Heri Dono's multi-faceted practice is loaded with symbols and imagery that weave together traditional Indonesian wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), satire, and contemporary cartoons and art. Employing humour and parody, Dono approaches the complex and entangled issues of colonisation, globalisation, military rules, and the human exploitation of nature.Read More
Growing up in Indonesia under Suharto's regime, Heri Dono adopted humour as a strategy to subvert power structures. As he told Ocula Magazine in 2015, artists, for him, can act like the clown or the servant in traditional theatre: easily overlooked characters who 'can say anything because they are considered stupid.'
Influential to Heri Dono's art practice has been wayang kulit, which combines visual art, music, and storytelling to disperse Javanese myths and Indonesian history. The artist considers the puppet theatre as a space for social interaction and education, and often incorporates its elements into his work. For example, Semar—a clown in Javanese mythology and a popular character of wayang—is a frequent protagonist in Dono's paintings and batik fabric works.
Dono's knowledge of traditional theatre is the result of his one-year training with a master puppeteer in 1987, after he dropped out of the Indonesian Art Institute. The artist said that his work was 'rejected' in art school because he was working outside the then-accepted medium of painting.
Angels are among the recurring protagonists of Heri Dono's artworks, used to symbolise the spirit. In the installation Flying Angels (1996), for example, angels made of fibreglass, fabric, and bamboo are suspended from the ceiling; equipped with electronic devices, they flutter their wings when switched on. Angels similarly take flight in the 2014 paintings The Flying Angels I and II, in which they appear with jet-black bodies and the heads of young women.
In The Flying Angels I and II, an illustration of an open window showing the blue sky is visible on each angel's chest, conveying hope in contrast to the smog-covered sky in the background. In 2016, Heri Dono's works featuring angels were brought together in his solo show Angel's Exodus at Tang Contemporary Art, Bangkok.
Heri Dono has addressed environmental deterioration in his work, often identifying authorities as key players in exacerbating the situation. In Blooming in Arms (1996), presented at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, hybrid man-tree figures carry guns in reference to the Indonesian government's policy of the era that encouraged civilians to plant trees while neglecting to regulate the corporations that deforested the jungles of Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Nature itself is at war with humans in Heri Dono's painting Weapon's Creature Shoot the Mother Earth (2016), in which an alien-like manifestation of nature is pitted against a machine. Representing Indonesia at the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the artist examined the intersections between globalisation and legacy of colonisation in his solo exhibition Voyage-Trokomod.
For Trokomod—the centrepiece of Voyage-Trokomod—Heri Dono merged the forms of the Trojan Horse with the Indonesian Komodo dragon to create a hybrid 3.5-metres-tall 'vehicle' that visitors could walk inside. Other works on view included cannon-shaped telescopes, which turned the observer's gaze onto culturally significant artefacts of the Western world, and suspended Perahu Arwah (Spirit Boats) with angel-like wings.
Land of Freedom (2017)—Heri Dono's first solo gallery exhibition in Hong Kong at Tang Contemporary Art—commented on contemporary politics, namely Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency. The American president appears as a superhero in Super Trump—Land (2017); however, upon closer inspection, Dono's sarcasm becomes evident in the replacement of the 'S' symbol with a cartoon bird and the use of colour black, which denotes anger in wayang.
Land of Freedom, Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong (2017); The Secret Code of Heri Dono, Studio Kalahan, Yogyakarta (2017); Zaman Edan (The Age of Craziness), STPI, Singapore (2016); Heri Dono, Färgfabriken, Stockholm (2015); The Making of Trokomod, The Private Museum, Singapore (2015); Madman Butterfly, Rossi & Rossi, London (2011).
Allegories & Identities, STPI, Singapore (2017); Linkage: 20th Anniversary of Oei Hong Djien Museum, OHD Museum, Magelang, Indonesia (2017); Under the Influence, Asia Art Archive, Art Basel in Hong Kong (2017); Manifesto V: Arus, National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta (2016); Universal Influence, Jogja National Museum, Yogyakarta (2016); Open Sea, Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon, France (2015); Art Stage Singapore (2013).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021
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