Nineteen Sixty-Five: Dadang Christanto

QUT Art Museum, Brisbane

The imagery on the postcard promoting the opening is both stark and compelling. It shows the year ‘1965’ painted in blood red, the blood dripping and weeping down the wall towards the kneeling figure of Dadang Christanto. His body is averted, smeared in white clay between two brown baskets, emptied of flowers. The dark blue wall is the colour of twilight, against which his white earthly body turns towards the light. The image is from Christanto’s 2015 re-performance of For Those Who Have Been Killed (1993). The year 1965 resonates through much of Christanto’s work and refers to the Suharto backed anti-communist purge which, from 1965 to 1966, lead to the deaths of one and a half million Indonesians. At the age of eight, Christanto saw his own father dragged from his home by soldiers—he never saw or heard from this father again, there has never been an official explanation or an apology. Sadly, his story is not an exception, there were reports of the rivers in Indonesia becoming clogged with tortured, decapitated and castrated bodies. 

The exhibition screened original footage from Christanto’s For Those Who Have Been Killed (1993) a performance from ‘The First Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT1). This performance began in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, where, surrounded by shoppers, Christanto covered himself in white clay, to transform his being. As a bewildered outsider, Christanto stared dumbfounded at ATM machines and glass shopfront windows. He then crossed the Victoria Bridge to the Queensland Art Gallery where he danced amongst his well known artwork, For those: Who Are Poor, Who Are Suffer(ing), Who Are Oppressed, Who Are Voiceless, Who Are Powerless, Who Are Burdened, Who Are Victims Of Violence, Who Are Victims Of A Dupe, Who Are Victims Of Injustice (1993). He danced using primal shamanic gestures, spinning the artworks tree-like cadavers and gasping his breath in sudden cries, as though pierced by frightful memories.

For the opening night of Nineteen Sixty-Five: Dadang Christanto, Christanto re-performed In Red (1979). Wearing a white shirt, seated in front of a white pearl bowl, on a white tablecloth, Christanto splattered and sloshed red beetroot over his face and brushed his teeth with the blood-like fluid. The teeth brushing alludes to cultural cleansing, but it also suggests the way in which inhumane violence becomes everyday—like brushing your teeth.

In 1999, Christanto commenced the ‘Count Project’, which seeks to use repetition en masse to bring attention to the enormity and scale of human brutality. Christanto’s Red Rain (Hujan Merah) (2003) uses 1,965 small portraits lined up, side by side, on the ceiling. A red thread of blood, dangles down from the forehead of each portrait. This string of ‘blood’ connects the bodies to the ground, precluding their spiritual closure and release. For Christanto, this repetition of horror is played out, over and over. His own traumatic experiences have never received closure and continue to haunt him. The small portraits also resemble official Indonesian identity cards, which demarcate those who are of Chinese descent. The installation, Slaughter Tunnel (2015) is a cramped and claustrophobic tunnel, roughly made out of cardboard. Lining the walls and low ceiling are 1,965 anonymous faces, each with a streak of red lace emerging from the forehead. This drab, dim and musty corridor, might resemble the prison corridor which, for many, lead to a horrifying end. The repetition of faces alludes to an inhuman brutality, metered out by an insensate machinery of death.

The installation, Cart From The North (2014) featured a life-sized aluminium horse pulling a two wheeled wooden cart. Inside the cart were 65 aluminium heads, each head having a gasping, distraught expression. Christanto recalls as a child, horrifying stories of such carts transporting the bodies of those executed to mass graves and rivers. An instructional video demonstrates how visitors can fold a piece of Chinese joss paper, which can be left as a prayer offering. The exhibition also featured several larger aluminium heads, each with similarly distraught faces, decoratively painted with Javanese horoscopes, which seek to reclaim the culture and customs that were so brutally stamped out. 

The recent painting, Indonesian Genocide (2015) brutally depicts the extreme violence handed out to the Indonesian women’s movement in 1965. An Indonesian soldier with ‘butcher’ (Jagal) inscribed on his helmet and a bloodied red hand, stands amidst strewn body parts, many of which are bleeding from the genitals. 

Christanto’s oeuvre is imbued with a characteristic silence, the multitude of faces simply stare back in anguish, voiceless and wordless. This silence equates with the political silence, as far as history and justice are concerned, that still envelopes these issues. Christanto’s work is unbounded, as it always manages to transcend its historical and political underpinnings to connect and engage with a wider contemplation of human suffering and a universal struggle of confronting and acknowledging past tragedies.

Dadang Christanto, Indonesian Genocide, 2015. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Dadang Christanto, Slaughter Tunnel, 2015. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Dadang Christanto, In Red, 1979/2015. Video still of Nineteen Sixty-Five: Dadang Christanto opening performance. Video Jennifer Embelton. 

Dadang Christanto, Red Rain (Hujan Merah), 2003. Photograph Carl Warner.