Installation view of HERI DONO’s “Land of Freedom” at Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Heri Dono

Tang Contemporary
Indonesia Hong Kong

Indonesian artist Heri Dono is known for fusing his sociopolitical criticisms with the aesthetics of traditional Javanese theater, often with heavy doses of satire or humor. For the artist’s first solo show in Hong Kong, which was mounted at Tang Contemporary Art, Dono presented seven paintings and one kinetic-sound installation created between 2004 and 2017. In the exhibition “Land of Freedom,” characters of wayang kulit—Indonesian shadow puppet shows—act out dramas of war and peace and tap into social and political issues taking place now, including drastic changes in international relations.

HERI DONO, Brexit and Trumps – Storm, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 150 × 125 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have shown distrust toward the new American leader. Worse still in Europe are the uncertainties surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union, with Theresa May triggering Article 50 in March. In Brexit and Trumps – Storm (2017), two army green warplanes, drawn in a toyish style, zip through the gray sky among grayer clouds. Above each cockpit is a sign—one reads “Brexit” and the other says “Trump’s.” On the ground, international reactions to Trump’s ascendance and Brexit are interpreted as a fire-breathing dragon or large beast with mechanical parts—a shamrock wheel well and auburn wheel, plus a tail light—melded with its body. The dragon is a symbol for a world where its people, as Dono said, can no longer direct their lives. Dono often depicts animal-machine hybrids alongside uniformed military figures in his paintings. Here, two such figures ride within the beast, their snouts exaggerated, red lips parted and tongues poking forth. Such a scene resembles a science fiction tragicomedy, which the artist calls Heridonogy.

A gigantic, grotesque dragon is featured in another painting, also from the artist’s new series of canvases. In Trump vs the Dragon (2017), Dono shows his interpretation of Trump’s relationship with China. The US president has missiles for legs and fires a pistol at the emerald green, three-eyed dragon, which is wearing a traditional Chinese brocade hat on its head. It breathes fire, as does a second head that sprouts above Trump’s and wears Uncle Sam’s iconic top hat. A money bag hangs on the right side of Trump’s body, resonating with his bashing of China on matters of trade. The battle suggests growing animosity between America and China’s political leadership.

HERI DONO, Trump vs the Dragon, 2017, acrylic on canvas,150 × 150 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Trump has branded himself as the savior of America’s economy, even accusing China of currency manipulation. In Super Trump – Land (2017), the president is seen in a Superman outfit with the “S” symbol replaced by the head of Woody Woodpecker, the wacky red-headed cartoon bird. On the one hand, Trump—under the artist’s satirical treatment—sits in a role where he must save the world over and over again. On the other, “Super Trump” occupies the entire canvas and wears a black costume to emphasize Dono’s satire of the American president: In wayang, black is the color of anger, and demons are marked by their large size to portray their aggressive power. In each hand, Super Trump clutches smaller figures—the one in his left hand even looks like it could be Hillary Rodham Clinton, his main opponent during the 2016 American presidential election—victims whom the US president discriminates against or have knocked down.

Viewers found no utopia in “The Land of Freedom.” The promise of the American dream was nowhere in sight. Freedom, it seemed, was absent too, as incompetent and selfish leaders shape policies that will have devastating effects for years to come. Trump may see himself as a superhero, dragon-slayer or war machine, but to the rest of us, he is only a caricature of the lowliest sort.

HERI DONO, Super Trump – Land, 2017, acrylic on canvas,150 × 125 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Heri Dono’s “Land of Freedom” is on view at Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong, until August 12, 2017.

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