DADANG CHRISTANTO, Head with Gold in Dialogue #1, 2007, acrylic on Belgian linen, 101 × 84 cm. Courtesy Jan Manton Art, Brisbane.

Work of Body

Dadang Christanto

Jan Manton Gallery

The physical and psychological effect of inflicted violence is a recurring theme in Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto’s varied paintings, installations and performances. Relocating to Australia in 1999 and currently living and working in Brisbane, Christanto uses art as a provocative vehicle through which he provides insight into Indonesia’s troubled past. Intriguingly, for this exhibition at Brisbane’s Jan Manton Gallery, Christanto expands his scope to address nature’s unforgiving wrath in addition to human cruelty.

Consuming almost an entire wall, the exhibition centerpiece is Such a Beautiful Morning, The Sun Rose and its Light Did Stab in the Back (2005), a monumental seven-meter long painting commemorating the thousands who died as a result of the tsunami on December 26, 2004. Against raw beige-colored Belgian linen, Christanto uses coffee—which takes on an oxidized, dried blood hue—to paint outlines of numerous contorted figures bent and huddled like the debris left by a receding tide.

The power and frenzy of the calligraphic gesture in the remaining 12 works on display, created from 2001 to 2007, are like private incantations. Rendered in shades of black, brown, red and gold, the sketched outlines of disembodied human heads repeat in various scales and patterns throughout, as if the artist feared his hand might not keep pace with his memories.

Boot Head (2001) shows an almost comical military boot against a white background, and Palm Head (2001) fills an oversize sheet of paper with a solitary palm tree, arcing fronds extending beyond the borders of the page. Both images drip with bright red, and closer inspection reveals that they are composed of tiny skull-like heads bleeding from their foreheads. Considered in the context of the 30-year-long authoritarian Suharto regime—a time of great political and ethnic persecution, particularly regarding Indonesia’s minority Chinese population to which Christanto belongs—the boot becomes a terrifying symbol of aggression and violence, while the palm tree suggests a silent and impassive bystander, as well as the embodiment of cyclical destruction and regrowth.

The visceral quality of Christanto’s choice of media and imagery charges these works. Christanto refers to them as a universal plea for justice for those who suffer from systemic violence and socio-political abuse. And, indeed, the inherent humanism of the artist’s vision invokes the shared experiences among all races, despite differences in political, social or cultural beliefs.