ANGKI PURBANDONO, After Party, 2013, Scanographic print, 80 × 150 × 10 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Mizuma Gallery, Singapore.

The Swimmers

Angki Purbandono & Paps

Singapore Indonesia
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The gorgeous image of a partially devoured goldfish sets the tone for “The Swimmers,” a solo exhibit by Angki Purbandono at Mizuma Gallery’s Singapore location. The Indonesian artist presented some two dozen trenchant scan-art works that he had created together with fellow inmates during his ten-month stint in a Yogyakarta prison from December 2012. Purbandono pursues an aesthetic derived from absurdity and regret: the astonished fragility of After Party (all works 2013), which shows the lurid remains of a pet fish, reflects the artist’s own appalled bewilderment and wry acceptance of his incarceration.

A trained photographer, Purbandono is best known for his “scanography.” Under the auspices of the Prison Art Programs (PAPs), initiated by the artist and other inmates, Purbandono was granted special use of prison facilities and equipment during his detention. At Mizuma, the large-scale transparencies produced during this “residency” were displayed in neon lightboxes and framed in simple sheet metal. Resembling massive shadow boxes, each illuminated image chronicles some oblique facet of a life deferred by imprisonment, where even rubbish takes on a peculiar appeal. 

Purbandono is also well known for a blithe, neo-pop sensibility: he typically configures quirky collages and surreal dioramas that involve found objects, plastic toy figurines or food, in which each element is constrained or redeemed by the other. His tableaux—a shark swimming through skeins of noodles, for instance—are often jaunty, affirmative and laced with a suave irony. 

This element of irony was recast in “The Swimmers.” Purbandono notes that his relationships with fellow inmates were colored by “submission, depression and despair,” yet his scanographic imagery counters these notions with an irresistible blend of ingenuousness and benevolent satire. Each image was accompanied by a caption with a diverting narrative written by the artist that imparts not only deeper context, but a knowing self-mockery. A steady prison diet of tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) inspired Going Home!, a fantastical tower of the toxic-yellow cakes balanced atop a tiny purple toy car. Another work, Sunflower Snack, references the prison’s cheapest snack, which, in modest evocation of Ai Weiwei’s sprawling installation, consists of a tidy troop of sunflower seeds—“a snack that,” according to the artist’s caption, “contains 0% problem.” 

As in his earlier works, Purbandono bases his allusive archives on found objects; though for “The Swimmers,” he focused not on glib anime figurines and popular culture, but on the wretched vernacular that defines imprisonment. There were orgies of multihued rubber bands, a clutch of mangled ping-pong balls and vibrant torn scraps from snack packets. The Spoon of Peace is a rainbow array of faded plastic spoons, whose short awkward handles were cleverly extended using old paintbrushes. Condom & Earth is a cheerful procession of garish condoms filled with dirt; each one sprouts a healthy green seedling, and we are informed by Purbandono’s droll comment that the 300 men in the penitentiary “will not give up” until they are reunited with their women. The work Absolut Dry is a pastiche of more than a dozen vodka-bottle shapes molded from leftover dried rice procured from the prison’s kitchen: each resembles a submerged, coral-encrusted treasure. 

Purbandono improvised by using not only discards but also the inmates’ personal possessions, including love letters, handmade dolls and origami cranes, which he lays out and scans in formations that articulate resignation, memories or hope. The neon-box installation Sandals United is a transmuted descendent of his 2010 work TV Lover, which involves a wall of gratuitous television images photographed over the span of a year. Sandals amasses 40 images of nearly identical rubber flip-flops. Each pair of this standard prison footwear is distinguished by some personal scrawl or design. These badges of confinement, restyled as personal identity, overpowered Mizuma’s gallery wall in a wash of shadowy blues and greens.

Purbandono has remarked in the past that he pursues visual aesthetics first, and then allows the concept to catch up. During his lengthy immersion in an uneasy identity, the disquieting aesthetic constraints of prison formed that creative pursuit. Despite this, Purbandono recognizes a humble integrity in those constraints, and so tempers the imagery of “The Swimmers” with insight, and some small measure of grace.