A democracy gives people the freedom to choose their leader, express their privilege for freedom of speech and most importantly, an honest society where one can be at peace with the government. However, that is not the case with post-Suharto Indonesia. As a former dictator-led government, Indonesia’s struggle for true democracy has never been articulated clearly. Censorship, corruption (whether it be of politicians or corporations) and capitalism from the Suharto era still manages to survive long after the former leader was ousted. While politics and art go mano a mano, no one dares to blur the boundaries like Eko Nugroho, whose film exhibit is displayed on the third floor at Manhattan’s Asia Society.
Eko Nugroho, God Bliss (In the Name of Semelah). Courtesy by Asiasociety.org/
Almost all the pieces of Eko Nugroho’s work are pure visuals with little to no text whether it be videos as seen in Video Spotlight: Eko Nugroho. The Yogyakarta-based animator/filmmaker is currently showing three videos: Bercerobong (Like a Chimney) (2002), Let Me Love Me (2004) and The Breeder (2003).
Set against a white background, flat, outlined cartoon-esque characters fill the screen like a comic strip. Nugroho has his own twist: he doesn’t let the outlines control the boundaries between surfaces. Instead, the background and character merge together on one flat surface.
Done in black and white with hints of color, Nugroho isn’t afraid to experiment with abstraction of the human figure. The figures are either personifications or concepts that represent an entity or an issue. For instance, in Bercerobong, a male figure in a suit has the head of a chimney opposite another figure in handcuffs whose head is replaced with a dollar sign dartboard. In that sense, it’s a commentary on the country’s obsession with corporate capitalism.
For those who are familiar with Indonesian history and politics, it is easy to understand the concepts behind them. But for those who aren’t familiar with the historical background of the country, Nugroho’s work may be easily passed off as comic book Surrealism.
As an accompaniment, the sound effects and music by Wedhar Riyadi packs a punch as auditory aid. Since the films don’t come with an audible dialogue and/or texts in Bahasa Indonesia, it helps the viewer (or listener) understand the concepts in each video.
Abstract visuals may not seem to translate well to the language of the layman, but the ability to grasp a visual style of Indonesian culture, politics and history can make a lasting impression.
Eko Nugroho,Two women stand opposite to each other in Let Me Love Me. Frame at 1' 31".
Eko Nugroho, Cash me outside: negotiating a deal in Bercerobong. Frame at 1' 27".
Eko Nugroho, One flew out from the mailbox in The Breeder. Frame at 1'44".
Eko Nugroho, Final credits in The Breeder. Frame at 1'54".