Hardiman Radjab’s Suitcases at ArtStage

Hardiman Radjab’s Quirky Suitcases


There were plenty of appropriations going on at Art Stage 2012. Contemporary Chinese artists freely appropriated Ai Wei Wei and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. At the other hemisphere, western painters appropriated ‘The Scream’, Van Gogh’s agonising self portraits and even Absolut Vodka bottles. Amidst the sea of kitsch and appropriated paintings, the sculptures and installations stood out, not only for their three-dimensionality, but also for their originality and unconventional appeal. Two of them were Hardiman Radjab’s ‘Made in Indonesia’ and his accompanying work ‘6.3 on the Richter Scale’.

I was drawn to these works when I heard a persistent, rhythmic sound of chugging trains, intermingling with rumbling tremors and the hypnotic cling-clangs of Javanese gamelans. I followed the source of the sound and found myself face to face with Edwin’s Gallery. Edwin’s Gallery was like a carnival within the formalistic setting of Art Stage. Its gallery theme of ‘Mechan(aesthet)ics’ paid tribute to its whimsical collection of kinetic art- art that moves. I was soon interrupted by a thunderous, shaking sound. I turned around to see a quirky display of two suitcases- one sitting atop an apple box, with its lid opened and smoke swirling out of it and the other, standing upright and shaking as if something sinister was trying to break out of the luggage.

I was fascinated.

I took a closer look at the steam (or rather flood)-in-the-suitcase concept. That was Hardiman’s ‘Made in Indonesia’. The steam was swirling around the miniature houses which were almost submerged by the blackened water, saved for its rooftops and attic windows. The houses looked like Lego but the waters were surreal. They sprouted in the middle before dispersing into a beautiful swirl of steam and gas as they manoeuvred around the submerged houses and miniature burnt trees within the suitcase. The steam, looking like incense and candy floss, left behind a wispy trail of smoke before the whole hydraulic cycle began again.

Who says contemporary art cannot be beautiful?

However, the beauty in Hardiman’s work is not skin deep. It took me some research to realise that the steam and water were actually portraying a mudflow. The incident was specific- the 2006 Lusi (Lapindo) mudflow disaster that has been spewing 10,000 cubic metres of mud per day in Sidoarjo, East Java. The cause of the mud volcano has been debated but fingers have been pointed at the drilling company ‘PT Lapindo Brantas’ which was said to have exacerbated the fracture in the earth during a gas well drilling activity and triggered the mud volcano.

Suddenly, the work took on a more sinister tone with deeper meanings. However, it can be quite hard to ‘see’ the complete context of the work or even sense the ominous quality associated with it as the backdrop of the opened luggage was a beautiful skyline at dusk. The skyline was very Turner-like with its spread of blues, violets and yellow to suggest the glimmer of ray of the setting sun. It is a beautiful scene to grab the attention of art-lovers and buyers who have a taste for vibrant colours. However, on the surface, there seems to be a mismatch in intention between the picturesque backdrop and the scene of disaster in the foreground. Is the romantic skyline an idea input by the gallerist to enable the work to sell? Or is there something more to it? Although the selling was highly plausible, the picturesque skyline also highlighted the stark contrast between the pristine and untouchable state of nature and the brackish waters of the mudflow disaster in the foreground. But what confuses me was the lack of mud or even the simulation of mud to accurately portray a mudflow. This is probably intentional. The inclusion of brown, wet, slimy mud would have made the work lose its aesthetic appeal or worse, jam the gears and mechanics operating it.

It is a tightrope trying to express both aesthetics and concept in a work. If a work is too ‘pretty’, it is dismissed as too superficial and ordinary. However, if a work is too conceptual, it may neglect the art-going audience, and before the work’s deeper meanings could even be appreciated, it is already berated for not being art. By expressing the social and geographical consequences of a mudflow through his finely crafted suitcases, Hardiman’s effort in balancing and conveying both aesthetic and concept behind his work is laudable.

Speaking of concept, the idea of using suitcases to house the main subject matter was charming and unconventional. Hardiman’s suitcases were much more than what a canvas was to a painter. They not only act as a basal support but also contained a vast array of metaphors. Hardiman’s suitcases were likened to the suitcase of a travelling storyteller. A theatre director and set designer by training, Hardiman had inbuilt his storytelling and set design capacity to his suitcases. ‘Made in Indonesia’ thus tells the story of man experiencing the full brunt of nature’s wrath as a result of his irresponsibility towards his natural environment. As I watched the swirling brackish water and the steam engulfing the houses, I could literally feel the fear and danger that the villagers experienced. There was something beautiful amidst this tragedy and yet fascinating about containing a work of art in a suitcase. When you flipped it open, it revealed another world, a world where mudflows and earthquakes were frequent and plenty.

Hardiman Radjab, 6.3 on Richter Scale, 2010

The work would not be complete without its accompanying suitcase- ‘6.3 on the Richter Scale’. ‘6.3 on the Richter Scale’ stood beside ‘Made in Indonesia’ like a forlorn travelling partner. However, it was determined not to be forgotten. Painted a bright shade of green, its simplicity also heightened its sound and kinetic quality. The thunderous sound that rumbles at intervals and the vigorous shaking of the suitcase made it looked like a hyper-real simulation of an earthquake. By proxy of placement, it suggested that the Lusi mudflow was also attributed to a 6.3 Richter scale earthquake.

I caught a few irritated glances thrown in this direction, as the work shook and trembled, jolting the silence of the pristine gallery space. This is Art of the 21st century. Gears, mechanics and found objects had overtaken paint and canvas as the sole medium of visual expression. They spewed liquid, quaked and came in various shapes and sizes. Most importantly, they bring in the element of fun. I could gaze at the swirling gaseous storm for hours without feeling bored, and had the surreal experience of a suitcase trembling beside me- an experience that was even more hyper real and engaging than Discovery channel.

As the green luggage continued to tremble and the opened lid continued to spew gaseous steam, I half expected to hear the familiar chime “If you see any suspicious-looking person or article, please inform our staff or press the emergency communication button…”

Copyright © 2012 Liau Shu Juan.


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