Arts / Christanto paints pain and beauty

Dadang Christanto’s “Dungsang, 2017” showing at the Gorman Arts Centre.

WHILE artist Dadang Christanto’s most famous works demonstrated subversive power, he now says he is trying to be more subtle and the large-format paintings of his new Canberra exhibition are almost dreamlike, conjuring up the endangered cultures to our north.

In titling the exhibition “Lost”, Christanto has gone back to reflect on the ancient “pawukon” calendar, full of significance and mystery to the Javanese.

In this exhibition, conceived in conversation with artisan friends in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, he focuses on issues of heritage and collective memories as they are seen to sink beneath modern belief systems or, as he puts it, are “sunk into the depths of the ocean”.

To some viewers, the paintings will seem simply beautiful, evoking the age-old aristocratic figures from the Javanese “wayang kulit” puppet theatre; to others, the pleasure will come from the exquisite detail of suppressed nature seen in the deities, fish, head, animals and underwater plants. It is likely that his exhibition will arouse a sense of pain and beauty all at once.

Christanto has been enjoying a few short days in Canberra, staying in the artists’ flat in Gorman Arts Centre, in what’s been a sentimental journey south for the peripatetic Indonesian-Australian painter, performer, sculptor and installation artist who became famous by transforming suffering into provocative art.

Born in central Java, he trained at the celebrated Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta, where he found himself in the midst of a vibrant political art scene not always appreciated by the Suharto regime.

In 1999 he moved to Australia with his family as part of the diaspora that followed the fall of Suharto.

His extraordinary installation, “Heads from the North”, in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery marks the massacre of countless Indonesians, including his own father, during 1965, the so-called “Year of Living Dangerously”.

“Madangkungan, 2015”, a work from Dadang Christanto’s new Canberra exhibition.

Christanto has enjoyed a long association with the ANU, where he took part in two human rights-related exhibitions and, as artist in residence, conducted outdoor art performance pieces. In 2010 he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition “Dadang Christanto: wounds in our heart,” at the Drill Hall Gallery, co-curated by Canberra academic Caroline Turner and the then Drill Hall director, Nancy Sever.

He has lectured at the University of the NT in Darwin and at the College of Fine Arts at UNSW and exhibited in Tokyo, New York, Havana, Bangkok, Venice, Sao Paulo, Osaka, Jakarta, Gwangju, Korea and cities in Australia and NZ.

He has now bought an old school in the Lismore district, from which he works as an independent artist.

Christanto is not only famous in Canberra. His mighty sculptural work “They give evidence,” in which 16 male and female represented displaced victims, mutely carrying the bodies of innocent men, women and children who have been killed, was a central feature in the opening of the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Asian galleries in 2003 and has been reprised twice.

Dadang Christanto, “Lost”, Nancy Sever Gallery, B-Block, Gorman Arts Centre, until March 4.

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