Titik Utama – Ultimate Point:
Brahma Tirta Sari’s Path Finder Art
Walking into the cool Segaragunung gallery in Yogyakarta, Java … the light-filled Island Gallery on Bainbridge Island near Seattle … the monumental, many-chambered Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane … unusual paintings waft slowly, sinuously in the miniscule stirring of air from gallery doors opening and closing and bodies moving slowly by. Colour seeds sprout and spiral sensuously; fractal fronts push over and under, in a cosmic-cooler basket weave; flaming forms flicker across a two-dimensional firmament. Moist, molten reddish browns melt the arrow of my gaze and absorb, cradle it. Cool and warm deep blues and lavenders flow as currents of air and water, finding echoes inside and outside of me. Parallel lines move sinuously, zigzagging and spiraling together, and dots, undyed white against indigo, soga brown or red, light up the cloth like fireflies or grains of rice fallen into the night-sky as if desiring to create another Milky Way.
In a post-postmodern world, crisscrossed by travelers, technologies and ideas in greater numbers, frequencies and types than ever before—in a world that challenges our minds to embrace trans-cultural, pluralist perspectives to a staggering degree—how does one write about works of art? And what, in the high-frenzy of mega-consumer societies driving the visual culture of movie-production, television and advertisements / commercials, is the point of art?
These are not canvases; these are fields of silk. And the colours are dyes that have become integral with the cloth exposed around lines and fields of wax applied hot. These are batik paintings which, like water, can cover or drape any plane or form: like the masterworks of conventional European-style art history, they can stay on the wall—flat and insulated from direct, sensory, sensuous engagement. But, like Einstein’s time-space continuum, which is curved, they are not imprisoned in a static, straight-line, flat-plane form. Indeed, like the textiles, which cement kinship bonds among indigenous peoples—which could also be active healing and protective devices—they can drape bodies, dead or alive, singly or in groups. Like the maps of explorers, they can be rolled or folded, eminently portable, to be unfurled when consultation is once again required. These hybrid pieces are paintings, second skins, silken maps and models of the universe. Their long lengths hanging from ceiling or wall are paths and bridges, ladders leading places, beckoning us to follow, hinting at connections beyond learned limitations. The art historian within pushes the experiencer aside, to insist: “Who? What? Wherefore?”
The cross-cultural and global inadequacies of the European-born and still predominantly Western-centric discipline of art history underscore the urgency of these questions. There are so many hidden, forgotten or repressed art histories that have not yet been incorporated into art historical frameworks and curricula. Fortunately, scattered scholars and storytellers do exist, who are telling less-known, beyond-Euro-centric stories. More often the storytellers and witnesses of such histories are the artists, who precede, inspire, teach and ultimately collaborate with the scholars to shift dominant paradigms of thought and behaviour. 1
From where, then, does one approach the study of art by a white American-gone-Javanese who works collaboratively, merging her individual artist identity with that of a Javanese, traditionally-trained-artist gone-global?
It goes without saying that, in a pluralistic age, no single take or monolithic frame is adequate. Even the currently inter- and multi-disciplinary frameworks of art history may need to be stretched or even broken. Yet the old, standard art historical queries can at least start us on the journey towards the complexities of contemporary, transcultural understanding. Moreover, the pluralism of the age extends beyond the approaches and questions to the art historian her/himself: as the inquiry unfolds in the essay that follows, it becomes clear that there is no sole, individual author – this kind of writing is collective and collaborative work, which (more like a choir than a solo performance) includes the ideas and voices of many, across space and time – a notion which will resonate yet more meaningfully as the art of Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam (sometimes referenced as ISNIA) and the Brahma Tirta Sari collective is explored.
An Artist-Biographic Outline:
When a seed is planted, we do not always know how it will grow. When a bottle with a message is thrown into the ocean we do not know where wind and water will take it. But both seed and bottle are embraced by larger processes and somewhere, at a certain time, a destination and a result will emerge.
While the details in each person’s biography are unique (let alone a combined artist biography like that of ISNIA), some of the major stages of an artist’s journey often follow similar trajectories. The stages I construe here for the journey are specifically tailored to artists who are major innovators, who are ahead of their colleagues and public, forging into new territory, though in general terms they might describe most artists’ journeys.
Stage 1, Seeking Instruction:
Nia Fliam, born and raised in Colorado in the USA, moved to New York City to pursue art studies. Studying at the Pratt Institute, where she received her BFA in Textile Design in 1981, she became interested in African batik. When she heard of the rich traditions of batik in Java, she began to research that, which led her to Java. Arriving in Indonesia in 1983, she began her study of batik with various batik artists including BS Gunawan, Tulus Warsito and Jon Sujono. Finally she studied the long-standing repertoire of Javanese batik-motifs with Ibu Duto, an ‘abdi dalam’ (court-lady) from the Yogyakarta Keraton (Sultan’s palace), a teacher who lived within a traditional Javanese atmosphere and with whom Nia shared no common language.
When I met Nia through a mutual friend in Yogya in 1984, she was immersed in learning Indonesian and studying batik making with her various teachers. This was the beginning of Nia’s questioning, on more conscious levels, of notions of the individual artistic genius, authorship, and competitive pursuit of individual innovation and status. She continued her intensive study of traditional Javanese batik making, all the while painting her small-scale abstract works.
Agus Ismoyo, born and raised in Yogyakarta in a family with roots in Surakarta, grew up surrounded by a holistic practice of Javanese philosophy and science, which included research into the meaning of ancient ‘signs’ as found on archaeological monuments, batik cloth, wayang puppets, etc. Ismoyo, whose ancestors had been batik makers in Solo (Surakarta), was also beginning to paint in oils. His family-based training was deep as well as broad and knowledge was presented as a tool for developing the personality and the spirit, with no gap but rather a continuum observed between the two. Formal schooling was not the path that most significantly informed Ismoyo’s artistic pursuit, but rather the informal (eminent pre-modern style of) learning about art, philosophy, and symbolism. He pursued four years of more conventional study at the Industrial Academy in Yogyakarta, where he studied Industrial Management.
Stage 2, Studying with Specialized Master Teachers:
Nia and Ismoyo met in Yogya in 1985. Very soon, they began developing their partnership around art as an explorative, meaning-full expression rooted in philosophical inquiry and practice. At the time Ismoyo had no interest in locating his painting within the established contemporary modern painting world in Indonesia, instead seeing his art as more than purely aesthetic or socially engaged processes. Nia began her study of Javanese philosophy with Pak Subekti, Ismoyo’s father and a local guru, who later was known as Romo Djayakusuma.
Ismoyo and Nia’s study of traditional batik patterns led them deep into philosophically complex iconographies. A major preoccupation in ISNIA’s work from its beginning, is the visual meditation on the elements of which everything is made. Hindu-Javanese philosophy posits the elements both relationally as well as hierarchically, according to the structure of the three worlds, which is mirrored in the structure of the mountain, the temple, and the human body. A batik painting, which pays homage to the element of water from 1987 also shows the artists paying their respect to an honored teacher: the work, made in collaboration with another artist, is an homage to Hokusai’s huge spiraling, claw-like, foam-crested wave. 2 Water, Ismoyo explained, represents fecundity, and with its descent from heaven into the earth has the power to unify polarities.
One of the works produced by ISNIA in 1988 – the earliest works I was able to witness in the making – show the artists’ allegiance to honouring the symbolism and meanings in traditional motifs. But it also shows the beginning of their willingness to depart from the process of conscientiously copying traditional forms. The artists were developing their belief that the needs of each era cause unique formal syntheses and variations to emergence, which can address unchanging, perennial teachings in a more contemporary manner.
“Untitled” is a symphony of light and deep indigo blue, lilac and purple hues. 3 Flat areas with no detail contrast with areas that are densely treated with a number of different waxing techniques and repeat dyeing. A dark sky, punctuated by starry dots and pairs of jagged lines, which evoke lightning or electric energy, provides a sense of depth. The references to ether, air, and blue flames make this a densely conceived and executed homage to the highest members of the family of elements, representing spirit. Ismoyo interpreted the symbolism of the colour blue as representing balance, equilibrium; violet as the colour of compatibility, as between partners or lovers.
Another work from this early period is “Fire”, densely alive with movement in a different way. Here there is no sense of depth, or even depthless space, as in the last work. “Fire” is both a conceptual and more realistically observed portrait of burning flames -- the element of fire. Flickering, sparking, licking, darting flame-like shapes fill the work with hues of red, mauve, ochre, and yellow against darker areas of brown and indigo, all interlocking as negative-positive forms so that no ‘empty’ background space remains. Each part of the two-dimensional design is a complete and equal statement in itself, an illustration of the microcosm in the macrocosm principle well known from Hindu art and philosophy as well as many indigenous art traditions.
The surface treatment of each flame is different: some are delineated with repeated concentric or dotted lines, other areas are dotted with large, medium, or small points; some are in contrasting colours, other in shades of the same colour. Some surfaces are flat, others show the marks of crackled wax. The work is a display of the variety of ways a surface can be textured with traditional batik methods with a few new, foreign ones interspersed. As for symbolism, Ismoyo explained that in its negative form, fire and the colour red represent youth, the passions, desire for wealth, and madness. But fire also represents the power to consume earthly matter and materialist concerns transforming it into ethereal, spiritual power.
Soon after beginning to share studies in batik and philosophy, Nia and Ismoyo began to work together on the same piece of batik cloth. 4 Little did they or anyone else know that they had entered onto a shared life-path which would keep Nia in Java, and orient Ismoyo to the world, both exploring a simultaneously local and transnational mode of living—and pioneering an idiom of contemporary art which would push the definitions of it against the dominant understanding in the increasingly internationalized and solidly Westernized / individualistic / consumer-oriented institutions of the contemporary art world, in Indonesia as well as globally.
On the issue of collaboration, ISNIA wrote in 2005:
When we established our studio in 1985, we began our collaborative process. Initially it was a kind of bathing in wax, splashing about on the same cloth. Since then we have been searching for both the source and the driving force behind our strong motivation for collaboration.
We have never had a set pattern for our collaboration; until now it is an ongoing and ever changing process. Sometimes it can entail a drawn-out aesthetic feud or indifference to an emerging idea regarding design or color that is carried through a series of works until one of us ‘gets’ the other’s intention. There are some pieces we work on together, or there are ways in which we join to make aesthetic decisions as the other’s work progresses. 5
Stage 3, Artists Launching on their own artistic feet:
The beginning of this stage, which I date to the early 1990s, overlaps with the end of stage 2, the study with Master Teachers. In fact, while they reached a certain level of understanding before they launched their art into the world, Nia and Ismoyo remain the first to say that their period of philosophical and spiritual study will never end as it is a life-long pursuit. Ismoyo and Nia named their studio “Brahma Tirta Sari” after the Hindu-Javanese idea, which posits creativity as the essence of all knowledge. Romo, Ismoyo’s father and guru to them both and increasing numbers of people, taught that in Javanese philosophy, human beings are ranked into five levels of spiritual attainment. Romo saw artists as occupying the second highest level, because their gift of seeing can take them beyond the world of appearances.
During this period they continued their practice, begun during stage 2, of transposing traditional patterns into new colours and compositional contexts. Each era in ISNIA’s work sees the continuation of certain ideas and symbols and the addition of new ones. The theme of the elements, especially, it seems, of fire, continued to preoccupy the artists, and still occurs in their recent work. “Api” (Fire) from 1994 contrasts with the work of six years earlier with its somber, elegant purplish brown to pale pink coloured flames arranged in a more ordered, stately blaze. An element of Javanese punning humour enters the fire theme in “Api Bunga Ngawur” (Fire Flower) from 1994. The use of cap stamps on top of hand-batiked layers becomes evident in their work by 1995: Nia and Ismoyo had just begun to commission their own caps from a cap-maker. “Sekar Jagad” (Flowers of the World, 1995) shows the combination of freer forms with traditional batik symbols. Gradually, over the next decade, the use of solid lines, which conveys a certain primal vigour, yielded to softer treatments of forms, that gives the work a more translucent, seen-through-water or atmospheric quality. Works of great beauty, such as “Sekar Jagad” (mentioned above), “Beras Wutah” (Scattering the Rice Seeds) and “Dhandang Gula” (Axe of Sugar, also the title of a sacred Javanese song) are inspired by organic, earthly things.