by Cynthia Webb, Brisbane, Australia

One of Indonesia’s most internationally renowned artists, Heri Dono, has been a welcome visitor to the Queensland Art Gallery since 1993, the year of the first Asia-Pacific Triennial Art Exhibition.(APT) Heri has participated in most of the prestigious events including the APT of 2002, which recently ended. He returned to Brisbane in January 2003, to take part in the "Summer Spectacular". This year the finale of the fourth APT was fifteen days of Asia-Pacific arts, cultures, myths and legends – presenting activities especially for children. The "Summer Spectacular" was visited by about 2,000 kids per day, during summer school holiday season.

Working with children is perfect for Heri, who is a "Peter Pan"style character. He has the capacity to see and enjoy the world around him, with wide-open eyes and heart, as children do. He has always welcomed the local children to his Yogyakarta studio-workshop and has often drawn inspiration from them. They, in turn, are fascinated by his medieval style magician’s workshop. It is full of recycled gadgetry, flying angels, fleets of strange wheeled vehicles, puppets, masks, groups of rather menacing stone torsos with impassive faces, and much more.

In Brisbane Heri has engaged with the children in three different activities: creating and playing "The Bangelan", (a collection of weird musical instruments made from recycled objects) staging a Wayang shadow play and a creative project decorating paper angels. For this latter activity there was a large tent in the garden where the children created angels and hung them up by the thousands.

As a child Heri was told stories about angels, which captured his attention. For Heri, angels now represent the freedom to dream and imagine. "Without imagination, life would be very dull. Angels are free to fly wherever they want", says Heri. They symbolise his wish for people to think freely, and fulfil their dreams.

The angel theme refers to his striking installation "Flying Angels" which greeted all visitors to the APT as they entered the main gallery. These were a number of winged dolls with swinging legs and male genitals. Embedded in their chests was a mechanism to move the wings. Wearing helmets, they bravely hung above the heads of visitors, delicate little faces inviting art-lovers to fly with them to the realm of dreams and to explore the world of contemporary South East Asian art.

When he was a student at a Catholic primary school, Heri was punished for drawing pictures in the margins of his workbook. When he was in high school he decided that he must look for a job from which he would never have to retire, and in which he would not have to wear a uniform. His personal dream was to become an artist, so that he would be free to explore the life around him and the world of his own imagination. So he became a kind of art-angel, flying around in his own amazing and creative realities and dreams. He has always enjoyed looking at comic books, which have also fed his vivid imagination and inspired his creations.

Heri is happy to be working in the field of visual arts, because it is an interactive medium, and the viewers can bring their own perception to the work they are seeing. In this way, deeper meanings sometimes reflect back to Heri – often something which is unseen, "behind life", and often social and political issues.

The fact that so many of Heri’s installations have been made up of groupings of figures or objects, which are all the same in appearance, seems to symbolise and affirm his oneness with his people. All three of his major installations in the APT4 are groupings of the same object. The little people, ("orang kecil") of Java are people whose way of life often sees them supporting each other in various forms of togetherness. Group activities and projects create bonds, and offer mutual assistance, improving the quality of life for the community. This can be seen at village level, and in kampungs within the cities, right through to the enormous group effort, which achieved massive political change in recent years. Heri also frequently works on his art creations in a collaborative way, receiving input from friends involved in electronics, crafts, mechanics and various other fields.

Heri Dono’s work reflects and comments on what he sees happening in the society around him. He believes it is the role of artists to inquire and reflect, to point out injustices, stupidity, paradoxes, and violence. In fact art has been one of the few vehicles for doing this in the past. Heri has managed to go under the radar of censorship using visual symbolism, while creating works in which he referred to controversial and even dangerous contemporary issues.

Heri is profoundly influenced by the Wayang Shadow puppet theatre and has studied it for several years with Sukasman, an innovative dalang in Yogyakarta. Of course the Wayang has always been a powerful educative and communicative tool in Indonesia.

One of the culminating events of the children’s festival was a Wayang performance, narrated and performed by the children as dalangs, accompanied by instruments from "The Bangelan" and some atmospheric piano playing. The children of the Gallery employees, participated in the re-telling, through the shadow puppet theatre, of a story based on the Japanese folktale of "Momotaro" (The Peach Boy). Heri chose to adapt a story from another culture to emphasize the fact that all people of the world have similar myths and legends and are, therefore, one family of humanity.

A brief glimpse of Heri’s shadow in profile behind the screen, with the young Australian puppeteers, wearing his hair characteristically knotted at the back, brought to mind the wayang character Petruk. Heri posses the quality of being able to merge into the mythological world which inspires his art, and here was a powerful visual reminder of that.

The Asia-Pacific Triennial is the first and only world event, to showcase the contemporary art of the Asia Pacific area and Australasia. It introduces Australians to the art of our neighbours and challenges us to expand our own boundaries, to appreciate and understand the artistic expressions of our region. With each event, attendance increases considerably. The Asia-PacificTriennial 2002, was attended by more than 220,000 art lovers, 65,000 more visitors than the previous APT event. In the last few weeks, a summer school holiday period, visitors averaged 3,600 per day.

The Queensland Art Gallery is in the process of creating an already highly regarded collection of contemporary South East Asian art, by purchasing works from each APT. These will be housed in the soon to be established Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Already in the collection are the works of many leading Indonesian artists.

Heri Dono will be in Washington D.C., later in February 2003 for his next solo exhibition.

(The writer is a Cultural Net-worker for the Australia Indonesia Arts Alliance,

www.aiaa.org.au. AIAA aims to foster friendship and understanding via the creative arts.)

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