to the audience that Eddy’s visual narrations are composed using Javanese script, those who cannot read it or understand Javanese language will find that these words are “silent”. Those Javanese texts become something that cannot be read, or should not be read, but instead serve as a dichotomic symbol for his visual imageries that are most often derived from Western myths and history.
For “10 + 3 project”, however, Eddy has chosen to use Latin alphabets. By doing so, he makes them readable (more accessible). Yet, it is almost impossible to read all the texts in Eddy Susanto’s works—texts that have been copied down from works by some of the world’s greatest thinkers. It is even difficult to see where these texts begin or end, even if we try to compare them against the source reference. In other words, as with his Javanese-based works, readability is not Eddy’s aim. Like the Javanese alphabets in his other works, these Latin alphabets serve as dichotomic markers that exist between the particular work’s texts and its visual aspects. Opposite of the formula he uses in his Javanese-based works, however, the alphabets of “10 + 3 project” represent the hegemonic power itself, while the visual images represent localities or lesser domains, in this case, the small narratives of the Javanese day-to-day.
We cannot deny that the geopolitical constellation of our global society to this day is still strongly connected to the hegemonic influences of European-American power. Conditions in post-colonial regions, such as Indonesia, are greatly influenced by its history as ex-colonies. Therefore, we can conclude that these hegemonies have succeeded in constructing the paradigms of our global society today. Global modernity has been constructed in and by the West, especially through the power and abilities of their thinkers—Western philosophers, theorists, and scientists—who turn ideas into knowledge that can be implemented on a practical level via cultural artifacts, technology, and economy. Dissemination of these ideas are possible through, among others, widely-distributed books. Nelly Richard stated thusly,
“Modernity has always been intimately linked to the idea and practice of writing. The storage of knowledge in books generated meaning and fixed reference points: the book as history is also history as the book. Postmodernity, on the other hand, declares itself concerned not with the question of establishing meanings, but with the challenging of the very concept of any monological or univalent structure of the signification.”[i]
Using Nelly Richard’s statement above, we can see that Eddy’s method of using text as the building blocks of his visual compositions is contextual enough in relations to the represented subject matter. The connection between visual art and text, in this case language, has quite a long history, in both modern and post-modern histories, such as in this observation by Will Hill,
“…, it was a tendency in prevailing modernist criticism to attribute an explanation to the work of art after its creation, these texts coming to play such an integral role that they functioned almost to justify the artwork’s production.”[ii]
Eddy’s method of putting together text with art, however, differs from those of his predecessors. In his works, both art and text form a singular entity, a hybrid of inseparable components.
Visual images in Eddy’s works do not seem to have any direct connection to the meaning or ideas of the grand narrative texts themselves. Eddy’s visual narrations do not represent the text he has appropriated. Instead, Eddy’s visual images come from an altogether different territory and even opposite of the texts. For the current exhibition, Eddy has chosen to use local(ized) images inspired by Javanese grassroots society. Eddy’s works here represent small narratives that are perhaps inconsequential when compared to accepted grand narratives. Even if one is able to find connections between the two, it is only because the small narratives are the outcomes or effects of grand narratives.
It seems that Eddy is intent on lampooning grand narratives. It stems from Eddy’s doubts of the extent of influence that these grand narratives have on grassroots society, on the day-to-day lives of the Javanese lower-class. Eddy is able to casually “inject” small narratives of Javanese life into those grand narrative texts. Perhaps, we can also say that Eddy’s choice to highlight small narratives differentiates his methods from the sort of modern painting methods we are more accustomed to.
Speaking about modern art, we cannot deny that painting is a dominant category in art’s own grand narrative. Modernists often accuse narrative painting as misguided, because narration is the domain of literature. Narrative painting, they argue, is far too removed from the basic essence of art. Modernist formalist principles which prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century grew to become the main authority of visual art and was soon installed as the accepted grand narrative for global (=Modern) art. These days, although painting is no longer considered as contemporary art’s grand narrative, it remains an important and dominant medium. Cognizant of this situation, and in keeping with his effort to highlight small narratives, Eddy has deliberately chosen to cultivate hyper-narrative works using text as a main component of his works—almost reminiscent of literary works.
Thus, despite his use of canvas, Eddy has never really created painting, in the traditional sense. Instead, he puts text upon text on canvas. Eddy’s use of text along with a highly illustrative style is a smart move on his part, as he questions the issue of power and the dangers of ideas (disseminated through writings) especially when they are constructed or regarded as the prevailing and universally-applicable thought. It is also a deconstruction of the principles of modern art’s grand narrative. Eddy’s choice to highlight the life of the lower-class is the logical consequence of his motive to dismantle grand narratives.
We can say that modern art is descended from the larger narrative of Western modern culture. Modern art principles tend to exclude many other art movements that differ from it, that it considered as marginal or not even art at all. Modern art easily discards works by women artists and non-Western artists, for instance. Therefore, it is unsurprising to see that Eddy’s works are more in keeping with postmodern principles. And yet, while Eddy’s works seem to go against the very grain of modern art, it is not marching lockstep with postmodernist principles either.
Compared to his previous works, Eddy’s works at this exhibition seems low profile, both in size and appearance. He seems aware that his small narratives should also be reflected in the scale of its visual characteristic. Further, his works are done in brownish monochrome, with little green and red flourishes here and there. These flourishes help reinforce the flatness of the drawing space, underlining the idea that these works are drawings. The artist himself said that these occasional flourishes represent the “rebellion” of small narratives. Again, Eddy is trying to turn on its head the perception that separates visual elements and text. We are familiar with graffiti, where text communicates or embodies the spirit of rebellion. In Eddy’s works, however, colors rebel against the grand narratives.
Each one of Eddy’s works at this exhibition comes with a sort of “footnote”, a wooden box containing the source text’s content, title and writer, as well as sketches that correspond to the work. These “footnotes” are important because without them we will have some difficulty understanding the context of his works. Here is what Eddy has to say about his works:
“This body of work entirely represents an effort to read and interpret major global discourses or theories through the lens of the small day-to-day realities of modern Javanese society. These are grand narratives that are considered by many as important theories, gigantic theories, even theories that fuel and change world civilizations in all aspects—economics, social issues and culture, biology, psychology, history, humanities, logic, sociology, and even that of the human psyche. Every culture or ethnic community possesses their own unique behavioral codes and viewpoints that they use to address life’s myriad problems. The Javanese society is the same. A similar argument can be made about how we view all of those grand discourses.”[iii]
These grand narratives are ideas about myriad things seen from diverse angles—philosophy, culture, social and political, economics, and other branches of knowledge—that can help define the human dimension. These ideas have been accepted as grand narratives because people believe that these ideas can influence and even cause changes in our geopolitical and social landscapes, especially in the twentieth century. However, one of the main issues with grand narratives lies in its attempt to construct and legitimize its presence with often-coercive power—either political or economic, or even using armed forces.
Postmodernist thought attempts to dismantle the various grand narratives that accompany/define modernism. These days, multicultural principles and pluralism are considered as fair principles to be applied to interactions in our global society. Yet, it does not automatically mean that social justice, or economic or cultural equality prevail equally everywhere. Physical colonialism has given way to economic and cultural colonialism, in other words, to different forms of colonialism or subjugation that are even more difficult to overthrow. Eddy understands this matter. He said that he is not trying to do away with grand narratives. It is more important for him to try to represent the reality of small narratives that occur in or around his life, echoing Lyotard and his statement about the decline of grand narratives.
“This is not to suggest that there are no longer any credible narratives at all. By metanarrative or grand narrative, I mean precisely narrations with a legitimating function. Their decline does not stop countless other stories (minor and not so minor) from continuing to weave the fabric of everyday life.”[iv]
Grand narratives meets small narratives in Eddy Susanto’s works at the “10 + 3 Project” exhibition. One of them is Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (Pasar Tradisional). This work juxtaposes commonly understood capitalistic paradigms with its talk of huge profits, intensive capital, and control of distribution channels, against traditional markets. In small towns and villages across Java, small sellers with their modest profits and limited goods do not fit with this image of capitalistic economy. It is not Eddy’s intention to contend with Adam Smith’s premise on capitalistic economy. He is merely referring to the fact that in many corners of the world there are innumerable small merchants working with very limited capital. In Indonesia, despite the proliferation of capital-intensive supermarkets and minimarkets, traditional markets thrive. Traditional markets are usually rudimentary in appearance, occupying small rough-hewn stalls standing along the side of roads. Unlike supermarkets, traditional markets offer more than just a place where daily goods are lined up neatly on racks. It is a place for friendly social interactions—either haggling or merely shooting the breeze. Prices can also be cheaper than in supermarkets with their heavy investments and facilities. Thus, traditional markets continue to thrive, even in major cities in Indonesia, despite their grimy and muggy atmosphere.
While enjoying Eddy Susanto’s highly artistic works, audiences and exhibition visitors may also find themselves drawn to guess, imagine, or interpret the small narratives that Eddy offers through his works, and see how they relate in contradiction to the grand narratives being discussed.
Bandung, 18 June 2018
Asmudjo Jono Irianto
[i] Nelly Richard, “Postmodernism and Periphery” dalam Postmodernism a Reader, ed. Thomas Dochertty, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, pg. 467.
[ii] Aimee Selby, “Foreword” dalam Art and text, ed. Aimee Selby, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2009, hlm. 7