b. 1968, Indonesia

Agung Kurniawan Biography

Agung Kurniawan has developed his artistic work within the field of concrete  socio-cultural activism. He believes that the role of an artist is more than simply producing work, and that there are larger social responsibilities to be met. Both as a studio artist and an art activist, he takes up clear positions and his approach often leads him either down to street level or to intervenin  in bureau- cratic structures.

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Kurniawan’s work is reputed to be fairly “coarse” due to themes of violence, politics and taboo subjects. The artist started out with book illustrations,  drawings  and comics, which offered a harsh, often satirical  critique of Indonesian society at that time. With his drawing Happy Victim (1996), depicting people hanging  upside down while laughing  cheerfully, he won a 1996 Philip Morris Art Award and gained international recognition. At that time he stated in an interview: “My main theme is violence. I want to point out how society can live in the centre of violence and repression that is so suppressive they are not even aware of it.”

Kurniawan’s drawing Holy Family (1997) was included in the controversial Slot in the Box exhibition at Cemeti Art House that was heavily imbued with political subtexts. The drawing  depicted a family of clowns resembling the family of President Suharto, who was still in power at the time. This drew such attention from authorities that the exhibition was almost shut down.

Kurniawan’s work in the 1990s is an example of the practices of the generation that signified the zeitgeist of the time: one that had grown up with the New Order and formed a movement for change, culminating in the reformation of 1998. Kurniawan continued to work with and critique this issue after Reformasi, with his installation Souvenirs from the Third World (1998). The work, which was recently presented in the exhibition  Global Art 1989– Now at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, curated by Hans Belting, reflects Kurniawan’s  unease with the phenomenon of Indonesia’s expulsion from the forum of world politics. He felt the political  events in Indonesia were a kind of exotic artefact, which was easily pawned off to other people.

After Reformasi, Kurniawan increasingly focused on taboo subjects such as sexual politics and personal guilt, which he explored through Christian analogies, as in the work Lapendos (2011) (La- pendos is an abbreviation of “Laki-Laki Penuh Dosa”/ A Man Full Of Sins). In this installation the artist presented a human figure based on his own body-cast, accompanied by monstrous and grotesque figures. This work was meant as an auto-critique of the trend of artists taking  on as well as commodifying political issues after 1998.

Around 2006, Kurniawan started his trellis series (e.g. Pope and Mehmet, 2011, Soekarno, Art and Artist, 2012, and Family Photo 1974, 2012), exploring issues of memory, both collective and personal. The series was inspired by an old family  photo album from 1974, consisting of a photo diary of the artist’s mother during the last days of her dying father. The photo diary works like sequences of comic book panels that Kurniawan tried to recreate in a series of trellises. Hung on the walls the trellises and the shadows they cast represent the blurred memory recorded in the photo album. The interweaving of lines, shadows and memory was further developed in works of social commentary such as Jakarta 1998 (2012), which depicted historical events and figures photographed in the media.

Recently, Kurniawan has been working on a series of “drawing machines.” Artist is Beautiful Machine (2011–2012), for example, is meant to engineer the various drawing styles of several Indonesian artists he regards as having their own particular characteristics. The drawing machines are embedded with ironic commentaries characterizing today’s artists as “drawing machines,” producing for the demands of the market.

Finally, the exploration of drawing, both conceptual  and practical, becomes Agung Kurniawan’s main artistic premise and the basis of his creative processes. As he says, “The strongest element of drawing  is its documentary nature. In spite of this, it is unlike photography which records what is there; drawing is a kind of mental documentation. The most honest archives are those which note events before they occur. The process of making already tells a story about how drawings are given meaning.”

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